z-More info on outdoor swimming (Sept 2020)

What you might want to know if you have just started to swim outdoors, especially in autumn/winter. (This note was written to follow on from the introductory outdoor swimming session 13 September in Breckland – which gave a chance to have a go at outdoor swimming and some information about safety and other issues. This note hopes to answer other questions raised which we didn’t have time for on the day.) An earlier version of the Note can be downloaded (8 pages Word.doc)

This Note aims to cover: where you can swim, what to wear, how to keep safe by assessment, being aware of risks and fears and how to deal with them, benefits of swimming, how to swim with care for the environment, swimming with others and what swimming you could do next, and a bit about how you could get involved in other projects on all aspects of the waterways in Breckland.

Note compiled by Imogen Radford, Sept 2020. I have included information and advice that I believe to be accurate and helpful, but I take no responsibility for swimmers. All outdoor swimmers must be solely responsible for making their own assessment as to the risks of any sort of any particular swimming or related activity. And landowners/land managers need to do their own risk assessments.

Note provided as part of the Healing Waters project, part of BFER, http://www.brecks.org/BFER/; the scheme also takes no responsibility for information included in this note.

The note has links to more detailed information and advice. This article gives some pointers to getting started, https://www.imogensriverswims.co.uk/blog/issues/getting-started-in-inland-outdoor-swimming/, local swim groups, usually using Facebook, are a really good way to meet swimmers and learn about swimming in the area, such as the Outdoor Swimming in Breckland group, https://www.facebook.com/groups/453608638711081/. There are similar groups in other areas, most listed here, https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/uk-wild-swimming-groups/. Swimmers groups, publications and websites also are a good source of information, including the Outdoor Swimming Society, Outdoor Swimmer, the River and Lake Swimming Association, Wild Swimming, Loneswimmer.

  1. Places to swim in Breckland

There are quite a number of places that people swim in the area: some traditional long-standing swimming holes and access points; some more recently discovered. In one part of the project we will survey the rivers to look at these places and discover more and will discuss access issues with riparian landowners.

There is information about swim places in the Facebook group, Outdoor Swimming in Breckland (https://www.facebook.com/groups/453608638711081/), which all are welcome to request to join.

‘Safe’ places

I prefer not to talk about safe places, as a place might be safe on one day and in some circumstances and not in others, for example a slow flowing river in summer could become a raging torrent of floodwater in winter. And it depends very much on the person who is going to swim, their capabilities, experience, strength etc. So it’s best to risk assess every place on every visit, and in relation to every swimmer.

Some places do have features that are more likely to make a swim safe for more people than others, however, such as shallow beach entry and exit points, slow or no current.

Where is it allowed?

This is a complex issue. Here is part of what the Outdoor Swimming Society says on its website post, Is It Legal:

  • There is a strong argument based on detailed research by many organisations and campaigns that there is a ‘public right of navigation’ on all rivers that can be navigated by any sort of boat, and therefore a right to swim.
  • Where a footpath or highway enters or crosses water, there is a right to enter the water.
  • Where a footpath or highway runs alongside the water there are strong arguments that you can enter the water from it, because of the historical purpose of those paths.
  • There are many places where people have traditionally swum and the right to swim has been asserted – and generally accepted – for a long time.
  • In many swim places accessing the water is tolerated and sometimes welcomed by landowners.
  • Rivers are governed by ‘riparian rights’ – the landowner owns the banks and the river bed, but not the water. Some argue that this means that you have to have permission to be in the water, but as the water is not owned that is not the case.
  • Angling clubs or syndicates who own the fishing rights to a stretch of water only own those fishing rights, not the water or the banks.
  • Access to enter the water over private land is allowed on a public footpath or highway. Elsewhere it is sometimes tolerated and a well established custom. However, it is technically trespass, which is a civil offence. If challenged, always be polite and leave, but you do not need to give your name or address if asked for them. It is only a criminal matter in some circumstances, for example if there is wilful damage or a deliberate disruption.
  • Sometime swimmers are challenged even when they shouldn’t be, because rights are unclear. It is best to always stay calm, politely explain your understanding of the position, and respect other water users.” https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/is-it-legal/

There are places in Breckland where you might find No Swimming signs, but where in practice swimming is tolerated by the landowner.

The Facebook group, Outdoor Swimming in Breckland, is a good place to find out about places where swimming is ‘allowed’ and possible, or not appropriate.

