The Kinder Swim Trespass 2022 took place on Sunday 24 April, the 90 year anniversary of the Kinder Trespass. In an event often described as one of the most successful acts of civil disobedience in British history, roughly 400 ramblers laid the foundations upon which our National Parks Legislation, the Pennine Way and eventually the Countryside Rights of Way Act were built.
The site of the original trespass, Kinder Scout, sits in the Peak District National Park, a beautiful patchwork landscape of hills and lakes. It is only when zooming in a little further on the map that those lakes betray their secret: one perfectly straight side, out of place in its natural context. These lakes are in fact reservoirs, almost every single one. In the mere 8% of England where we are said to be afforded the right to roam, these rights barely extend to any open water space.
The battle for access to natural space is an ongoing one, with free access to the outdoors remaining unequally distributed and with additional barriers for minoritised and lower income groups. The right to roam, where it exists, is also primarily land-based with inland waters having particularly low levels of uncontested access. And so, 90 years after the original trespass, this is the story of a new Kinder Trespass: the Kinder Swim Trespass of 2022.
In a brilliant merging of the worlds of outdoor swimming and underground warehouse raves (a sentence I never thought I’d write), the idea of marking the anniversary with a swim in Kinder Reservoir initially arrived via a rave flyer – a picture, passed on by friends, containing the date, time and place to meet. It also contained information on travelling responsibly so as not to overload the adjacent village of Hayfield. The original source of the flyer will likely never be known but after a while it ceased to matter. Passed in secret between trusted contacts at first, it was shared further and wider across the local swim groups as the date grew nearer. This was no formal event, more an idea, floating across social networks and private conversations. It was an intriguing idea too, but it remained hard to gauge just how many people would make the journey.
My own journey started in the village of Edale, at the start of the 268 mile Pennine Way that the original Trespass is often credited with helping to create. My aim was to run across the hillside, to see the reservoir from above before joining the other swimmers on the banks. Following the Pennine Way and taking advantage of the rights won by the original trespassers certainly seemed appropriate for the occasion but I can’t claim it was quite so intentional. The route map was simply passed to me by a friend. This is surely no less fitting. To be able to head out into the countryside without organisation or formality, just a map and supplies, must be the essence of the right to roam freely.
While I was in the process of finding out just how steep the aptly named Jacob’s Ladder section of the route was, many other travellers were gathering a few hundred metres below in the village of Hayfield, in which a series of events had taken place on the Saturday to commemorate the original trespass. Various speakers had been in attendance including Caroline Lucas MP who advocated following the example set by Scotland, which enjoys a successful and far more comprehensive freedom to enjoy the natural environment.
Back on the hills, I’d finally reached the summit and my first sighting of Kinder reservoir. Beautiful blue against the patchwork terrain, it was easily close enough to make out its shape but frustratingly too distant to tell if anyone was there. Conscious of the ticking clock, I ran down from the hills, hoping to reach the banks by the 12pm meeting time suggested on the flyer.
Upon reaching the reservoir, any thoughts of an anticlimactic solo swim were spectacularly put to rest. A long trail of visitors, hikers and swimmers alike, stretched along the perimeter. Many different groups had chosen this route for their hikes and I was now weaving amongst them. At the meeting point for the swim it became clear just how well attended it was. Every flat surface of rock had a swimmer perched upon it, their numbers stretching across the bank of the reservoir as it curved out of view.
Soon the reservoir seemed filled with swimmers, many chatting to one another, some with homemade placards. Whole families were in attendance. Some brave swimmers left crutches on the bank as they entered the water. There was more than one mermaid.
The clock struck 12pm and the first swimmers entered the water. Shrieks of joy filled the air in what felt like the crescendo. If we’re striving for accuracy then it may be that the sounds being made were not necessarily caused by excitement, with the water being marginally below 10°C. No matter – the effect felt the same from the bank. Soon the reservoir seemed filled with swimmers, many chatting to one another, some with homemade placards. Whole families were in attendance. Some brave swimmers left crutches on the bank as they entered the water. There was more than one mermaid.
Afterwards, swimmers chatted on the banks, sharing homemade cakes as the numbers thinned and the visitors made their own journeys back home. There were still some swimmers arriving that either hadn’t been able to make the meeting time or perhaps instead wished for a quieter, personal trespass. Eventually the scene looked much as I could have imagined it from the hilltop – empty, pristine and unspoilt, just as the first on the scene must have found it.
There was a tangible sense that we’d been part of something a bit more significant than we may have initially expected. This was no small gathering, and it carried a strength of feeling to match its numbers. What came out here isn’t about to be put back away and there was a hope that this marked the beginning of a chain of events that, while never matching them, could in time augment the founding achievements of those 400 or so ramblers.
And it wasn’t just here. Social media told the tale of swimmers around the country marking the occasion with their own trespass swims in local bodies of water, only marred by those familiar blue and red ‘No Swimming’ signs. This felt like it would become an annual event, at first a protest but perhaps soon we can hope that it will become a celebration. For me it was time to head back to the hills. I don’t know if anyone made an attempt to count the swimmers in the reservoir that day but if I had to guess, I’d say it was around 400.
There was a tangible sense that we’d been part of something a bit more significant than we may have initially expected. This was no small gathering, and it carried a strength of feeling to match its numbers. What came out here isn’t about to be put back away.
“People do drown in open water, more often young men, often alcohol is involved. But the approach to water safety in this country for decades has been putting fear into people, saying that open water is really dangerous. A better approach would be to give young people enough information to do it safely and the opportunity to learn from seeing older swimmers using the correct equipment and following a common-sense approach.
“On the coast, you’ve got waves and currents, but you can swim. Then inland, there’s these benign bodies of water like lakes and reservoirs and you’re not allowed to swim in them. It’s nonsensical. Access to open water is totally transformative for the lives of many and they need this access. People will tell you it has saved their life or their sanity.”
Owen Hayman, Swimmer, Campaigner, OSS Inland Access Officer
“Lakes and especially reservoirs provide perfect swimming places but access to them is inexplicably denied. Looked at rationally, the reasons given are easily demolished. The long-standing misunderstandings and prejudice against people swimming outdoors that have developed in this country over decades and generations are proving difficult to shift. But I for one am determined to keep campaigning, persuading, negotiating – and to keep swimming!”
Imogen Radford, OSS Inland Access Officer
“Allowing swimming could actually make it safer. Helpful and accurate swim safety signage would enable people to make safer and better-informed decisions. Sparth reservoir in Marsden is a good example of this. The Canal and River Trust worked with local swimmers and community to design a sign highlighting areas to avoid and the hazards of swimming while making it clear that swimmers are welcome.”
Cath Potter, swimmer at one of the many simultaneous trespasses around the country. Hers was at Cowbury Reservoir, where around 50 swim every week and carry out regular litter picks and engage with young people around safe swimming and the benefits of looking after our green spaces.
Many campaigns and groups and those involved in them – including the Ramblers Association, Open Spaces Society, those listed above and many others, often locally based or involving particular sections of the community – work tirelessly for access for all to blue and green spaces.
Please consider contacting your MP and asking them to sign EDM 1068, a Parliamentary early day motion that calls on the UK Government to “bring forward legislation to extend the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 to include rivers, woods and Green Belt land”.