Swimmers and residents are coming together to protect access to swim in and enjoy a popular lake in Cheshire. The announcement of a plan to fence it off was met with an outpouring of love for the lake and hundreds are backing the campaign to stop it. Imogen Radford, OSS Inland Access Officer, reported on the situation in March 2023, and supporters gave their testimonies of why the lake is so important.
UPDATE May 2023: The Save Pickmere Lake campaign have achieved a quiet but effective victory in their campaign to save access to the lake. The parish council ran a poll in which the majority were against it, and they returned the unused fence building materials to the contractors. Several campaigners and opponents of the fence were elected to the parish council in the 4 May elections and to the chair of the council. The newly established Friends of Pickmere Lake are conducting monthly litter picks and are working with the parish council to find solutions to issues of parking. It’s a victory, but still lots of work to do to ensure that everyone can enjoy the lake. They need regular volunteering by swimmers and others who enjoy the lake to make sure that this small rural location can cope with the number of visitors that want to come to the wonderful location.
Pickmere Lake has a long history of recreation and swimming by those living nearby and from the wider area, and like all around the country it has been extra busy during the last couple of years as people appreciated the benefits of nature locally. This resulted in some litter and parking issues on a few hot summer weekends last summer. In September last year, it became known that Pickmere Parish Council planned to erect a fence to restrict access to the lake, with gates controlled by the Council.
The Council has made it clear that they want to stop people coming to the lake to swim and in a recent statement commented: “The aim of the fence was to attempt to reduce the numbers of visitors to Pickmere on warm days in summer, along with all the problems that that causes, by closing … the Parish Council’s … land … at weekends including bank holidays during the forthcoming summer so that visitors receive the consistent information that the land is unavailable, and would hopefully then find alternative places to go”.
News that access to the lake was to be cut off by a fence was met with an outpouring of resistance from residents, visitors, swimmers and other users. People shared why they love the lake and want to protect it, how they use it, and why it is so important to them to have access. They shared stories of the history of enjoyment of the lake, of generations visiting and teaching their children to swim there. And they have put forward many ideas to tackle the issues that come with a relatively small place popular with visitors and residents. Their “Pickmere stories” are told on handwritten cards, posts in the Facebook group, and videos on the campaign YouTube channel. Over a thousand have joined the Facebook campaign group, nearly 19,000 have signed the petition, and several hundred people have joined the Friends group to help look after the lake and find solutions. The stories include entries such these:
“I love being at one with nature, with the birds, it’s magical and it rejuvenates you” says swimmer Kerri.
“I’d feel very sad [if I couldn’t come], it’s one of my favourite places, I like how fresh it is,” says 8 year old Charlie who has swum at Pickmere since he was 2.
Charlie’s mum Viv adds: “We swim together for escapism from our busy lives.”
Those arguing against the fence say that it would not work to solve the problems, it would be unsightly and would spoil the view, and the disadvantages it would bring are not worth it even if it worked. The fence would prevent access to the lake to all, to swim, to paddle – for people and dogs – and to the recreation area, and it would make the public footpath a narrow channel between 2 metre high fences.
Opposition to the fence has been clear from the majority of residents: in conversations, an informal online poll, a vote at a special parish meeting where many expressed a wish for all to work together to find solutions, and in late February in a formal in-person ballot organised by the parish council (which nearly half of the residents attended and two thirds of those voted to reject the proposal).
Campaigners have stood by the lake daily for months in all weathers to protect it and prevent the fence being put up. When people walk by, they take the opportunity to gather their tales and opinions on the proposal. They have also been developing proposals to deal with the issues and find solutions, including doing litter picking, working up detailed plans for the Friends group, and seeking to work with the parish council. And they have asked for the fence plan to be postponed or dropped while there is dialogue, but so far that the parish council has not agreed to that and despite promises to hold a meeting with the campaigners (including on local radio in a half-hour discussion over three months ago) it has yet to do so.
“Swimmers started the campaign but there’s a good mix of swimmers and residents working together. We know there are problems at Pickmere and we promised to work with residents to help tackle them. We weren’t just fighting for our right to swim, we were fighting for access for all.” Cat Sawyer, who started the campaign.
Cat was a regular swimmer at Pickmere when one day last September in a chance encounter a resident told her that the Council were putting up a fence to stop swimming. The resident was upset as she had been feeding the ducks there every day for 60 years, and said she’d join the swimmers to fight the fence. Cat initially didn’t have a plan other than to sit in front of the gate and refuse to let the contractors past, but she started a Facebook group and hoped other people would help. She and another regular swimmer turned up on the first day of the protest with flyers and a flask of tea. They were joined by others. She remembers: “I don’t think anything had ever lifted my spirits so much.” The Facebook group grew and grew, thousands signed the petition, and interest from local newspapers and slots on local radio all helped spread the word. And the campaign leafleted residents as it became clear not many knew about the fence.
