Swimming ban lifted at Grantchester Meadows, Cambridge

12th July, 2021

UPDATE 14 July: Discussions between swimmers, councils and King’s College have commenced, with new plans to change the signage to encourage responsible behaviour, to work with conservationists and to consider further solutions. The petition remains open for now.

Shocked swimmers at this iconic spot heard they were going to be banned in an early July 2021 announcement by King’s College Cambridge that they would stop swimming, paddling and the use of the riverbank at the famous and beautiful Grantchester Meadows. Within days the signs went up and it seemed an end had come to hundreds of years of a much cherished Cambridge tradition, loved for generations including by Rupert Brooke and Virgina Wolf, and countless ordinary people. The reasons King’s put forward were safety, liability, litter, and riverbank erosion. This is a reaction against the increase in use of the river due to the obvious restrictions caused by the pandemic: a permanent solution to a temporary and manageable problem. Everyone has suffered over lockdown and taking away a place that provides a powerful antidote to enforced estrangement from nature was a cruel blow for people now and would be for generations to come.

Within hours of the notice local wild swimmer Camila Ilsley set up a petition to halt the ban and to discuss the issues, highlighting the lack of consultation with the public, “We do not accept that all options have been exhausted as claimed. Many more cooperative options remain unexplored”. The petition was extremely well supported including by The Outdoor Swimming Society patron, nature writer and local Robert Mcfarlane who tweeted in support. It reached over 10k signatures in two days and doubled that within a week.

The power of public opinion shown by the petition and much local comment, together with some informal approaches behind the scenes, led to King’s College Cambridge issuing a statement on Twitter: “We recognise that the restrictions added to the signage would adversely and unfairly affect the many conscientious users of the river.” They are to review their position and the legal advice and meet with Cambridge Council and representatives of the supporters of the petition. They also reassured people that they would not use security guards or prosecute anyone.

At the time of writing petition supporters and local swimmers, together with local councillors, are holding discussions on future management, with advice from The Outdoor Swimming Society’s Inland Access Group and legal adviser.

The Inland Access Group has unfortunately seen many examples of landowners around the country seeking to ban swimming, as a response to their fears about liability and safety and the negative impact from the minority of the massively increased numbers of visitors to the countryside.

Sadly misunderstandings on liability can lead to attempts to close places people swim, when the upset that causes to everyone could be avoided. It is surprising that this has happened at such an iconic swim spot, with a strong tradition of swimming and enjoying the river, and understandable that people are very upset and angry, particularly as it came out of the blue. Of course there is nothing new about worries about swimmers drowning, as the Cam Safer Swim Initiative chair pointed out, a famous treatise on swimming was written in 1587 because the author, a Cambridge Fellow, was worried about the safety of undergraduates at the meadow.

Landowners and local authorities often don’t understand people swimming – why they do it, how they can do so responsibly, and that it is perfectly possible to do it safely with some basic advice. They don’t always understand that swimming is done at people’s own risk, and the landowner’s liability is limited when people willingly take those risks – they can’t stop people taking those risks, and it is not their responsibility if people do, though they could choose to give information to help people stay safe.. They also don’t seem to realise that they can talk to swimmers, discuss ways to spread messages of safe swimming, mitigate impacts.

OSS has published 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.

There is another important related issue affecting swimmers at Cambridge. The council, apparently in liaison with local residents, decided that they would close the car park that is used for Grantchester Meadows and the Newham Riverbank Swimming Club (also a long-standing institution in the area). This was despite no one knowing who owns the land, only minor problems, and the impact this will have on disabled people or others with limited mobility, and on parking in nearby streets. There was no consultation but after a petition and local protest the decision was delayed for consideration in late July.

The situation is fast changing.

Imogen Radford

Inland Access Officer