Small Glimmers and Silver Linings

I think it’s fair to say 2021’s been an odd year. I’ve found coming out of lockdowns as hard as going into them in some ways. It’s been great to have more freedoms again but I feel like I’ve forgotten how to socialise and be around people. Covid 19 is still very much here and I still struggle with the uncertainty of not knowing whether restrictions will come back and where people are in their covid emergence. 

Despite my feelings of another shitty year I’m always one to look for silver linings and for me there’s been a big one. We’ve seen a huge surge in the popularity of outdoor swimming during the pandemic. As an outdoor swim coach that’s good but there’s another bigger, more important reason why that’s a good thing. It means more feet on the ground wanting access to inland waters. More people questioning why we can’t swim in most waters away from the coast. More people ignoring no-swimming signs, either through sheer lack of understanding of the poor access we face or because they see the lack of logic in it and go in anyway. It’s been hugely comforting to see many others pose the same questions or thoughts that I’ve had for many years. It’s always nice to know you’re not alone!

As a kayaker for 25+ years, the lack of access to rivers, reservoirs and lakes has always been on my radar. British Canoeing (BC) have been campaigning for better access to inland waters for all that time but with little to no progress. That isn’t a criticism of BC, I know they and their army of volunteers have put their heart and soul into it but very little has shifted. Paddlesports pose additional complications over swimming in terms of access, there is more kit, the need to carry a heavy boat to the water. It takes a lot more effort and faff than rocking up at a body of water with just a cozzie and towel and discreetly slipping into the water. Swimming is far more accessible, it’s a simple, cheap and discrete pass time in comparison.  

This new increase in numbers has led to acceptance that outdoor swimming is a “thing”. It’s no longer seen as a niche pass time. The questions from passers-by at the water’s edge have shifted from “Should you be there?”, “Are you mad?” and “You have to get out” to “Did you have a nice swim” and “How can I join in”. No longer do I feel like the weirdo. As long as I choose my time and place well I’m unlikely to meet with conflict.

That acceptance isn’t just from the passer by either. Other water users are starting to realise we’re here to stay, we’re not trying to take over and we’re a socially responsible bunch. I think there has been an assumption by some that because many wild swimmers choose to walk by a no swimming sign we must be errant rule breakers and anti-social in all of our ways. Speak to any swimmer and you’ll realise that is blatantly untrue. Of course, there will always be a minority in any activity who create problems but in the round outdoor swimmers are a very friendly, sensible, thoughtful bunch. I don’t trespass to swim through errant naughtiness, I do so because I have no choice https://openwaterwheway.com/2020/06/21/breaking-the-law-to-swim/ With more and more people now taking part, the more power we have to prove this point.

Much credit to this locally in the Peak must go to the founders and admins of Sheffield Outdoor Plungers (SOUP) who have continually educated and encouraged swimmers to question no swimming policies. Nationally this has also come via the Outdoor Swimming Society’s inland access group. Through knowledge sharing, research and reasoned questioning they’ve enabled many to swim when they otherwise would not. Mild mannered civil trespass has proven to many landowners and water users that swimmers can be safe, responsible and a force for good. I am proud to be part of both of those groups and the wonderful things they do. It has created positive change in mindsets across swimmers, coaches and landowners.

A big milestone was reached this year when one of the major water companies started to engage with wild swimmers. Formerly the land of staunch no swimming policies, the actions of groups who encourage swimming where it is usually forbidden, has made the water companies stand up and take note.

One company deployed security guards across some of it’s reservoirs this summer, in part to manage anti-social behaviour (barbecues on moorlands and anti-social alcohol/drug consumption) but also to prevent swimmers from entering the water. What they found was far more swimmers than they expected, families enjoying picnics by the water, thousands and thousands of people enjoying the water without incident. And many swimmers walked past those security guards knowing full well all they could do was speak to them. They had no power to physically remove them. On the occasions that security guards called 999 call handlers often advised that they wouldn’t attend. The police do not deem outdoor swimmers an anti-social problem worthy of their time. It made them take note. Despite what they believed, they’ve come to realise they have little to no control.

This somewhat sensationalist article, the figures for which come from those security guards, made me smile. If you flip it on its head 8000 swimmers swam safely in reservoirs 😉 https://www.thestar.co.uk/news/dramatic-increase-in-swimming-in-reservoirs-with-8000-reports-despite-three-south-yorkshire-drowning-tragedies-3415943 When you consider that those security guards weren’t in attendance 24/7 and were moving around a select few bodies of water, those numbers are going to be a lot, lot higher in reality. Think of all those happy, content swimmers freed from the stress and pressure of our modern Covid tinged world as a result of immersing in natural waters.

