still water and swimmers in reservoir

Inland Access round up 2022

OSS Inland Access Officer Imogen Radford weighs up the good, the bad, and the way forward

Owen Hayman

Access to inland waters for swimmers, sometimes called “blue access”, continues to be a critical issue for outdoor swimming. While the Kinder Swim Trespass marked a high point this year and there have been access gains, there have been many other instances of swimmers being discouraged or banned from entering rivers, reservoirs and lakes. OSS Inland Access Officer Imogen Radford receives reports through the year from swimmers and this is her record of some of the negative and positive experiences.

Wild swimming continues to grow in popularity, with positive posts on social media, articles in the media, more and more people extolling the benefits it has brought to their mental and physical health. It is fun, affordable, doesn’t need expensive equipment, and going to your local inland swimming spot makes more sense for many than trekking off to the coast or abroad. Although Covid 19 restrictions on travel and other activities have lessened, rising fuel prices, concerns about the impact of travel and inflation might also be encouraging people to stay local.

However, we also see negative coverage of outdoor swimming in the media and social media, with some local safety organisations and authorities calling on people not to ‘be tempted’ to swim or ‘cool off’ in open water however hot the weather, and the appearance of signs, fences, barriers and even local powers/laws to discourage or stop swimming. Some say that swimming is unsafe and deaths are likely to rise, particularly if the wrong sort of people, or those less familiar with safety precautions, venture in to swim (though we know that swimming is actually very low risk as outlined in our recent Understanding Drowning Statistics article), while others assume that where swimming is popular there is bound to be antisocial behaviour.

This round-up isn’t intended to be a complete picture and it doesn’t name locations, but rather seeks to give a snapshot and to pull together some common threads and possible ways forward. The examples are all from England and Wales, because the access position in Scotland is far less problematic.

The negative: issues and examples

On hot summer days, especially weekends and bank holidays, the impact of there being too few places to access the water inland has been clear, with problems with overcrowding, parking issues and irresponsible behaviour by a minority of visitors, including litter, barbecues and fires, and noise. This has been particularly noticeable at smaller and more rural places which often have a long history as a local swim spot but are not necessarily so suitable for the large numbers who want to access water.

In some places locals and landowners recognise that problems happens on a few weekends each year, and find that engaging with swimmers and visitors is much more successful in minimising problems, increasing understanding, and finding solutions. But in other places local residents or landowners have decided that they do not want visitors or swimmers – some taking the attitude that those from urban locations or other backgrounds or young people are automatically going to behave antisocially, and consider the easiest way to stop them is to put up No Swimming signs, fence places off, put in place other barriers, withdraw or block long existing permissive access, or even obstruct rights of way.

Safety concerns about swimming seem to stem from a long culture of fear of outdoor swimming, a widespread (though inaccurate) belief that it is very dangerous, and concerns (often genuinely felt) that all swimmers or certain groups such as casual or young swimmers are at great risk. If there has been a drowning death or injury in the area or reported in the media these beliefs and concerns are heightened, even though risk of death is very low and the reason for that drowning might have no relation to the particular place but might result from a lack of knowledge of keeping safe.

Landowners have a misplaced fear of being liable for death or injury, again it seems from cultural understanding which is not in line with the clearly established case law that shows that is very unlikely.

Some restrictions on swimming refer to protected areas, though the impact of swimming is generally minimal. An automatic assumption is sometimes made that swimming cannot coexist with wildlife, while when people engage with nature they are much more likely to care about it and look after it. There are numerous examples of swimmers doing conservation work, picking up litter and reporting issues, and behaving respectfully and responsibly – not surprising as being in nature is a key part of the enjoyment of outdoor swimming for almost all, as The Outdoor Swimming Society swimmer survey found this year.

Sometimes there is conflict over access between different water users, especially between angling interests and swimmers (or paddlers), with the assumption that swimmers will disturb angling or that anglers having paid for a licence or the right to fish have more right to access than swimmers. In fact most of the time users share the water amicably.

