Heartbreaking swimming ban at Caroline’s Lake, Leeds

18th July, 2021

If you’ve been swimming near Leeds, then it’s likely that you’ll have heard of St Aidan’s Nature Park. Originally an opencast coal mining area, the site was reclaimed and given back to the local community for their enjoyment, with specific provision made for a recreational lake known to its adoring swimmers as Caroline.

Caroline’s lake is an oasis on the outskirts of one of the UK’s largest northern cities. It has a healthy community of nature-loving open water swimmers who have enjoyed it for many years. Though owned by a charitable trust, whose legal purpose was designated to include providing a recreational lake, the site was leased to the RSPB for a peppercorn rent (effectively no charge) in 2010 on the understanding that the lease would make little or no difference to meeting the Trust objectives.

Since then, the lake has stood as a defining example of two communities working together for the benefit of all. Many local swimmers have taken up RSPB memberships and make additional donations to support the site volunteers. Swimmer groups have volunteered their time on litter-picking days and physical conservation work. More informally it has become common practice for swimmers to look after the site by clearing any litter that they find and educating visitors on the least disruptive ways to enjoy the lake, including avoiding swimming in all the other lakes on the site.

On 15 July 2021 signs were placed around the lake prohibiting swimming.

The response from the community has been huge. Swimmers have been sharing heartbreaking stories of how the lake has provided sanctuary for them in troubled times. Women have raised the importance of the lake as a rare safe space to meet others to swim and its cleanliness and relatively accessible nature has made it vital for swimmers with mobility and health challenges. The apparent lack of any consultation with the swimming community has caused a great amount of disappointment. Other activities such as horse riding continuing at the site (with our support!) suggests this is another example of the perceived risks of free swimming being far greater than the reality.

Given the legal purpose of the Trust that owns the land – which includes providing a recreational lake, given back to the community once mining activity had ceased – and the lack of engagement with the swimming community, it is currently unclear upon what basis the apparent ban is being made. A statement by the RSPB area manager to a local newspaper suggested fears around liability, which will be familiar to those who have watched the Grantchester Meadows story unfold. OSS has a comprehensive and practical guidance to landowners wanting to establish – or retain – bathing areas, which addresses these issues and explains the case law, and its Inland Access Group is here to help these discussions. This was originally used by Caroline (whose name was given to the lake nearest the visitor centre, Bowers) and other swimmers to jointly agree signage giving safety information to swimmers.

The RSPB have since contacted the local swimming group and are expected to meet with its representatives shortly. We are hopeful that the situation will be resolved and the lake can continue as a leading example of communities working together for the enjoyment and preservation of nature. This case is of national significance in the struggle to keep outdoor swimming free, in every sense of the word. Reclaiming a site scarred by mining for the benefit of so many outdoor swimmers was a triumph for all involved. This northern oasis is too precious to lose.

Story on BBC Online

This is the situation at the time of writing, 18 July.

Lance Sagar

swimmers in sunset lake

Lance Sagar

lake and mine

Lance Sagar