We need places where we can swim, as more people want to take part in this activity that has so many positive benefits. Reservoirs could be the answer – and are likely to be more suitable than some small rural swimming hotspots that can seem overrun in a busy summer. One person who is bringing together people to swim and to campaign on this issue explains why we need why we need UK-wide swimming access in reservoirs.
Owen is a swimming access campaigner, living and swimming in the middle of what was once known as “Sheffield Lakeland”, an area dominated by large majestic functioning reservoir lakes. He founded and admins SOUP – Sheffield OUtdoor Plungers, and is a member of the Outdoor Swimming Society campaigning and inland access team. Along with many others in the wider Yorkshire area and beyond, Owen is working to bring swimmers together, to collectively break down mental, social and structural barriers to free outdoor swimming. Instagram – @owainhaeman
All photos by Owen Hayman; they show swimmers at Langsett and Blackmoorfoot Reservoirs
Sixteen reasons why we need UK-wide swimming access in reservoirs
- Pretty much all reservoirs in Scotland are open to swimmers, simply because their right to roam is extended to water (in England and Wales it is currently not). To Scottish people the idea of swimming in reservoirs is completely normal. Swimming in reservoirs is also perfectly legal and normal in many other European countries. In Norway and Sweden many reservoirs have diving boards on them.
- The Scottish Outdoor Access Code gives simple and clear advice about safe swimming in reservoirs; “never go close to spillways or water intakes”(page 111, https://www.outdooraccess-scotland.scot/scottish-outdoor-access-code).
- There’s a long history of countryside access being gained through civil disobedience. If it weren’t for people trespassing, there would be no mountain biking trails in Forestry Commission lands, no access to Kinder Scout, and perhaps no such thing as Access Land and the Right to Roam.
- Some reservoirs are perfectly legal to swim in, (eg. Sparth Reservoir, Huddersfield) and many have open water swimming clubs on them (eg. Harthill Reservoir).
- The Water Industry Act 1991 Section 3 (5) states that water companies must provide recreational access to water and land where possible. While this is normally fulfilled through footpaths, fishing and boating, swimming is neglected.
- Many reservoirs have fishing and boating on them, which carry a much higher accidental drowning rate (https://www.rospa.com/rospaweb/docs/advice-services/leisure-safety/inland-waters-risk-assessment.pdf)
- Over half of the people who drown at inland waters in the UK every year never intended to enter the water (https://www.nationalfirechiefs.org.uk/Be-Water-Aware and https://www.nationalwatersafety.org.uk/waid/reports-and-data/), yet many water safety campaigns wrongfully suggest swimmers are most at risk. People choosing to swim, free from alcohol and not jumping in, make up a tiny fraction of UK drownings.
- The Inland Access Group – Outdoor Swimming Society is working with the all Party Parliamentary Group on Swimming, who agree that water companies should be improving access at reservoirs for swimming. It was recently announced that the heads of all major water companies will be asked to attend a meeting at Parliament, where MPs will demand that they do more to provide access for swimming in reservoirs. https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/free-swimming-the-oss-goes-to-parliament/
- Many reservoirs (not all), away from the tower, are safer than rivers or the sea, as there is no flow, current, or tides. At some times of year they are also warmer. When you take into account the risk associated with travelling long distances to the sea, the risks involved in swimming in a local reservoir are considerably lower.
- The catchments of most reservoirs are managed to preserve high water quality, making them often safer than other water bodies, in terms of avoiding polluted water.
- With helpful and accurate swim safety signage placed at reservoirs, people can make safer and better informed decisions. People inclined to take risks will always swim in reservoirs whether they are allowed to or not. They are made much safer if there is good signage, and a healthy safe swimming culture upheld by the presence of experienced swimmers, providing a good example.
- The large size and typically stone banks of some reservoirs make them capable of sustaining a large number of swimmers, unlike more ecologically sensitive sites such as soft river banks, small ponds and plunge pools which can become damaged by large numbers of visitors. By spreading swimmers across a larger number of spots, we can reduce the risk of “Honey Pot” spots becoming damaged (eg. Little Barbrook, Peak District).
- Outdoor swimming is one of the few forms of exercise that are free, require no special clothing or equipment, and therefore accessible to people with low incomes. Swimming is also more open to some people with disabilities, than say, running or cycling. In some areas of the UK, reservoirs are far more accessible to the majority of the population than other water bodies suitable for swimming.
- Opening up reservoirs for swimming can increase use of an area by tourists and locals, opening up economic opportunities in both rural and urban areas, through investment in campsites, hotels, cafes, equipment hire etc (The Lake District is a good example of this). Open water events often attract people to the area for a weekend, boosting the local economy.
- Given the quickly rising number of people going swimming outdoors, and the huge mental, physical, social and environmental benefits of people becoming more engaged with water and the joy of outdoor swimming, we can not afford to overlook the potential of reservoirs to connect people to the landscape and their bodies.
- With the rising number of examples of water bodies opening up to swimmers, and strong case law examples that demonstrate that landowners are not necessarily liable for the safety of swimmers, water companies have the information at their fingertips to open up more reservoir areas for swimmers. See info here – https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Guide-To-Inland-Bathing-Areas-2018_small.pdf and join Inland Access Group – Outdoor Swimming Society if you want to push for better access.
This piece is also posted in the Outdoor Swimming Society Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/outdoorswimmingsociety/permalink/10156731758772830
Owen sums up the philosophy of the group:
“Almost everywhere we swim, there are ‘No Swimming’ signs. Many of the places we swim have almost no known history of swimming. This is an emerging wisdom. One of our core aims is to normalise outdoor free swimming in places where it was once a very eccentric thing to do, if not illegal. Not only do we aim to normalise swimming in the eyes of onlookers, but normalise it with ourselves too. We challenge the doubts within ourselves and aim to answer the questions we have as best we can. Through sharing maps and information, and inviting strangers to swim, break down social and personal barriers. We work towards a time when the invaluable benefits of swimming and dipping in open water are recognised and respected. Come for a swim! There may be cake too.”
Additional points from Imogen:
I would add that most of these points would also apply to lakes and old gravel pits, which are widespread across East Anglia and the south of England, and probably other parts of the country as well. But these places also are surrounded by misunderstandings on safety and often by ‘No Swimming’ signs and attitudes. (I wrote about this in relation to clay lakes, https://www.imogensriverswims.co.uk/blog/swimming-in-clay-and-gravel-lakes/)
We all understand that access for swimming can be a tricky issue, especially when lots of people want to visit and swim in places that are in small rural communities, perhaps with limited infrastructure and small roads (and this year with concerns about coronavirus as well). Because there are so few places that we are ‘allowed’ to swim, and the numbers wanting to swim are high and have been growing, especially this year, those places can seem to those living locally to be overrun.
One solution is to look for places that would be more suitable, with manageable impact and lots of space. So it is frustrating to see swathes of lakes and suitable swimming places around the country, barred to us by these No Swimming attitudes.
Let’s hope that these arguments for access can inspire us to campaign for access!