Bluetonic online chat: swimming and access

Blue Tonic is a charity that aims to help people improve their wellbeing by enjoying blue spaces. They run monthly online chats in winter, with speakers on different aspects of this, and I was delighted to be invited. Sessions are recorded and you can find them on their YouTube channel.

In my interview, after a bit about my own swimming, I talked about the Right to Swim and the campaign for access. I thought I would share the notes along with the YouTube link and a list of timings for what I spoke about (see the end of the notes).

Notes prepared for the interview

Online 14 December 2023. See the whole interview on YouTube, (which varied a little from what was prepared, with more detailed discussion of some access issues).   

Where did you grow up; what was it like; when did you start swimming?

Rural East Suffolk in the 60s and 70s, mum was a good swimmer, taught me to swim at Sizewell by me holding onto her doing sidestroke, then in the river at the end of the village, small and full of water lilies and water crowfoot, a wonderful place for adventure. And as teenager walking over the fields from school to the seaside at Sizewell.

You came back to swimming in rivers in 2012; what was your relationship to water / swimming prior to this?

In London for 35 years, towards the end of that increasingly keen to return to the outdoors and countryside

What brought you back; how did it feel?

Reading Roger Deakin’s Waterlog and a Scotland camping and lakeside trip, a couple of swims in Loch Lomond and Loch Leven, then a deliberate decision to get started swimming outdoors September 2012. It felt cold! It was one of the coldest rivers in Norfolk, not far from the source, but also wonderful.

Had to learn about cold.  Not many people to swim with in those days so swam alone, made a conscious decision and considered safety. Adventure.

Rivers seem to be your favourite swims,  please tell us about the swim safaris you did when turning 60?

I did a swim trek over three days in 2016, following the A12 from Great Yarmouth to East London, then the same year a trek from West London up the Thames, in both of these visiting places with relevance to my family. In 2019 I did a series of treks over the six warmest months of the year, a different county each month in East Anglia and the Midlands. Mostly rivers, also lakes (previous sand or clay quarries), lidos and sea, meeting swimmers in each area where possible, fascinating way to see lots of different swimming places and communities

When did you get involved with Outdoor Swimming Society?

Not sure, around 6 or 7 years ago.

Can you tells us about the work you do creating access to blue spaces?

King’s Cross pond campaign 2016 – a short and concerted bid to extend the life of the temporary natural urban pond, brilliant group of people with much enthusiasm – journalists, local businessman, lawyers, doctors – Dr Chris van Tulleken who took some of his patients there to benefit from cold water swimming. Didn’t succeed, but did learn quite a bit about campaigning and what got attention and enthused people – Splashmob.

Assisting various campaigns, such as the Save Pickmere Lake campaign, and many more with information and advice, liaising with landowners.

Inspired by Owen Hayman who has been empowering swimmers in the Sheffield area to swim in the local reservoirs, giving them information on their rights and possible implications of trespass and on safety, and bringing people together which helps give them confidence

Enabling people to Go Swimming responsibly – the best way to gain and maintain access

Who do you work with?

The Outdoor Swimming Society and its Inland Access Group, which brings together activists around the country to share experience, local swim groups.

Right to Roam, national and local groups, other organisations like British Canoeing, British Mountaineering Council, Bluespace England and Wales. Now all working together on a campaign called ‘Outdoors for All’– campaigning to improve access to land and water

What are the main barriers to access?

Outdated and inaccurate understanding of inland outdoor swimming, safety, liability. Plus issues of accessibility (stemming from the misunderstandings).

Landowners and local authorities often completely misunderstand landowner liability – case law is very clear that an individual willingly entering the water does so at their own risk.

Outdoor swimming is not dangerous. It has risks but knowledge and experience can help people keep themselves safe, and accurate information can help as well.

And misunderstandings about the impact of people on land and water. Very small minority are irresponsible, most actually go beyond and pick up litter and help look after places, and also those that immersed in nature are more likely to care about it practically as well as understand it better and be less alienated.

Attitudes especially out of date for urban areas, reservoirs, lakes especially those that were once quarries.

For example, widely believed by landowners and said by at least one national safety organisation – inland water is very cold even in summer, and that this particularly applies to previous quarries and reservoirs. This is totally inaccurate and inexplicable – waters such waters at least in the South reach well over 20° in summer, and such water bodies behave like any other lake. Telling people such untruths destroys any credibility of signage or messaging. [see post on this, Are lakes freezing cold even in summer?]

How do mass trespasses help?

Going with others empowers people and gives them confidence, and the events help to publicise the issues. Consider location with care, avoid impact on wildlife for example. Kinder Reservoir is a good example where the edges are stone and will not be affected, paths are very well used and nesting birds keep away from them. Previous sand or gravel or clay quarries are very suitable for swimming and low impact.

The more people swim at a place, the more likely a landowner cannot deny the reality that they are swimming. They cannot stop people, and therefore try using propaganda and scare stories to put people off and make sure people are condemned. However the balance can be shifted the other way.

What does the future of access look like? How hopeful are you?

This year feels as if we are really going over a tipping point.

The demand for outdoor swimming is overwhelming and it won’t be dropping any time soon – the more people discover the benefits and enjoyment the more people will want to do it. It is an unstoppable movement. We already have seen changes in the attitudes of national safety organisations and large landowners and some councils. They are no longer quick to say – don’t go swimming outdoors – and instead give useful advice.

We have outdoor organisations banding together to campaign for access to outdoor land and water – Outdoors for All – and are building up pressure in advance of the election. Labour did promise to improve access, though they might be rowing back on that so we need to make clear the demand.

You can help – join swim groups, go swimming, raise issues with the Inland Access Group – Outdoor Swimming Society.

Read more about access and legality on this website.

Timings on the YouTube video of the chat relating to access:

  • 16:00 inspiration from the Sheffield campaigners, Owen and SOUP
  • 19:00 giving ourselves and everyone permission to swim
  • 19:40 Inland Access Group and team
  • 21:00 campaign examples, Pickmere
    • Key advice – swim, responsibly
      • OSS access guide
        • Right to Swim
  • 23:30 mass swim trespass, Kinder Reservoir and others
  • 28:30 West Norfolk swim trespasses
    • Keep swimming, along with letterwriting and so on, but swim first
  • 34:00 high proportion of public including councillors and authorities don’t understand outdoor swimming, have heard it is dangerous…
  • 35:00 the future is brighter
  • (35:50 disabled access
  • (37:20 outdoors for all, the whole wide community of swimmers and potential swimmers
  • 39:40 end of interview.
  • Questions
    • including different situation in Scotland
  • 55:00 Brecks projects to introduce people to outdoor swimming and give them info to empower them to swim safely.

swims and swim places, and related issues