 

Negative examples: Closures and proposed closures, using fences, barriers, local legislation

  • Proposed fence to stop access to long established use of popular lake and picnic area. Parish council have organised contractors to erect this, it appears without the support of most residents. Ongoing campaign, currently daily protests to stop the fence being erected and seeking discussions to solve issues and set up measures including a Friends group and to explore possible options. The fence would make the public footpath a narrow strip of land, with gates into field and lake closed at certain times and ad hoc at the discretion of the parish council.
  • City council proposed public safety protection orders (PSPOs) to prevent ‘lone’ and ‘unauthorised’ swimming at a clay lake, along with barbecues and alcohol, classing it as antisocial, to be in place in advance of next summer. Some suggestion that certain swimmers might be ‘licenced’ appears to confirm that this is aimed at nonregular swimmers. Further reports indicate that there might be a positive outcome – so this one appears in both lists.
  • A unitary authority already has in place PSPOs banning open water swimming along with other antisocial activities such as prostitution, dog fouling and hanging about! This covers half of a county, including at least two lakes where people swim. There are some signs that the authority might be beginning to realise that this is unenforceable and draconian, and that they might use their discretion to not use this power against some swimmers.
  • Riverside meadow with access for swimming closed and fenced off by Trust owned by large local landowner. No discussion with local council, residents or swimmers before closing off this popular location for walking, picnicking and water entry.
  • Public right of way crossing at an old Ferry route blocked, informal paths and access routes to the river also blocked in the nearby area, same aristocratic landowner. Preventing access to long used paths and river access for swimming, and rope swing tree cut down.
  • River access point in a public park in town restricted by a gate and aggressive behaviour by local businesses, preventing swimming at most times when other water sports taking place. Building and pontoon used by businesses was paid for with public money. Location used for swimming for a long time by all sorts of swimmers.
  • Two commercial open water swimming venues closed down, one after a single complaint, the other because of irregularities over planning consent.

Signage: Numerous examples of ‘No Swimming’ signs appearing or reappearing, including:

  • Water bodies in parks in a large city
  • Many ex-gravel pit lakes and the river in a large complex of lakes, some of which were swum historically.
  • Fire Brigade no swimming signage on newly-installed throw rope stand, beside a regularly swum major river.

Messaging

  • In hot summer periods website statements and news releases by numerous local fire and rescue, police, local authorities, in printed and in online editions of local media – most along the lines of saying that however hot the weather is, “don’t be tempted to cool off in open water”, it’s not worth the risk, don’t be a statistic, do you want your family to hear that you have died. Generally it is said that the water is cold, dangerous, has hidden hazards, machinery or currents, (whether or not this is true or known), and usually there is no information on how to avoid coming to harm from these risks. Some such pieces list the risks and give relatively sensible and useful advice on staying safe, however sometimes the tone is so negative and alarmist that message might not be reached. Most examples are local, as the main national safety organisations target their messaging more carefully and accurately along the lines of National Water Safety Forum, National Fire Chiefs Council, Local Government Association and Visitor Safety Group guidance.
  • One large organisation responsible for managing many rivers and canals issues ‘don’t swim’ messages, especially in summer, claiming that “you can’t train your body for the shocks of unseen dangers under the water, at any time of year”, and inviting people to report wild swimmers. At the same time it recognises the benefits of open water’ swimming but only in supervised venues.
  • All water companies put out messaging not to swim in reservoirs, claiming that they have currents, hidden machinery and are always cold. Some water companies are interested in promoting bathing water designated sites in rivers, however, and some have some supervised swim events or venues.
  • One large city employs a Trust to run all its parks with a no swimming policy, and put out messaging this summer for people to call the police if they see someone wild swimming.
  • The council at a long-standing village swimming spot with purpose made Victorian steps, well used especially in summer, this year put out messaging about ‘contaminated’ water with no evidence, and at the same time invited local residents to become wardens and deal with antisocial behaviour including swimming.
  • Access to a traditional river swim spot by a mill was made difficult after the landowner was lobbied by anglers, though after discussion by local swimmers it was not stopped.
  • Members of an angling syndicate at a lake bounded by a public footpath sought to stop swimming in the lake, but after discussion it looks likely that there might be more understanding between the two groups leading to better shared access.
  • A very popular and established wild swimming venue with free agreed access turned people away on hot days this summer, saying that there were too many people there already. This in itself is understandable, but goes to show how much demand there is and how few alternative places there are for people to go.

