On this Aug 2019 trip in the Eastern/East Midlands area – Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Northants and just over the border – the locals were friendly, there is a thriving swimming community, and I had many brilliant swims in great company in beautiful rivers, lakes and lidos. It was the latest in my series of clusters of swims in the East of England to mark becoming 60 this year. Please sponsor me if you would like to. Next trips: Suffolk for 7-8 and 20-21 September.
The rivers – Nene, Great Ouse, Lea, Welland – are the focus for active local swimming communities. They are clean, clear, deep and accessible, and relatively free of forbidding signs (with one or two unfortunate exceptions). They are navigated by boats, but are not too busy.
Herts and Beds has no fewer than seven lidos, run by councils, trusts or the community (and one family-run and for members only with a full waiting list). They are all different and all delightful, welcoming to visitors and much loved locally, though some were very quiet on the days when the weather was not promising. Though they have to close while there is a risk from storms, they are a joy to visit in any weather.
The area has also quite a number of clay/brickworks lakes, some of which are used for formal swimming and other water activities, and mostly swimming is forbidden. These lakes are very clean, with clear blue water, because clay does not form silt in the same way as other soils. I’ve written more about Swimming in Clay lakes and the issues.
I swam in one with organised sessions which is very accessible and reasonably priced, with its own lively community. The others were places where swimming is warned against or forbidden, but could be done safely with some straightforward signage and ideally some education.
Although there are beaches on some lakes, they quickly drop to deep water, so are not suitable for non swimmers or weak swimmers unless someone is holding onto them, no inflatables, as they could be washed out, no swimming far away from the shore if not used to cool water, and keep away from any powerboats and keep out of areas they might operate (observe, or look for buoys or markers).
Some river spots also had warnings, but these did not give any helpful information for those that choose to make their own assessment and swim there.
Each could be safely swum by following simple guidance like the Outdoor Swimming Society’s 10 tips, with the addition of local knowledge.
Giving people advice to mitigate the (very real) risks of outdoor swimming is a much more constructive response than telling people not to without any explanation. Even a tragic loss of life or near miss does not mean that the place itself is especially dangerous: it means that there is very likely to be a need for advice about the specific local risks as well as any general risks. If people don’t get the opportunity to swim then they will never be able to learn how to do so safely, as I argue in my article on swimming safely on this website.
It is not clear why the sign has been put up at St Neots Riverside, where people used to enjoy the water. Although there are risks from boats and the current, these can easily be avoided by staying near the side and being visible, swimming upstream and knowing where you can get out, as well as following general advice.
Local swimmer Bryn Dymott explains that this was the St Neots swim spot for many decades. There used to be changing sheds and diving boards on the bank where the sign is now. A few years ago the concrete terracing of the original bathing spot (similar to Olney, see below) was removed, and now boats moor there and the metal piling makes climbing out tricky for anyone who can’t get out of the deep end of a pool, so finding a place to get out safely is important.
Several of the best river spots were beside beautiful old stone bridges. Traditional swimming spots are often at places where people crossed the river, originally on fords, and the water under bridges can often be deeper and less weedy.
Another historic place is the Bathing Steps at Olney, built by the Victorians to make access for paddling and swimming easier, and the tradition continues today.
Sadly St Neots removed their similar steps, as explained above.
I travelled for four days in August 2019 in the Eastern/East Midlands area – Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Northants and just over the border – and did 24 swims and one paddle.
I had company for half of the swims, and chats with people around where I swam alone. I did some heads down swimming, but mainly swam gently around and looked at the scenery and wildlife, and with others had a go on some rope swings, did handstands and jumped and dived. In the lidos I had some good tuition on diving and crawl.
The water varied: the warmest were the lidos that were all heated; the next warmest in a lake at 22.4°; and the coldest river was 16.3°. The weather wasn’t that good for August, and Saturday had some strong winds which made the larger rivers or lakes rather choppy.
On my swim treks I have been inviting anyone to join me, to watch or to swim together at our own risk, at various places over a few days in different part of East Anglia/ East Midlands each month (see Swims, including reports from previous trips, and plans for the next ones).
I am inviting people to sponsor me if they would like to. The two charities are important to me in remembering my parents at the end of their lives four years ago.
Location info (or links) for the swims:
Fri 09.08.19 Nene, Welland and nearby
Sat 10.08.19 Great Ouse
Sun 11.08.19 Beds venue, river, lidos
Mon 12.08.19 Beds & Herts lidos, river, lake
I’ve written more about Swimming in Clay lakes and the issues.