How can I find and asses a suitable new swim spot?

Start with those that others have already found, as they will put tips and warnings, though you need to check it on the day as these could be out of date or conditions could change.

Look at maps; see where footpaths and roads cross rivers, as these are often access points.

Assess its suitability – see below about assessing a place. The key things to look at are:

  • exit/entry points
  • current, obstructions, boats
  • weeds, mud
  • water depth
  • wildlife to avoid or habitat to be sensitive to
  • permission/access to the water
  1. Safety and outdoor swimming

Article on swimming safety and why it matters, with a checklist and links, https://www.imogensriverswims.co.uk/blog/issues/swim-safety/

To keep yourself safe swimming outdoors, you can make a number of assessments:

  • Assess yourself. Ask yourself about your capability including how far you can swim and how strongly, how confident you are, what fears you have and what could make you panic – and what to do if you do panic. Consider how you are feeling on the day, including whether you are tired, your level of nutrition and hydration, whether affected by medication or alcohol – all the factors that could affect your swimming and how cold you could get and therefore how long you might stay in. Do you need particular clothing or equipment? Assess others if you are responsible for them, such as children or dependents – how are you going to be sure that they are safe?

Every swimmer must take responsibility for their own safety, so you don’t need to do this for other adults. But if you are planning to swim with someone and think that they are not behaving safely or understanding important issues, and not listening if you pass on safety info, then consider whether you would feel comfortable swimming with that person.

  • Assess the weather: air temperature, water temperature, wind, sun, mist or fog – and consider how it will affect your swimming, your safety and recovery if you get cold, and where to put your clothes.
  • Assess the place. Where will you get out after your swim? Will you be able to do so even if you are cold and your muscles and especially your hands are affected by the cold? This is much more important than where you get in. Is there a current and if so how far will it wash you down river and do you have an alternative exit point? Can you swim upstream first, or walk along the bank to assess before getting in? Are they likely to be boats and if so how can you be sure that you are visible to them and can keep out of their way? Could there be litter or obstructions in the water or on the bottom? Is the water clear or silty and does it seem clean? Is it deep or shallow, is there mud or is the bottom firm especially where you get in and out, are there weeds and are they a problem?

Equipment and clothing


I make some suggestions in this article (halfway down), https://www.imogensriverswims.co.uk/blog/issues/getting-started-in-inland-outdoor-swimming/.

The minimum you might need is a swimming costume. I would recommend swim shoes for most locations, especially rivers when you are not always sure where you’re going to get out and there might be litter or sharp stones.

Beyond those, there is no need to buy a lot of expensive clothes and equipment.

If you are swimming somewhere with boats a brightly coloured swim hat is a good idea, and a tow float makes you even more visible. Tow floats are also useful for putting things in. They are not a safety device and you shouldn’t rely on them for resting on if you’re not capable of swimming a particular distance, as explained here on the OSS website. Some use a buoyancy aid, especially if swimming alone.

Many use goggles, and many choose to wear wetsuits. They give buoyancy and keep off some of the cold, but you need to bear in mind that you have to take them on and off and they don’t keep out all of the cold. You can wear a rash vest or leggings, neoprene tops, leggings or costumes, gloves, boots, socks or hats to help with the cold.

Some like to have thermometers to gauge the temperature each time they go. They vary in cost and accuracy, but their main point is to help you learn what temperatures you can cope with and for how long each time you swim. Some have sports watches to measure distance, or ordinary watches to check how long they are in the water. Phones in waterproof covers do all this, take photos, and are there for emergencies as well. There are a range of waterproof cameras and video cameras. Some prefer to just immerse themselves in nature unencumbered!


Changing outdoors is made easier by having some kind of changing mat and handy bag to put your clothes in, especially in cold and wet weather. There are a wide variety of changing robes. Some of these are very expensive, some not, or you can make your own.

The key is to have warm clothes to put on afterwards – at least one extra layer, and more as the weather cools. Easy to put on garments are best. It is also good to be warm before you swim, as you take longer to cool when you get in the water.