The positive: issues and examples

Where there has been a long period of people swimming, generally respectfully and also picking up litter, liaising with landowners, helping with conservation, and influencing other visitors, positive outcomes are more likely. The presence of swimmers is recognised and seen as inevitable or positive.

There is more understanding and knowledge of the benefits and popularity of wild swimming as more people take part.

Long local traditions and local people and the local community swimming at local spots over generations means that removing that access will be resisted by many members of that community.

Practical considerations play a part, for example investment in well constructed steps and access points can prevent bank erosion or other impacts, and swimmers are often happy to contribute money or time.

Positive examples

  • Landowner acknowledges swimming and advises people to make their own judgement. Forestry England has now published FAQs for a site with 2 previous sand quarries, formalising its position of a risk-based approach to swimming. Ongoing good relationship with local swimmers, including swimmers picking litter and reporting issues.
  • Large conservation organisation consults stakeholders on its intention to formally welcome all types of swimmers. Discussions with local swimmers and other stakeholders on details, including zoning to avoid a wildlife area, access improvements to ensure accessibility and avoid erosion, discussion of wording for signage, in time for next summer, using the example of Sparth (as in The OSS Guide to Inland Bathing Areas guidance) adapted for local conditions. This will reinstate/formalise the existing position in which swimmers use one lake in the Nature Park and work with local managers doing litter picking, conservation volunteering, influencing others.
  • Farmer welcomes locals and visitors to popular swim spot and meadow. Long used location, recent installation of a gate and parking has encouraged virtually all to use this place responsibly, with a noticeable improvement following these measures. Swimmers pick up any litter sometimes left by a minority.
  • Local canal restoration trust continues to welcome swimmers and has put in access steps. Welcomes all users, trust volunteers installed the steps to help with access for this group. Swimmers join the trust and donate in response to this welcoming approach, and users share the water amicably.
  • Local adventure centre put in steps for swimmers when replacing its jetty. Popular local public access river entry point made easier, swimmers did a whip round afterwards to help fund it.
  • Steps and access points renovated at long-standing popular village traditional swim spot.
  • While installing bank protection, room was left for swimmer access at a popular spot along the riverside.
  • Swimmers build good relationship with mill next to popular swim spot, picking up litter and diffusing some local concerns.
  • Small local authority with popular river with a history of swimming shares advice on staying safe produced by local swimmers.
  • A tidal harbour authority invited swimmers to be represented on its access forum, took account of our suggestions for their Harbour Guide and website, and these have recently been updated with constructive advice for swimmers in this complex and busy tidal waterway.
  • City water safety group, including large local authority, issues positive and sensible advice on staying safe if swimming in local rivers or lakes, recognising the importance of water and the long tradition of swimming, and also supported the U.K.’s second river designated bathing water in which The OSS Guide to Inland Bathing Areas guidance was used to tackle landowner concerns.
  • Council to meet and include local swimmers in promoting safety. In response to the proposal to use PSPOs to stop swimming at a city lake, local swimmers met council officials who said they are not trying to stop or regulate swimming and would set up a user group including swimmers to work together to take care of the area and promote safety campaigns together.
  • The National Water Safety Forum and its national members target water safety advice to those at risk, those who might fall into the water or enter unexpectedly, especially if they might have been drinking, with advice to Float to Live, and on what to do if they see someone in trouble (Call 999, Tell Them to float, Throw something, don’t get in), making it clear this is not with the intention of stopping people swimming.
  • County water safety forum positive attitude to swimming. From chair as forum launched: “Rather than say don’t go into open water, we want to remind people to practice safe open-water swimming,” he said, referring to inland as well as seaside swimming.
  • Some local and national media articles about wild swimming giving useful information about staying safe, sometimes outlining the benefits, sometimes listing the risks and how to avoid harm.
  • National public body for nature promotes the Wales wild swimming code on how to protect and enjoy inland waterways.
  • Large water company continues dialogue with swimmers. The swimmers group has given a presentation on the swimmers perspective, including arguments for allowing swimming in its reservoirs, and is currently doing a survey on the hazards taking the opportunity of unusually low water this summer and plans wider communication materials with the intention of informing further discussion. Progress is incremental, staff turn over in the water company is a challenge, but some small positive changes public engagement are being seen. The window for dialogue continues to be open and local swimmers are a strong, visible community despite the ongoing prohibition on swimming by the company.
steps into river Nicky Nobbs

