If we had the right to swim in reservoirs, 2000 more potential swimming spots would open up in England and Wales overnight. In 2021, The Outdoor Swimming Society and Sheffield Outdoor Plungers (SOUP) made the point from Kinder Reservoir on the 89th anniversary of the original Kinder Trespass.
On April 24th, 1932, around 400 walkers from three different areas of the Peak District descended on Kinder Scout and made their way to the peak. It was an act of trespass, and the walkers were met by gamekeepers.
Scuffles broke out and the resulting media coverage – and the prison sentences that followed for violence (trespass itself is not a criminal act) – are widely credited with being a defining moment in the story of our access to countryside, with the establishment of our National Parks coming 17 years later.
It seems inconceivable, in our lives now, to imagine normal life condensed to the towns and streets in which we live. To drive through the blackened brick terraces of small villages in the Peaks with the mountains rising behind them, and imagine a time when people couldn’t walk out of the mills that dominated the area and ascend; to put on their boots and climb, away and up from their homes and their lives into nature.
It seems inconceivable…. And yet, as swimmers, that is just the situation we find ourselves in. As swimmers, we cannot get uncontested access to 97% of our rivers, and access to lakes and reservoirs is patchy and minimal. Whatever the patchwork of legalities behind it, in the UK we have historically established access to the coast (a right that is not global – I remember my surprise driving the Pacific Highway in California and finding myself unable to walk down on to the black and beautiful beaches). But this right has yet to be extended inland.
And so it is, 89 years after the original Kinder Trespass, on Saturday 24th April 2021, that I find myself one of three small, Covid-safe groups of swimmers gathering on the banks for Kinder Reservoir in the Peak District for a quiet swim. Our intention is to break the hermetic seal that seems to form over water when the keep out signs have been up too long, and the water is not well swum. And to raise the question: how soon can the UK government give us the right to swim in reservoirs?
It is 7.20am when I arrive in the small carpark at Bowden Bridge, and swimmers from Sheffield OUtdoor Plungers (SOUP) begin to empty out of cars and vans parked along a dry stone wall, a mishmash of woolly hats, bleary eyes and outdoor clothing. We make our way up a cobbled path to the edge of the reservoir, which is flanked by a wall and a series of ‘Danger Deep Water’, ‘No Swimming’, ‘Keep Out’ signs, including one clouded with green algae that warns anyone thinking of immersion that they would be polluting drinking water (this is not true, water is always treated after leaving a reservoir).
We are carrying some signs of our own: one of the swimmers has raided his school store cupboard and borrowed some huge boards on to which the legends ‘Kinder Swimpass’, ‘The Right To Swim’ and ‘Water Access for All’ have been emblazoned. Amongst us is a local swimmer that I met in the pub the previous night (oh happy return to pub coincidence!). She has lived in the Peaks for 20 years and never swum here. ‘I’ve stopped going to Combs Reservoir,’ she says, ‘as it’s just too busy now, there are suddenly so many swimmers. But I haven’t ever swum here.’
‘Dispersement has become an issue for all outdoor activities,’ comments David Hanney, also the Chief Executive of local firm Alpkit, who lives, works and plays in this area. Walkers, cyclists, mountain bikers, climbers: since being allowed (and encouraged) to spend an hour outside every day during lockdown, with little other recreation on offer, wild spaces all over the UK have found themselves swamped. After 2020 (when so many leisure seekers descended on so few inland beaches, causing issues) swimmers and landowners everywhere are worried about what is going to happen to known swim spots in the summer ahead. I find it helpful to realise that it is not just our sport that has seen a seismic uptick.
Sun glitter meets us as the path flanks the reservoir, which holds about 916 Olympic swimming pools of water. I was awake at 3.30am this morning worrying that we had too many in one of our groups, because someone had brought his girlfriend. We didn’t, we were fully compliant with the two family groups or group of six rule that applied to this area at this time – but the irony of being such a rule abiding rule breaker is not lost on me. Last night we discovered that the true anarchists – XR Extinction Rebellion – are asking people to trespass everywhere by any means, a prospect that terrifies me: I just want to quietly, unobtrusively, without affecting anyone, go and join the fish that right now appear to have an 8am call to rise to the surface of the reservoir and create wellum circles.
And so the three groups find their entry points and get in: the water, needless to say, is lovely, and each of us swims and potters about in the water, going for our own aquatic rambles. It is so important that the request for access to reservoirs and blue space is couched like this: not as paid club membership, with opening hours and rules and regulations and costs. But given freely. There is a place for open water lakes but what England and Wales needs are inland beaches like those on the coast. We do not want to queue up and pay for a swim, we want to swim as people walk: at 5am, for 3 minutes, at midnight, for hours, before or after a picnic. Alone, with friends, with our families. The request is not for organised sport, it’s for access to our blue spaces.
There are so many reservoirs in this area that Owen, leading figure of the SOUP swim group, reminds us that it used to be known as the ‘Sheffield Lakes’. ‘It makes no sense that people drive to the Lake District when we have all this here,’ he says as we walk back, the group palpably relaxed and made happy from the swim. ‘Why are the benefits of blue space restricted to those on the coast? It’s water that makes people feel better, not just the sea – a big lake does the same thing.’
The two eleven year olds that have joined us skip ahead on the path, water dripping from their ponytails. What does Owen hope for, how long does he think a change in the law will take? ‘Reservoirs in Scotland were deemed illegal and too dangerous to swim in too,’ he says, ‘until 2003, when their status turned around overnight’. (They are included in the Scots Right To Roam). ‘It is going to take a while to turn this around, and it needs public support, but I can’t see our access to them going backwards. I’m hoping for a snowball effect.’
While the original Kinder Trespass is widely credited with leading to a legal change in access to land, the less poetic truth is that changes like these come about not one fine day due to spirited mass action, but because of sustained, detailed lobbying and behind the scenes work of campaigns and groups such as the Ramblers Association, Open Spaces Society, and the groups above. The OSS gives our full respect and thanks to those involved in that work for blue and green spaces.