Is It Legal?

Where can people swim?

HighHouse Tarn ©KateRew

In Scotland swimmers have a right to swim as part of their right to responsible access, which means they can swim freely in open spaces. The law about swimming outdoors is more restrictive and often disputed in England and Wales. However, there are many places with a legal right of access to swim, many more where there are very strong arguments that the right exists, and numerous places where swimming is accepted.

With the rising popularity of outdoor swimming and the importance of outdoor swimming being open to all, campaigns for clear rights on where people can swim and to enable swimmers to access more swim spots responsibly are more important than ever, and need the support of swimmers.

Key Points about access and legality

  • The right to swim in the sea is clear and not disputed.
  • There is a right to swim in tidal waters and in waters that are navigable and open to boats, and in some specific named waters.
  • There is a strong argument based on detailed research by many organisations and campaigns that there is a ‘public right of navigation’ on all rivers that can be navigated by any sort of boat, and therefore a right to swim.
  • Where a footpath or highway enters or crosses water, there is a right to enter the water.
  • Where a footpath or highway runs alongside a river you might be able to make an argument that you can enter the water from it, because of the historical purpose of those paths, say as tow paths.
  • There are many places where people have traditionally swum and the right to swim has been asserted – and generally accepted – for a long time.
  • In many swim places accessing the water is tolerated and sometimes welcomed by landowners.
  • Rivers are governed by ‘riparian rights’ – the landowner owns the banks and the river bed, but not the water. Some argue that this means that you have to have permission to be in the water, but as the water is not owned that is not the case.
  • Angling clubs or syndicates who own the fishing rights to a stretch of water only own those fishing rights, not the water or the banks.
  • Reservoirs are usually owned by water companies, and they have a legal duty to provide public access for recreation to the land and water, though in practice most have a ‘no swimming’ rule and notices. There are campaigns to change this, with very good reasons why swimming should be allowed
  • Access to enter the water over private land is allowed on a public footpath or highway. Elsewhere it is sometimes tolerated and a well established custom. However,  it is technically trespass, which is a civil offence. If challenged, always be polite and leave, but you do not need to give your name or address if asked for them. It is only a criminal matter in some circumstances, for example if there is wilful damage or a deliberate disruption.
  • Sometime swimmers are challenged even when they shouldn’t be, because rights are unclear. It is best to always stay calm, politely explain your understanding of the position, and respect other water users.


© Vivienne Rickman

Campaigning for access rights

Add your voice to the movement for better access to places to swim responsibly.

The OSS encourages responsible swimming, which involves respecting the environment, being considerate of other users and communities near where we swim or visit, and taking personal responsibility for safety, as outlined in the OSS Outdoor Swimmers Code.

With growing popularity, outdoor swimming is becoming more normalised. With wider recognition of the benefits of swimming for individuals and society, more landowners and authorities are beginning to see the benefits of better inland access, and to see that swimming is usually done responsibly with care for the environment. However, there have been temporary setbacks and closures prompted by some of the impacts of rising numbers at swim spots, and there is still much work to do.

The problem with unclear legal rights to enter and swim in the water is that swimmers might not have the confidence to assert their rights, and most would prefer not to face potential hassle, as one swimmer explains, in Breaking The Law To Swim. So swimmers can benefit from better access.

How to get involved: