16 reasons for swimming access in reservoirs

Reservoirs can be fantastic, but often illegal, swim spots – Owen Hayman shares why they don't need to be

Dominick Tyler

Swimming outdoors  has many benefits, and increasing numbers of people are discovering the joys of being in the water. However, the busy summer of 2020 highlighted the desperate need for more places to swim inland, and reservoirs could be part of the answer. One person campaigning for access to reservoirs is Owen Hayman, organiser of SOUP, who shares with us why we need UK-wide swimming access in reservoirs.

There are too few places in England and Wales that have undisputed access for swimming, but with the numbers wanting to swim growing rapidly many places are overrun during summer. These pressures on swim spots can potentially impact the environment, local infrastructure and surrounding communities through increased traffic, litter and overcrowding.

One solution is to find more suitable places to swim, where impact is low and there is enough space to accommodate a much larger number of people. Reservoirs could be the answer, but the majority are labelled as out of bounds to swimmers by the authorities running them. Here Owen Hayman, swimmer and campaigner, shares the 16 reasons swimming in reservoirs should be allowed:

1. Scottish reservoirs have had free open swimming access since 2003

Nearly all of Scotland’s 800 reservoirs have free open access for swimming, and have done since 2003 when the Land Reform Act provided public access rights to most inland water. To Scottish people the idea of swimming in reservoirs is completely normal. Swimming in reservoirs is also perfectly legal and normal in many other European countries.

2. Reservoirs can meet rising demand for swim places

There are around 2000 reservoirs in England and Wales with huge potential to meet rising demand as swimming surges in popularity. Free informal outdoor swimming is growing in popularity. As a result, issues related to overuse and overcrowding of swim spots are becoming more common. Spreading swimmers across a larger number of spots could reduce the risk of small and sensitive locations being overused and damaged. An example of this is the area encompassing Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Doncaster, which has a population of around 7.6 million people, with more than 250 reservoirs, but a distinct lack of free open access swim spots.

beach with swimmers and lake, cliffs behind

3. Reservoirs have huge potential to benefit public health

The health benefits of living near the coast or having access to places such as the Lake District should not be limited to those who live near or can afford to access them, when there are so many under-utilised ‘blue spaces’ already close by to inland urban populations. Outdoor swimming is one of the few forms of exercise that is free, requires little to no special clothing or equipment, and is therefore accessible to people with low incomes. Swimming is also more open to some disabled people than running or cycling.

In some areas of the UK, reservoirs are far more accessible to the majority of the population than other water bodies suitable for swimming. Simply allowing swimming has very little cost. Many reservoirs already have the basic infrastructure for visitors, such as footpaths, bridleways and car parking. And reservoirs could easily offer good disabled access as well as general access. They are particularly suitable because they are still bodies of water with no tides/waves to negotiate, and their existing engineered environment could be easily adapted to add rails, ramps and steps.

Reservoirs are therefore a major untapped and much needed place for people to gain the health benefits of access to water and the two-way benefits of connecting people with the environment.

4. People who are there, care

People who enjoy and are connected to the outdoors are more likely to be defenders of it and to take action to help protect it. If people have no access to waterways such as reservoirs, the personal link to wider environmental issues will be less strong, and so pollution and degradation will go unnoticed. Our waterways need more people to engage with and care about them.

5. There are already plenty of successful examples

Some functioning reservoirs have free open swimming access (e.g. Sparth Reservoir, Huddersfield), or free lifeguarded bathing beaches with revenue raised from a paid car parking (e.g. Rutland Water). There is also free open access for swimming at some disused reservoirs too (e.g. National Trust’s Carding Mill Valley Reservoir, Shropshire) and countless functioning reservoirs have formal open water swimming clubs on them (e.g. Harthill Reservoir, Rotherham).

Steve Richardson

6. Water companies have a responsibility to provide recreational access

The Water Industry Act 1991 Section 3 (5) states that water companies must “…ensure that the water or land is made available for recreational purposes and is so made available in the best manner”. While many reservoirs have footpaths, fishing and boating, swimming is generally neglected.

7. Landowner responsibility is widely misunderstood

Concern that the landowners and water companies are liable if swimmers are injured or drown is unsupported. Under civil case law and health and safety legislation, as long as they have done an assessment to see if there are any unusual risks that cannot be seen, and as long as they have taken steps to mitigate or warn about these, they are not liable. Warning signs are required to highlight non-obvious hazards, but ‘No Swimming’ signs are generally not required. There is no landowner obligation to provide warnings of usual and obvious risks of swimming in water. Someone who chooses to enter the water willingly accepts the risks that are obvious and usual in undertaking this activity, and cannot therefore succeed in a claim against the landowner if they suffer injury as a result (see Landowner Liability and Swimmers for more detail).

8. Reservoir swim safety is straightforward

The Scottish Outdoor Access Code gives simple and clear advice about safe swimming in reservoirs; “never go close to spillways or water intakes” (page 111).

Other than normal outdoor swim safety, Scottish advice (from the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh) is to:

  • Access safely from a shallow area – do not enter by, or swim near, the reservoir structures, including the dam wall, towers or spillways. Tower sluices have undertows which can pull you under.
  • NEVER jump from the dam towers – people have died here by being sucked under by reservoir sluices.

