The OSS Year

2023: we swam, we shared, we trespassed

Hollie Harmsworth

A rundown of what we’ve achieved this year, as told by members of the OSS team.

The OSS mission is to protect the wild and free nature of outdoor swimming. Throughout the year we’ve been here to help you find the others through our network of local swim groups, to preserve and fight for free access to natural spaces through our inland access team and to support swimmers with expert guidance, toolkits and outreach work. We also hope we provided a little inspiration and originality too, particularly via our free monthly magazine elsewhere and our social channels. 

Our membership is free of charge, as we believe access to the outdoors should be, and we now count more than 200,000 members in our ranks. An international swimming community of 35,000 receive our monthly journal elsewhere; our social platforms facilitate swimming chatter on a vast range of topics; and this year our specialist cold water web content has been found by 100,000s of swimmers from 66 countries around the world. 

This year outdoor swimming movement has shifted again – it’s no longer the pandemic’s crazy escapist fad, it’s now a regular way of life for cold water enthusiasts. As such, 2023 has been a year of continued growth as well as consolidation; with all the joy it brings us and of course a few challenges. We’ve sought to remain a bulwark against commercialisation and the unnecessary regulation of our outdoor spaces, to defend rights of access for swimmers and to do what it takes to enable and inspire swimmers to get in the water. There have been two major topics that have dominated this year’s discussions: 

  • The right to swim: We believe people have a natural right to swim in outdoor spaces, free of charges and unnecessary restrictions. We published our manifesto to that effect, delivered a webinar on the right to swim and created the Kinder Trespass Swim film which premiered at the Kendal Mountain Festival. Throughout the year we have supported numerous successful access campaigns, providing expertise and resources to local groups all across the UK. See Imogen Radford, below, for more on this.
  • Water quality: We care about the health of the natural environments in which we swim and stand firmly behind efforts to protect these environments. Unfortunately the media narrative often tends towards inaccurate sensationalism, which risks unnecessarily scaring people out of the water. We go to great lengths to provide accurate data and factual, expert analysis in all that we do and particularly around water quality, supporting efforts to improve and protect it whilst resisting attempts to stop us from swimming.

We run on volunteer power at The OSS and here’s a snapshot of what else we’ve achieved this year.  

Leo Gundle

“Distorted messaging can deter new swimmers and cause unnecessary worry to those already in the water, so in winter 2023 I found myself writing a whole series of myth-busting stories to counteract the headlines with facts.” Kate Rew

Kate Rew: Founder and Creative Director

As a society our core mission is to inspire and enable free, independent swimming, with people making their own informed decisions about risks. We believe we have practically all the information a swimmer could need to make risk and safety decisions in the SURVIVE section of our website (and also in my book, The Outdoor Swimmers’ Handbook). As we are not a commercial organisation we can state the interests of swimmers in a pure, trustworthy and unbiased way.  

Gilly Waddell (pro bono press and PR) and I receive calls for press comments on a weekly basis. At one point I was asked about sewage twice a week (not open questions such as ‘do swimmers get sick, how can they prevent it and what scale is the problem?’ but closed ones designed to fill in headlines like ‘swimmers get sick from sewage’). Distorted messaging can deter new swimmers and cause unnecessary worry to those already in the water, so in winter 2023 I found myself writing a whole series of myth-busting stories to counteract the headlines with facts. Here are some of them: 10 Ways to Stay Well Swimming, 3% Access Myth and The 1 Minute Per Degree Myth.

The OSS has supported Level Water as our official charity partner since 2015 and has helped them raise millions over the years through events. This year’s Dart10k and Bantham Swoosh were both fantastic, and saw them raise over £250k for swimming lessons for children with disabilities. If you can’t swim, you can’t swim outdoors, and we all know swimming is the most amazing freedom. We are looking forward to their 2024 calendar which might have all four iconic events on it – the Bantham Swoosh, Boomerang, Dart 10k and Hurly Burly.

We grew the team this year which feels like a triumph – finding some others! A call out for more creatives bore fruit. Even better than the fun of having others to collaborate with, this year we had four team meet ups across the UK so actually got to swim together. We’d love to swim with our Irish, South African, American and Australian team members too. Maybe next year… 

Paudie Spillane/Alpkit

Imogen Radford: Inland Access Officer

This year we’ve seen even more people swimming outdoors and an increased demand for places to swim, especially inland where access is often contested and not seen as a right. The issue has featured more in the news this year, with the case about wild camping on Dartmoor and the Labour Party’s initial promise of a Scottish-style Right to Roam extended across the whole UK. The OSS has continued to popularise, normalise and legitimise outdoor swimming, forge links with campaigning organisations nationally and locally, and help our voices be heard in our call for a greater right to swim. This has helped to create and sustain a powerful growing social movement for outdoor swimming.