Risks of swimming

You can download my Note that outlines the key risks and explains how to avoid harm: Risks to health and safety of outdoor swimming, and how to mitigate them (Word.doc, 5 pages)


The key risks are covered in the note you can download from the link in the paragraph above, and in this article, https://www.imogensriverswims.co.uk/blog/issues/zcold-and-other-risks-of-swimming-more-info/

These are:

  • cold water shock. Entering cold water quickly can cause an uncontrollable sharp intake of breath, an increase in breathing rate and an increase in blood pressure. It typically lasts up to a couple of minutes. To avoid problems, enter the water gradually and wait until your breathing calms down before swimming off.
  • cold incapacitation. Staying in cold water for too long if not used to it can make muscles weaker, making it harder to get out or to swim back if you are a long way from the shore.
  • hypothermia. Can occur if staying in cold water too long, and potentially afterwards – see after drop.
  • after drop. This happens when you get out of the water and your core temperature continues to cool for up to 20-30 minutes. It can cause you to shiver a few minutes after you finish swimming, which is the body’s attempt to generate heat. The important thing is to get dry, dressed and warm quickly after swimming, ideally before the shivering starts. Warm drinks and moving around gently can help warm you up, https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/warming-up-after-drop/.

These techniques are very useful in responding to panic, including because of being cold – breathing out or floating on your back –

https://sacdt.com/blog/2012/01/swimmers-basic-guide-to-understanding-and-avoiding-hyperventilation-and-panic/; RNLI advice, Float to Live: https://www.respectthewater.com/


The Outdoor Swimming Society website article, Is It Clean?, https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/is-it-clean/, outlines the key issues about water quality, and suggests that you can generally tell whether water is clean enough you to swim.

Blue green algae is generally found in lakes and slow-moving rivers, and there are very few reports in the Breckland area. If you see it, it’s generally best to keep out of the water, though that’s not always necessary, https://www.lakedistrict.gov.uk/caringfor/policies/algae

Weil’s disease is rare but is worth being aware of and taking simple precautions. Cover any cuts with waterproof plaster, wash hands before eating, have a shower as soon as possible, and if you develop any flu-like symptoms within 4 weeks after swimming, see a doctor, tell them about swimming outdoors, and make sure they test for the infection. https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/understanding-weils-disease/

Pollution and bacteria. Bacteria can be present, especially after heavy rain, downstream from cattle grazing and water recycling (sewage) outfalls if not properly treated. It’s generally safest to stay out of these parts of rivers after heavy rain, and sometimes after a long dry spell. See https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/is-it-clean/

Swimmer’s itch is a rash usually caused by an allergic reaction to parasites that burrow into your skin while swimming or wading in shallow warm water. If you can, rinse with clean water after swimming and/or immediately briskly towel dry. https://outdoorswimmer.com/blogs/swimmers-itch


Be aware of the current, make sure you know how fast it is and where you can get out if swept down further than you expect, and don’t panic. Be aware of getting stuck in branches or other obstructions in a fast current, https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/currents-and-eddies/. Generally avoid weirs. Some can be relatively safe in summer but be very cautious, https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/understanding-weirs/


Be aware of weather conditions. Cold air temperatures, rain and wind affect water temperature, and can affect safety too; this page might be useful, https://www.imogensriverswims.co.uk/blog/issues/swimming-after-rain-and-in-bad-weather/


Look out for logs, branches, rocks, especially if you’re thinking of jumping into water or if you are travelling fast downstream. Be aware that you need to look every time you go.

Watch out for litter, especially abandoned fishhooks or sharp edges of cans or broken bottles. Shoes can help. Also look out for fishing hooks and lines tangled in branches.

Mud can be an issue. Try to find exit and entry points with a firm bottom.


Weeds are much overstated as a risk, but it is possible to get stuck in them. Don’t dive or jump into an area thick with weeds. If you are swimming and becoming entangled in weeds then stop moving your arms especially in a circular motion, but instead gently float downstream or use your feet to propel you. Try not to panic.

It is very rare for fish or other wildlife to be a problem. There are rare reports of pike mistaking fingers or toes dangling in the water for food, but most fish will steer well clear of humans.

Swans are much feared; but stories of them breaking arms are a myth. They have been known to behave aggressively toward swimmers, especially when they have cygnets (young) and if you get between a parent and its cygnets. Generally if you swim quietly past them you will not have a problem, and if they hiss at you either swim away, or stand up (literally) to them and they will generally back off.


Many people find they prefer to avoid weeds or take time to get used to them. Many fear fish, eels, harmless snakes such as grass snakes (which you can see swimming across the water sometimes). It is not at all unusual to fear what you can’t see under the water.