Away from the tower, overflow and any other infrastructure, reservoirs are free from hazards associated with rivers and the sea. There is generally no perceivable flow, current or tides. Despite common misinformation that reservoirs are very cold, the upper depths in which people swim are no colder than in comparable natural lakes. At some times of year they are also warmer than rivers or the sea. When you take into account the risk associated with travelling long distances to the sea, the risks involved in swimming in a local reservoir are considerably lower.

still water and swimmers in reservoir Owen Hayman

9. Swimming is relatively safe

Over half of the people who drown at inland waters in the UK every year never intended to enter the water (as The National Fire Chiefs Council summary data and detailed data from The National Water Safety Forum show), yet some water safety campaigns wrongfully suggest swimmers are most at risk. People choosing to swim are a small proportion of UK drownings, and statistics show that there is a very low risk of drowning when swimming in the UK. Many reservoirs already have fishing and boating on them, which carry a much higher accidental drowning rate than swimming (RoSPA analysis download).

10. Reservoir shores can provide safe and sustainable water entry points

The large size and typically stoney shores of many reservoirs make them capable of sustaining large numbers of swimmers, unlike more ecologically sensitive sites such as soft river banks, small ponds and plunge pools, which can become damaged by large numbers of visitors. Many reservoirs have areas of bank with a gently sloping gradient and shallow water areas, ideal for gradual and safe access to and out of the water. Away from the man-made steep sides and infrastructure of reservoirs, many reservoirs are no different to a natural lake.

11. Reservoirs generally have high water quality

Reservoirs are generally placed upstream of significant sources of pollution, and their catchments are managed to preserve high levels of water quality. This makes them ideally suited for avoiding polluted water when swimming.

Owen Hayman

12. Allowing swimming could make it safer

If helpful and accurate swim safety signage was placed at reservoirs, people would be able to make safer and better informed decisions. People inclined to take risks will always swim in reservoirs whether they are allowed to or not. But if there was accurate signage they would be better informed, and a healthy safe swimming culture would be upheld by the presence of experienced swimmers providing a good example.

13. Swimming in Reservoirs could be a boost to the local economy

Opening up reservoirs for swimming would increase use of an area by tourists and locals, opening up economic opportunities in both rural and urban areas through investment in campsites, hotels, cafes and equipment hire (the Lake District is a good example of this). Open water events often attract people to the area for a weekend, which can provide a huge boost to the local economy.

14. Swimming is not a problem for drinking water

The idea that swimming in reservoirs pollutes drinking water ignores the huge advances in water treatment that have taken place since the industrial revolution. Water is not piped directly from open reservoirs to drinking water taps, and is treated in between. Anything swimmers put into the water would be removed as standard practice.

15. There is a long history of countryside access being gained through direct action

The 1932 Kinder Mass Trespass brought about the designation of Access Land, the Right to Roam and the National Parks. Forestry Commission Mountain Biking centres came about as a response to people illicitly mountain biking on Forestry Commission lands. The time for swimming outdoors being accepted is coming.

A 2021 mini trespass in Kinder Reservoir and a larger trespass on the 90th anniversary in 2022 made the point that we need access to swim in reservoirs.

Owen Hayman

16. There is a growing public appetite for opening up water access

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic it was announced that the heads of all major water companies will be asked to attend a meeting at Parliament with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Swimming, where MPs will demand that they do more to provide access for swimming in reservoirs.

Many swimmers are campaigning and negotiating for access. There are many ways to get involved. Join the Inland Access Group – The Outdoor Swimming Society if you want to push for better access.

Want to get involved?

Further reading

Understanding Reservoirs: an OSS Survive feature that helps educate swimmers on the real dangers in reservoirs and how to avoid them

Owen Hayman lives and swims in the middle of the  ‘Sheffield Lakeland’ – an area dominated by large majestic functioning reservoir lakes. He founded  SOUP – Sheffield OUtdoor Plungers and is a member of The Outdoor Swimming Society campaigning and inland access team. Along with others in the wider Yorkshire area and beyond, Owen is working to break down mental, social and structural barriers to free outdoor swimming, with the aim of building a culture of safe and responsible swimming.

Find Owen and SOUP on Instagram at @owainhaeman; @soup_sheffieldoutdoorplungers.

“Almost everywhere we swim there are ‘No Swimming’ signs, and many of the places have almost no known history of swimming. One of our core aims is to normalise outdoor free swimming in places where it was once a very eccentric thing to do, if not illegal. Not only do we aim to normalise swimming in the eyes of onlookers and gain public support, but normalise it with ourselves too. Through sharing maps and information, and inviting strangers to swim, we break down social and personal barriers. We have a responsibility to proactively care for the places we swim, and try to instil this culture in newcomers. Swimming and environmental responsibility go hand in hand. We work towards a time when the invaluable benefits of swimming and dipping in open water, for people and for the environment, are recognised and valued. Come for a swim!” – Owen Hayman.

Owen Hayman, Imogen Radford