Highlights of the year include the Kinder Reservoir Trespass in April, the OSS manifesto calling on us to Go Swimming, and OSS articles and events on river access rights, disabled access, and the OSS access webinar. Big victories against threats to access included Pickmere after a hard and long fought battle, Spitchwick after a swift and concerted campaign, and several more local victories such as Milton Keynes dropping their threat to ban swimming and instead working with swimmers and North Lincs losing their consultation on antisocial behaviour orders (though they continue to class swimming that way). The inland access team has continued to provide expert advice to campaigns, landowners and safety organisations throughout the year. 

“The OSS has continued to popularise, normalise and legitimise outdoor swimming, forge links with campaigning organisations nationally and locally, and help voices be heard in our call for a greater right to swim.” 

Ali Couch: Outreach Officer

This year we’ve been approached by more charities, trusts, port authorities and other organisations than ever before, all seeking advice on how to build a case to enable safe free swimming in the water bodies they manage. We field enquiries from all over the world about how to gain access to open water and the right to swim. We’re founding members of a start-up international urban swimming network. At home in the UK, we are part of Sport England’s Swim Alliance. We continue to support grassroots efforts to campaign for clean rivers and seas and, through the incredible UK-wide outdoor swim group network and our enquiries service, tens of thousands of individuals, supported by hundreds of swimming groups, continue to be inspired to take-up swimming outdoors every year.

Beth Pearson: Director and ‘elsewhere’ editor

In a world no longer short of outdoor swimming stories, finding original, inspiring and authoritative ones is always challenging. 2023 started strong with The Accidental Long-Distance Swimmer by longtime OSS contributor and photographer Niall Meehan. This also provided probably my favourite cover since we launched in 2020. We had beautifully written dispatches from Cape Cod, Copenhagen, Iceland, and the Chesapeake Channel. We interviewed Herculean Lewis Pugh, Olympian Hector Pardoe and Deakin biographer Patrick Barkham. We featured galactic swims (Milky Way above; phosphorescence below), local swim group adventures, and a huge number of expert and informative pieces for the SURVIVE section. That we do all this on volunteer power is testament to the enthusiasm and commitment of swimmers to share stories with other swimmers around the world. Visit the elsewhere page for all issues. 

Niall Meehan
Cassandre Beaugrand
Nicky Thomson

Cameron Alexander: Creative Producer

This year the OSS and its creative contributors produced a large number of brilliant projects. After a successful Alpkit X OSS webinar on the Right to Swim, we launched the campaign and began producing a short film on the mass trespass at Kinder Reservoir with filmmaker Hollie Harmsworth.This film had its premiere at the Kendal Mountain Festival in November. We also helped the Commoners Choir in sourcing imagery from our community members for their music video. We continued to work closely on a collaboration with Right to Roam and produced a series of OSS x R2R merchandise with artwork from the brilliant Nick Hayes. In early autumn The OSS team gathered in Wales to swim the 10km Hurly Burly together, where we were joined once again by Hollie Harmsworth to document the journey (below). We have continued to produce and share engaging content across our social media channels, platforming amazing imagery and discussions on access and rights. It was a year full of joy and we look forward to more of that next year.

Hollie Harmsworth

Simon Kerslake: Club Secretary

2023 saw a wonderful explosion of creative, talented and inspirational people come onboard. Our Instagram posts calling for new volunteers led to a fantastic response and (in no particular order) the following new members joined the team: Cameron Alexander as Creative Producer, Patrick Naylor as a Team Writer, Amanda D’Cruz as Instagram Community Manager, Rosie Jackson as Instagram Stories Editor and Kate Robarts joining the Facebook admin team. We also welcomed contributions (and look forward to more to come) from Hollie Harmsworth (Photography and Film), Laura Hall and Hannah Piecuch (Writers). Sadly we also said goodbye to Jenna Kelly, our departing Instagram Stories Editor, who helped take our OSS feed to a whole new level.

 It’s the talent, creativity and hours put in by all the OSS team and contributors that make the OSS what it is. That it is all achieved by volunteers who devote their time for the love of it, and that our membership spans the globe, is truly remarkable. Well done all. If you’re passionate about swimming outdoors and feel you’d like to join The OSS Team and/or have something to offer, whether creative, tech or admin based please feel free to contact me at secretary@outdoorswimmingsociety.com 

Lance Sagar