Bawsey: Accessibility for Disabled Swimmers

Bawsey is so important a place for swimming – accessible to a wide range of the community, including many disabled swimmers. Yet people have to run the gauntlet of No Swimming signs, which not everyone has the confidence to do. In this post Allison, one of those meeting to swim at Bawsey, explains why it is difficult for disabled swimmers to find places they can go, and why despite the No Swimming signs she is enjoying the swimming which is so important to her. (Read more about April’s swim.)

Bawsey has public access, car parking, toilets and good paths to the lakes that are usable by wheelchairs and mobility scooters. The lakes have gently shelving beaches with firm sand and clean water, and fewer risks than other waters. Read about risks (real or mythical) in these lakes and how to stay safe.

Disabled swimmers will have a range of access needs, and Bawsey is not accessible to all (some accessibility info included on the Bawsey Lakes location details page). For example people who can’t walk at all (like full time wheelchair users) or who can only walk a few metres might only be able to swim in places where there are handrails or something to hold onto until in water deep enough to swim. As this Outdoor Swimming Society article by another disabled swimmer activist outlines, with a change in attitude from landowners and some investment in infrastructure such as handrails many more places could become accessible to a wider range of disabled people, thus giving more people the joy and health benefits that outdoor swimming brings.

This is Allison’s article.

My Journey as a Disabled outdoor swimmer

Perhaps the greatest obstacle that I face as a disabled swimmer is not the water, but access to the water. I have swum all my life, learning to swim in the local pool with my Dad, there were days at the beach, and trips to the local water parks. I have never not swum, but then I got Long COVID, and that and other pre-existing conditions created a perfect storm of illness, to the point that my life changed overnight. I would end up having to leave the career I loved, and went from a busy hectic life, working a demanding job, winter camping, canvas camping and hill walking, to one spent on the sofa unable to even cook a simple meal. Slowly I began to recover, but I will never be who I was or do what I once could, now I have to use a walking stick, rollator or mobility scooter depending on the distance I need to go and how stubborn I’m feeling.

My body stopped working, but my mind didn’t, and I refused to accept this non-life on the sofa as my future. Most forms of exercise were beyond me, but on a family holiday in Norfolk I was determined I was going to go swimming again. And I did, in the sea on a murky afternoon, I was left in excruciating pain afterwards, due to the long walk on the shifting sand to reach the water, but in the water for the first time in over a year of illness, I felt free. I felt like me and fell back in love with the water.

But how could I access the open water in the middle of the country when I couldn’t walk up my stairs without pain and exhaustion? I tried the swimming pool but hated it, I wanted to be back outside, I couldn’t hike anymore but I could swim outside. I hit the internet and started looking for answers. I joined my local Facebook swimming group and lurked, watching in envy as they swam, but unsure if I could join them due to access as there was nothing anywhere that told me if a swim was accessible or not. But I wanted in that water so badly, and the swimming pool just wasn’t cutting it for me.

My next option was paid for lakes, where I could email in advance to see what the accessibility was. Finally I was back in the water and enjoying it, but not fully, I’m not a regimented person, so swimming around buoys in a predetermined route and paying for the experience still wasn’t cutting it for me. And access was still an issue, some had slippery docks with steps and ladders, some had steep muddy banks for me to navigate, or long walks to the water but none felt free, none felt like I was really swimming how I wanted to. I then stumbled on a beautiful paid for lake, with a gentle slopping beach access and no buoys in sight, just a fire pit and acceptance. But it was 50 minutes away and on the more expensive side, and I couldn’t afford it more than once a week. But I was in the water and loving it. I was free.

It was time to find more, time to brave the Facebook group! I started posting questions about accessibility, and they were amazing, and so one moonlit night in January I finally went for my first ever river swim. It was magical and everything I had been looking for, I had found my way back to me. That swim really started my road to recovering myself, sadly not a road to recovery from my many illnesses, but I had found myself and had found an exercise that I could finally do, and love doing, but access was a still a major issue.

What I found truly awful was that most of the spots I could swim at had huge ‘No Swimming’ signs. And yet all of them were on public paths, on public accessed land, so why could I not swim there? All were utilising slipways or natural access points and all, due to my disability, were off public footpaths and publicly accessed land and yet the signs were there. No Swimming. I can’t go traipsing off into the country side to swim in a waterfall, or a hidden spot with no path except the one you forge yourself, I can’t hop over a fence to access private land. I can only swim if my scooter can get there, which means a well-defined, preferably paved, path or alternatively if there is a car park right next to the swimming spot. I can only really free swim on public access land, and yet I can’t swim in the water adjoining that land? How does that make any sense at all?

By not allowing the right to swim from public accessed land people like myself are excluded from swimming in our beautiful lakes and rivers. I can’t think of any places I swim that don’t have a No Swimming sign next to it and that is exclusion and for no good reason. The land I swim from is public accessed land and is accessible for many adaptive swimmers, yet the authorities in their wisdom see fit to exclude us. To not only exclude us from the water itself but also from the huge mental and physical benefits swimming in the outdoors gives. So now I now take delight in getting into the water right under those No Swimming signs and swimming and loving my life again, regardless of what some pointless sign says.

Allison Carroll, Disabled outdoor swimmer

Swimmers are meeting at Bawsey to show their support for The Outdoor Swimming Society’s Inland Access Manifesto calling for freedom to swim and the call from Right to Roam for a right to responsible access to land and water, as in Scotland. Access is needed for all – including Disabled swimmers. Read more about Wild Swimming and Access. To show that we need more access to swim, we suggest swimmers Go Swimming!

Location details: Bawsey Pits or Lakes

Allison doing assessment of the access to Bawsey Bay, Great Lake, on a sandy slope , with an off-road double motored mobility scooter

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