Familiarity helps to deal with these fears. Some like to swim with goggles or masks and snorkels and see all the interesting wildlife and plants underwater. Some like to embrace the touch of the variety of water plants. And some just learn to accept that being in a natural environment includes these.

If you fear being out of your depth and swimming across deep water, then consider staying in shallow water and build up your confidence and your capability to swim in deeper water. It is good advice if swimming in a lake or wide river to stay close to the shore unless you are confident that you can swim a distance and for a time in cool water. Cold incapacitation is a real risk, and panic can also be a problem. Build up gradually to meet these challenges.

Learn how to respond to panic, by breathing out or by floating on your back. https://sacdt.com/blog/2012/01/swimmers-basic-guide-to-understanding-and-avoiding-hyperventilation-and-panic/; RNLI advice, Float to Live: https://www.respectthewater.com/


The advice usually given is that it is generally better not to swim alone, and perhaps that is particularly true if you are just starting swimming outdoors. However, it is important to realise that each person takes responsibility for their own safety. Consider how likely it is that a problem might occur, and think about what difference having another person with you would make.

Many do swim alone and enjoy the peace and higher likelihood of seeing wildlife, and some have no alternative. They will generally be especially careful about assessing and not taking risks.

If you do swim alone, advice is often given that you should let somebody know where you are, how long you’ll be and to check in when you return, though some feel that this is problematic if they might choose on impulse to do a longer swim. It is also advised that you take a phone in a waterproof pouch.


What to do if someone is in trouble in the water – don’t jump in unless you are fully trained!

Instead immediately call for help, call 999 or 112 (each work the same), throw something or reach out with something they can grab onto, tell them to float on their back and try to talk them out of panicking. Make sure you know where you are so that you can tell the emergency services. What3Words is now considered the best way to do this – get the app on your phone. No data or phone signal is needed to check the location.

  1. Benefits of swimming

I mention the key benefits in this article, https://www.imogensriverswims.co.uk/blog/issues/zcold-and-other-risks-of-swimming-more-info/

Benefits are reported for physical and mental health, for example in this article about the benefits of swimming.

Swimming can help physical fitness, and because it is not weight bearing it can be done by people unable to do other activities. Many report eased pains and aches, reduced blood pressure, increased immunity to colds and other infections, and increased energy and general fitness.

There is growing evidence and there are many reports of improvements and benefits to their mental health, including reducing anxiety and stress, improving confidence and self-esteem.

Studies are being conducted on all of this – more detail in the article on my website. And studies will take place throughout all of the BFER projects including this one, with participants being asked to fill in questionnaires to help us understand these benefits.

Swimming is fun and enjoyable for all ages. It is affordable. It can provide a sense of community and bring people together who might not otherwise meet, or strengthen existing communities. Involving children and young people in swimming is a good way to get them active, and also to help them develop their understanding of how to deal with risk (more here https://playsafetyforum.wordpress.com/resources/ ). And there can be economic benefits, as well, bringing people to areas and using local cafes, car parks and other facilities. Swimming locally is more environmentally friendly than driving to the coast.

  1. Care for the environment

Biosecurity is about swimmers and other water users being careful not to spread invasive plants and animals between waterways, https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/spread-word-not-weed/

Outdoor swimmers generally have a very low impact on the environment, and most show sensitivity. The Outdoor Swimmers Code, https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/outdoor-swimmers-code/, advises swimmers on how to respect the environment, including avoiding particularly sensitive areas, and also how to respect local communities and people who live and work near the rivers.

Swimmers and local communities often get involved in litter picking and other ways of caring for the local environment or the place where they regularly swim. This can be done formally or informally, but it’s important to follow safety guidance.

Anti-social behaviour by a minority of visitors to our swimming places, especially this summer when there were larger numbers than usual and these included a number who seem not to have an understanding of how to respect natural rural spaces can have an impact on the local environment and community. Educating people is a key aim of this project, and the project is bringing together swimmers and landowners to find ways to maintain access while minimising the impact. These problems are partly caused by there being far too few places that people know they can go to and that are suitable for the numbers. Another part of the project is to look at access. We would like to discover and make available more suitable swimming spots for the growing numbers of people living in the area who want to enjoy the countryside and the rivers.

