Kinder Swim Trespass 2023

By the morning of Sunday 23 April there had been plenty of evidence that something was afoot.

A flyer had been circulating on WhatsApp for several weeks. A webinar on inland access with the OSS and Right to Roam was attended by more than 200 people. A manifesto had been written. A journalist from the New York Times had flown in from Seattle. “GO SWIMMING” placards had been gaffer-taped to branches and broomsticks. 

Several patrols had already been made to take in a view of the reservoir. The route there took us past shrill lapwings, ecstatic lambs, and bell heather about to burst its buds. Once we tipped over the brow of the hill and the reservoir came into view, a few commented that it was smaller than expected. Suffice to say, it’s a perfectly acceptable size of reservoir; it was the impending trespass that was looming larger. 

The Kinder Swim Trespass derives some of this sense of occasion from the iconic trespass of Kinder Scout, which was critical in subsequent changes in the right to access. The Swim Trespass carries its spirit to the current issue: the illegality of swimming in reservoirs and some rivers in England and Wales. 

So here we are – six of the OSS team and assorted swimmers from Sheffield Outdoor Plungers, Hayfield, Manchester, Sheffield and beyond – and by Sunday at 12 noon the reservoir doesn’t look so small anymore. As the planned entry point comes into view, there are already a few people in the water, others lining the bank with banners, and all in various states of undress. We cheer at them from the other side; they cheer back. Once we merge and decide everyone has arrived, another cheer rings out and the Communists are spotted on the opposite bank, waving their flags. “The Communists are always late,” someone says. 

Be that as it may, disrobing is a cross-party issue. Everyone knows what to do at a street protest; no one really knows what to do at a swim trespass. Of course, you get in, but how is the changing orchestrated? It’s overcast and windy. Should those swimming skins wait until the wetsuits are safely past the hips before starting to disrobe? 

Paudie Spillane/Alpkit

Kate Rew, Owen Hayman and Simon Kerslake from the OSS wade in with the exquisitely sewn FREE SWIMMING banner and everyone follows. This process is both diffuse, since people are scattered 30 metres along the narrow bank, and gradual, since various methods of acclimatisation are taking place. Some people stop at the legs for a while, others at the waist, some jump right in. 

It doesn’t look like a protest, it just looks like about 500 people going swimming as if they were allowed to. It looks like the thing we are demanding should come to pass. It’s trespassing, but it feels natural. That’s easy for me to say though – I’m Scottish and while I don’t tend to swim in reservoirs, I know I’m allowed to. 

Once I’m back on the bank and changed, the man next to me offers a cup of black Earl Grey tea. “It’s not coming home,” he encourages. We give Tunnocks Teacakes in return. He responds with a choice of granola squares or chocolate chip cookies. They’re not coming home either. And so it goes on. 

Peter Ambrose is retired and lives in a nearby town. He tells me that he trespasses nearly every time he goes for a swim. “We tend to swim at times that avoid potential conflict,” he says. “There are times we know United Utilities staff will be around, so we avoid them to save putting ourselves in a difficult position. I’ve never been confronted by anyone, but it seems a shame that we have to schedule our swimming like that.

“I want to be able to swim in many, many more places in the UK, especially in England, as it seems a travesty that there are so many beautiful swimming spaces that we’re not officially allowed into. I’d like to see a general assumption that you should be able to swim in any open water, maybe with a few restrictions the way there are on the land, and the Scottish model seems to make sense.” 

Did he enjoy the protest? His face softens.“It was amazing, it really was,” he smiles. ”It’s the first time I’ve managed to get into the water for a few months and, yeah, I’m just absolutely buzzing.” 

Further along the bank, Tanya Ramirez has changed back into her clothes. The 36-year-old is living in Sheffield while her husband completes a PhD. Both are from Chile, and Tanya has been swimming outdoors since spotting others doing the same at Crookes Valley Park during the pandemic. This is her second Kinder Swim Trespass.

“I don’t like to swim alone because it might be dangerous and also it’s not legal – I prefer someone to be nearby, even if they don’t go in the water,” she says. “When I was with a friend last year, we were asked to get out. The guy was just doing his job, but he asked us to get out.

“Being a foreigner, an immigrant, if you break the law it’s complicated, you know? But now it’s part of my life. Nature is for everyone, we should all be able to enjoy nature. It’s a right.”

'Free Swimming' banner held up by swimmers in a reservoir Paudie Spillane/Alpkit
Many swimmers entering Kinder reservoir Paudie Spillane/Alpkit
Paudie Spillane/Alpkit
Paudie Spillane/Alpkit
Many swimmers entering a reservoir, with 'Free Swimming' banner Paudie Spillane/Alpkit
Beth Pearson