Right to Swim trespass: in Bawsey lakes Sept’23

Local outdoor swimmers and Right to Roam activists decided to gather for a swim trespass at Bawsey pits 23 September 2023. We found a family enjoying the beach at Brickyard lake on a sunny day. What they said and did perfectly illustrated the issues we wanted to raise with the swim trespass – we need access to inland waters and that swimming can be done safely and responsibly – the best way for all to learn about open water to keep themselves safe, and have fun!

A boy of about eight or nine was having fun splashing about in the shallows, and because he couldn’t swim he stayed within his depth. He was picking up beer bottle lids, so he could put them in the litter bin. His big sister was also in the water, and she made sure that he knew where the beach shelved to deeper water. She then spent 20 minutes teaching him to swim, and the pride and delight when he managed to do a doggy paddle all on his own was wonderful to see. He shouted to his mum and dad – look, I can swim! They had a dachshund dog which was keen to run into the water, but they explained that earlier he had gone into deeper water, wasn’t very good at swimming and started to get cold and to sink, so they scooped him out and wouldn’t let him go in again. I explained that this was probably swim failure or cold incapacitation, and that it can affect humans too. The big sister spent some time floating in an inflatable ring, and saying how lush the water was and that she felt close to nature. Mum got in, too, and also floated about enjoying the water. Even dad who was initially reluctant paddled in the shallows, along with the little girl. The boy was impressed with Amy’s swimming up and down the length of the lake, and said he wanted to learn to do that as well. The whole family was having fun and clearly understood how to be sensible and safe in the water.

This is exactly how families can introduce their children to open water in a safe and responsible way, learning how different lakes are to a swimming pool – the temperatures lower, the potential for sloping shelf into deeper water, the need to be able to swim before going out of your depth, and also how lovely and enjoyable it is.

Family on a beach with lake, golden sand, clear green water and wooded cliffs
Family on the beach with No Swimming sign, Brickyard lake

The lake is within a country park, open to the public and crossed by a public footpath. There is access to the land, but according to the lake managers not to the water. I don’t know whether this family had seen all the signs telling them to stay out, or whether they decided that they were mean and meaningless. The family were not perfect. When we came back later on in a bigger group, the boy’s impressive sandcastle was decorated with the beer bottle caps and a couple of cans, and there were a few more pieces of litter which we picked up and put in the bin. I don’t know whether they had to leave in a hurry – turfed out by a warden, perhaps?

However this also illustrates that when responsible visitors and swimmers are welcomed they often pick up litter – as we did – which will help the land manager and can influence others who do not necessarily always respect outdoor spaces as much as everyone would like. Read more about Wild Swimming and Access.

12 of us swam and paddled in the Brickyard lake on this day, as a deliberate swim trespass by local swimmers and Norfolk right to roam group members to make the point that we need access to inland waters and that swimming can be done safely and responsibly – the best way for all to learn about open water to keep themselves safe, and have fun! The water temperature was 18.1 degrees and the pH in the neutral range.

Swimmers in the lake, including a young boy
Right to Swim activists enjoying the water, aged 11-65

This open access is available to the two lakes in South Norfolk (also previously sand quarries) where the landowner takes a very different attitude – they have done a risk assessment, decided that people can swim at their own risk, and do not spend time and energy trying to stop them, but instead welcome the regular swimmers who pick up litter, report issues and influence the summer swimmers by being responsible. Many now swim all year round, and their presence has led to a reduction in antisocial behaviour. Those lakes are enjoyed by thousands of people every year.

At Bawsey, by contrast, the landowner seeks to do the impossible – to stop people swimming in such lovely water – and instead festoons a beautiful environment with garish and aggressive signage, shouting messaging, and an attitude that is counter-productive and unnecessary. We know from behavioural theory that being negative and putting across the message that swimming is dangerous can lead people to more unsafe and irresponsible behaviour.

People with banners Go Swimming under No Swimming sign
Right to Swim activists

We need more places to access for the popular, healthy, affordable, safe and enjoyable activity of outdoor swimming. The lake is in an area of West Norfolk that is poorly served with inland swim spots. The sea is less safe than swimming inland and often unsuitable due to tides or weather, while lakes have far fewer risks.

Swimming outdoors is not risk free, and this location does have some risks, however it is more effective to give people useful and accurate information on water and swimming safety

Specific information about this location, https://www.imogensriverswims.co.uk/blog/places/bawsey-pits/, and in more detail on risks, www.imogensriverswims.co.uk/blog/issues/risks-and-myths-at-bawsey-lakes/. Note that there are two lakes; this article focuses on the Brickyard lake in particular.

Entering the water is not illegal, though it could be construed as trespass which is a civil matter. More detail on access and legality of swimming here, https://www.imogensriverswims.co.uk/blog/issues/access-guide/ and here, https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/is-it-legal/.

Photos from Right to Swim trespass Bawsey Brickyard lake 230923, https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAVZgz

ten swimmers standing in lake with placards "Go Swimming"

Photo above and Report by The Ward, photo journalist, on Facebook

A video we did for tik tok, thanks for recording Lisa T-stardust: see video on my Facebook timeline.

screenshot of video, three standing (one boy, two women) with filmer, in from of lake, with Go Swimming placard

We gathered here on the same day that the National Right to Roam campaign was crossing the Scotland-England border to show the absurdity of the system in England that severely restricts access to nature, in contrast to Scotland where the presumption is access along with responsible behaviour.

Family on a beach with lake, golden sand, clear green water and wooded cliffs, distant view
Family on the beach and in the water, Brickyard lake