  1. Swimming with others; what swimming to do next

Local informal swim groups

The Facebook group, Outdoor Swimming in Breckland, https://www.facebook.com/groups/453608638711081/, is an ideal place to meet other swimmers and learn about swimming in the area. Many participants and would-be participants in the event have already joined and become active in the group. It allows people to arrange to meet up with more experienced swimmers who can show them places, pass on tips, and provide company and encouragement (especially valuable in the winter months). Swimming is always at your own risk, with no safety cover, and people expected to read up and ask advice in advance of swimming. Meets are in line with the latest Covid 19 guidance, of course, with limited numbers and appropriate distancing.

There are groups in other parts of East Anglia and beyond, most listed here https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/uk-wild-swimming-groups/, or you can make contact using the main Outdoor Swimming Society Facebook group.

Mental health swims

This is a new initiative, with hosts volunteering to arrange meets for people to swim, paddle or just come along. So far there are none in the Breckland area, but some in Norfolk, http://www.mentalhealthswims.co.uk/#home

Events and organised venues

Many people like the safety cover, reassurance and precision about distances provided by organised venues. There are no events or organised venues in the Breckland area at the moment, and very few in the wider area either. This was already a long-standing gap, and operating these has become more difficult under the current Covid 19 restrictions.

A good way to find out more about these is in Outdoor Swimmer, which also has an informative website and magazine, https://outdoorswimmer.com/find/venues.

The Outdoor Swimming Society also has information and runs events, https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/open-water-swimming-lake-directory/, https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/category/features/events/.

Under current rules you need to book, and in any case you should always check before travelling to a venue.

We plan to hold an organised swimming event within the project in 2022, to give local people the opportunity to take part in such an event.

Swimming into autumn/winter

There is no reason not to carry on as long as you feel comfortable. Acclimatising to the cooling water is easier if you go regularly, perhaps twice a month, as temperatures go down. You would shorten times in the water, perhaps put on more clothes such as gloves, and be well organised with warm clothes and ways to warm up afterwards. Be aware of weather conditions; this page might be useful, https://www.imogensriverswims.co.uk/blog/issues/swimming-after-rain-and-in-bad-weather/

This video on Autumn swimming for beginners gives advice, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nI2GY1UpU78, and this one talks about the benefits and how your body reacts and adapts to cold water https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pXLF0sucDU

Swimming techniques, longer swims and challenges

Signing up to swimming events can provide the sort of challenge some people find provides motivation to develop their swimming. There are winter challenges including the polar bear challenges https://polarbearchallenges.com/ , and the more relaxed Zeno swim club, https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/zenos-swim-club/ .

Do take notice of advice on cold water swimming, and remember not to let the challenge take priority over keeping yourself safe and respecting your own capabilities.

Improving your swimming is more difficult at the moment, with many pools closed and swimming teachers unable to operate. In normal times many swimming pools organise group or individual swimming tuition and have swimming clubs, and there are swimming coaches, including for open water.

Some join triathlon clubs, and there are several in the area.

Some join up with other swimmers and find that they motivate each other or learn from more experienced swimmers. The Facebook swim groups are a good place to do this.

  1. Other projects

You can read more about the wide range of BFER projects on the website projects page http://www.brecks.org/BFER/projects/, and can get in touch if you’d like to be involved in any of them.

One is 2.2 Tales from the River, which is gathering stories about experience of swimming and other outdoor recreation in the region in the past and present, while another, 2.3 Industrious Rivers looks at the working history. There are a wide range of projects about river heritage and history, conservation, access to river paths, and much more, with opportunities to be trained and to volunteer, including to carry out citizen science, river restoration, oral history interviewing and research.

The Brecks Fen Edge and Rivers Landscape Partnership Scheme (BFER) is a group of government and non-government agencies and interest groups working together to deliver a National Lottery Heritage Funded Landscape Partnership scheme. The Scheme is a collection of 24 innovative projects focusing on water related heritage & landscape, to be delivered by a wide range of partners. Read more at http://www.brecks.org/BFER/

Note compiled by Imogen Radford, Sept 2020. I have included information and advice that I believe to be accurate and helpful, but I take no responsibility for swimmers. All outdoor swimmers must be solely responsible for making their own assessment as to the risks of any sort of any particular swimming or related activity. And landowners/land managers need to do their own risk assessments.

Note provided as part of the Healing Waters project, part of BFER, http://www.brecks.org/BFER/; the scheme also takes no responsibility for information included in this note.

swims and swim places, and related issues