A key lesson for swimmers whose local swim spot is under threat – seen in many examples, positive and negative – is that it is crucial to keep swimming if it’s possible to do so.

Lessons and ways forward

A key lesson for swimmers whose local swim spot is under threat – seen in many examples, positive and negative – is that it is crucial to keep swimming if it’s possible to do so. Swimmers might need support within the community as this is not easy for those feeling vulnerable, those not wishing to face conflict, those potentially more likely to be challenged for doing so, or those less able to physically navigate a barrier, more difficult entry point or a or a longer way round to the entry point. Sometimes this means trespassing or continuing to trespass, which is a civil offence, or swimming in the face of a bylaw or PSPO, which are difficult to enforce but intimidating, or ignoring No Swimming signs or messaging. Though sometimes difficult, building a presence of responsible swimmers has often been a key factor in establishing access. Some might prefer to do it under the radar, but if they are willing to publicise that there is a history of swimming and that they are swimming responsibly, picking up litter and so on, this can help.

Stopping swimming or respecting a ban, often presented as temporary until the busy period is over or some other reason for the closure (sometimes spurious) has passed, is unlikely to change the restriction, and experience shows that ban is more likely to become permanent.

It is useful to build up knowledge of the law on access, liability, trespass, and on safety issues, on the benefits of swimming, on the rights of swimmers and others, and of ways to be responsible. And to use this knowledge to keep putting across the swimmers point of view, explaining the real risks or otherwise of swimming, the fact that swimmers can be a force for good, that people swimming there is inevitable and bans only create bad feeling and will be circumvented and could have other unforeseen negative consequences. Sometimes campaigns can take time, and building a community of swimmers and others can help to sustain it.

It is worth being aware of the sometimes artificial divisions between swimmers, between the ‘proper’ sort of swimmers and casual/summer swimmers or groups of young people whose behaviour might be considered not always correct. All of these swimmers gain benefits from swimming and have as much right to do so. This division is unfair and also probably doesn’t help access. An article by an outdoor education leader, Why I am no longer talking about Behaviour, is interesting on the right of everyone to visit the countryside.

Supervised and paid for swimming venues are sometimes suggested but are not the answer to any issues raised about swimming, nor is licensing groups of swimmers. Although this is okay for some people, it isn’t for the majority who can’t afford it, don’t want restrictions on times and conditions, and is not necessary. It can be helpful alongside free access – especially if the venues put on safety education and introductions to outdoor swimming – but is not a substitute.

The demand to swim inland is growing and is not going to go away, and many authorities and landowners have recognised this. People will not stop swimming because of attempts to discourage and stop them. The Outdoor Swimming Society survey on swimming this year found that swimming in lakes was as popular as the sea, with rivers popular with many, and that people wanted more inland access, particularly to reservoirs. We need more places for people to go outdoor swimming from an early age to learn how to be safe, along with education, accurate information and understanding of risk. We need more people to be welcomed and helped to understand and feel connected with nature, so that they learn how to enjoy it respectfully.

welcoming sign Imogen Radford
no swimming sign Inland Access Group

Further information

Other campaigns:

 

Imogen Radford