In Scotland swimmers have a right to swim as part of their statutory right of responsible access to most land and inland water, in effect a Right to Roam. In England and Wales the law on inland swimming is less clear and more restrictive. 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.
In England and Wales:
The right to swim in the sea is clear and not disputed.
There is a right to swim in tidal waters.
There is a right to swim in waters that are navigable and open to powered boats.
Many have argued, based on detailed research, that there is a ‘public right of navigation’ on all rivers that can be navigated by any non-powered boat, and therefore a right to swim.
There is a right to swim in some specific named waters.
There is a right to enter the water where a footpath or highway enters or crosses water.
Where a footpath or highway runs alongside the water there may be strong arguments that you can enter the water from it, because of the historical purpose of those 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.
The landowner owns the banks and the river bed, but not the water. As the water is not owned, swimmers and paddlers might interpret this as meaning there is a right to swim or paddle, though others might take a different view.
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 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 ‘wrong’. If challenged, always be polite, and leave at a sensible pace and route. 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 to the use of the land by others.
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.
Responsible swimming; better access
In Scotland the rights to access waterways are based on the principle of responsible use, and this is what we want to see in England and Wales, too. 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 responses to some of the impacts of rising numbers at swim spots, and there is still much work to do.
How to get involved:
The Outdoor Swimming Society guide to access to inland beaches has detailed advice (including on liability) for landowners and anyone who wants to see more swimming in lakes, rivers, and other inland waters. Read about and download the OSS Guide to Inland Bathing Areas.