Cat adds: “From standing protecting the lake every day I had the privilege of hearing so many stories of what Pickmere means to people. It gave me a glimpse of people’s lives and why we need access to water. So many places around here are closed off or privately owned, and not everyone can afford to pay or wants to swim a course. The thought of living in a world where things like the lake didn’t exist anymore scared me.
“I lost a sister to suicide at the beginning of last year and my younger sister and I came to Pickmere nearly every day. If everything was getting too much we would just go and float some days, be held by the water, let it wash our all our heartbreak and sad thoughts away, make our minds as calm and still as the water.
“We created the Friends of Pickmere group, which has already started litter picks. It was important to me that we showed we weren’t going away once we got what we wanted. We need to look after these places, and to give back to protect something we love.”
“There are hardly any places to swim around here, and if we had more waterways we wouldn’t have the pinch we have here in summer. It’s not okay for people to be shut away from the outdoors. How can you possibly learn to care for it and love it like I do if you’ve never been allowed in it? Closing it off is not the answer. Some people’s behaviour is not okay, but the reason is they don’t know how to behave as they’ve been excluded. Why is being in nature and open water is so important to me? It’s about your soul. I come here because I want to be immersed in nature and with the birds and the plants.” Jen, a local visitor for eight years.
“I just love it in the water. It’s natural, peaceful and most of the time it’s pretty quiet, a place that’s natural and wild – there’s so few of them now. We’re in the middle of a climate and ecological emergency and this sort of place should not be fenced off, or made to be paid for. It will be bad for wildlife and bad for people. If families can have a nice day out not too far from where they live then they won’t have to travel further afield.” Pam (photographed with daughter and grandchild).
“After years of anti depressants & therapy, I desperately needed to try something different. Since making cold water a regular practice, I have been able to come off drugs and am holistically healing. It saved my life! With the cost of living crisis people cannot afford the £20 dips being offered and this creates a massive class inequality of accessing nature. If we back down now, fence by fence, nature will become a museum we can only look at from afar, not the beautiful, submersive experience it should be.” Emma.
“I actually met my partner at the lake for our first date, we went for a walk and a swim together so it’s really special to me because of that. I think it’s really important to have outdoor spaces like Pickmere in this day and age, because like a lot of people I work remotely and it’s important to take some time away from technology and be outdoors. It’s the perfect place to enjoy the outdoors and also get some headspace.” Hannah.
“I’ve been swimming here since July and I have definitely noticed a change in my mood… I’m managing my stress. I have a demanding job, doing things for other people, and coming here is doing something for myself.” Steph.
“After having treatment for breast cancer last year I had depression, then I discovered swimming outdoors and have come every week since – and the depression hasn’t come back. It’s a nice community and there are always people around. My job is stressful, and swimming resets me, it’s healing.” Andrea.
“We have five children and moved here so that they could play outdoors. We enjoy walking here, we take the children swimming on nice days, and they play ball. We have talked to other residents and many of them came here as children and they want others to make those memories. There is a problem on some summer days, and we need to work on the problem, but the fence is not the answer.” Natasha and Ingolf, local residents.
“My wife has early stages of dementia, so one can feel trapped and need to find somewhere to go to relax. I sit on the bench to reflect every day, and I wouldn’t be able to do that if the fence went up. I can understand why residents are upset as there were a few weekends last year when parking got silly. But I hope we can find an alternative to putting up fencing so that people can enjoy this place as thousands have over the years, like my wife who came when she was a child. And now we are lucky enough to live here.” Chris, local resident.
“You know people say ‘I wish the world would stop for 5 minutes so that I could just get off and take a break’ – well this is it. You go out there with the ducks and the grebes. You learn about nature and the wildlife, the geese that fly overhead – it’s a whole new world. You would be quite bland without it. There’s so many waters in the UK that you can’t swim so if this one closes it’s just going to push all the people who come here somewhere else and there’s going to be more and more people pushed into fewer and fewer spots. So that’s why this is important that we keep this one going.” Simon.
This article describes the situation at the end of February 2023 in this ongoing campaign to protect and save the lake for all to enjoy. There is an update at the top from May 2023 on the quiet victory by campaigners, who are now working with the newly elected parish council.
Sign the Petition https://www.change.org/p/stop-the-fence-at-pickmere-lake
Friends of Pickmere Lake (Facebook)
The campaign on Facebook and Instagram @savepickmerelake
Campaigners and a parish councillor on Radio Northwich early November 2022 (discussion starts at 1.32)
This campaign and threat to access is part of a wider picture, especially across England and Wales. With few accessible inland waters and the widespread wish to be in or near water means that those few places can attract numbers that might be too high for a small community on the busiest weekends of the year. Often swimmer groups and others help manage impacts, but more access is needed to reduce crowding.
Join the Inland Access Group – Outdoor Swimming Society on Facebook
The Outdoor Swimmers Code suggests ways to be responsible and safe swimmers
See Inland Access round up 2022 on this website