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.
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.
Signage: Numerous examples of ‘No Swimming’ signs appearing or reappearing, including:
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.
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.
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.
Note: Written in December 2022, inevitably some of the links in this article to campaigns and about closures will go out of date.