The conversation with the water company in question is ongoing and in the early stages. There is much work to do. The water industry has concerns about swimming in reservoirs, it seems to be a deep-seated institutionalised fear that doesn’t appear to rely on a great deal of evidence. Try as I might, Google is yet to find me a “swimmer sucked down pipe in reservoir” incident from anywhere in the world. A world where most countries do not see the restrictions on water access we face in England. Where many reservoirs do not have no-swim policies. I am always happy to be proven wrong if the evidence can be provided so feel free to hit me with what you’ve got. Bear in mind though I’ve swum in many a reservoir over the last few years and have yet to experience any dangerous undercurrents and temperatures around freezing in summer months 😉

From a swimmers perspective reservoirs pose very low risk when compared to many other places we may choose to swim https://openwaterwheway.com/2021/06/29/sea-or-reservoir-which-one-might-be-safer/     and Owen Hayman’s article here https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/sixteen-reasons-reservoirs/ only serves to reinforce the pro’s for increasing access to reservoirs in particular. Our challenge now is to convince deeply institutionalised corporate entities of such.

What I hope has been achieved through discussions so far is the realisation that swimmers aren’t going away. Water companies, indeed many large landowners, with water bodies that are easily accessible from public footpaths cannot prevent swimmers from entering the water. There are simply too many swimmers and too much ground to cover.

For all these positive conversations conflict and resistence is still very much at play. Many fear reprimand for swimming. I don’t doubt that the huge surge in popularity of outdoor swimming would only be greater if we had free access to inland waters. Two particularly high profile cases of new restrictions came about this year, one at Kings College, Cambridge https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jul/05/kings-college-cambridge-reviews-ban-wild-swimming , another at RSPB St Aidens nr Leeds https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/people/st-aidans-nature-reserve-near-castleford-introduces-wild-swimming-ban-amid-safety-concerns-3309575

Both are well used swim spots attracting regulars as well as on a whim hot day dipper’s. The outcry at the introduction of restrictions has been huge, both landowners are reviewing their stance and some honest open conversations about access between swimmers and landowners is happening. Whilst the restrictions may be a short-term pain, they are leading to better long term understanding and discussion which can only be a good thing.

With 2022 on the horizon are we entering a beautiful new age where there is freedom to swim outdoors. Unconstrained by walls. Away from the tile induced echoing noise of a busy pool. Only the voice of an accompanying swimmer, the lapping of the water, the honk of a goose, rustling of leaves, the prehistoric squawk of a heron. Time will tell, I live in hope. One thing is clear though, in this game numbers makes a difference. The more of us who challenge, question, prove via action that wild swimming is OK the more headway we’re going to make. For those of you who already trespass to swim, keep up the good work. For those who haven’t been too sure to date, have a think and see if you can find a clear way to support better access for all. And everyone, whether they swim all year or only dip on those long summer days, can send an email to your MP, councillor, water company, local large landowner to question their stance. That too can make a difference.

I’ll be talking to Nick Hayes, author of the Book of Trespass in March about water and wider countryside access via the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival. There’ll be plenty of scope to ask questions and suggestions of how you can help support the fight for better inland water access. Please come and join us if you can, you can register for free here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/shaff-online-nick-hayes-the-access-chat-tickets-219385155907?aff=ebdsoporgprofile

2 Replies to “Small Glimmers and Silver Linings”

  1. A lovely well written piece. However one sided.

    Land owners and Site Managers also have legitimate concerns. Allowing activities on your land, opening to the public raises the issue of Public Liability insurance, the need for Health & Safety risk assessments, thereafter for ‘safety to be managed’. So a bunch of trouble, risk to be managed, and risk of HSE prosecution should anyone come to harm. All that and no reward – where’s the monetary reward for taking such responsibility / risk? Worse – who knows what litter, damage strange people will bring – and who’s going to pay for that? Anyone who runs a business fronting to the public knows exactly what I’m talking about – these are the stepping stone considerations, there’s a whole bunch of legislation and prosecution history to back this up.

    Now imagine a water company – a very traditional industry, the H&S risk assessments stamped in for time immemorial, no funds to manage or oversee occasional reservoir visitors, the possibility of a dead body in the source of drinking water and the publicity that goes with that, not to mention being dragged into court by HSE for not preventing harm to site users. Altogether easier to understand why water companies simply say ‘no’, and attempt to use trespass laws to keep the public at bay.

    Wild swimmers, themselves should also be upfront to acknowledge there is a real problem of people who get themselves into trouble, sometimes drowning, because they do not know how to swim, or can only swim with limited confidence. Every summer a spate of drowning and near misses, mainly – but not only – teenage boys.

    So there is much to face up to, and interesting questions – how does the law in Scotland work – that allows reservoirs to be open? How does ‘right to roam’ work in Scandinavia that allows access without land owners fearing prosecution? While mass trespass is notable, likely it is change in legislation which will settle matters…

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    1. Absolutely Steve! That’s why this year has been so important. The act of trespass has forced landowners to engage so that we can all understand each others side. Until this year any approaches were always met with instant rebuttals. What the last couple of years has done is take away the choice from many landowners. It’s not practical or permitted to fence off all of their land (water companies for example have to provide access for recreation under the 1990 Water Act) so they’re having to learn how to manage the people who access it, whether that’s via rangers, security, better education. A lot of the issues of course come down to poor education on the countryside code which most under 40’s have never even heard of. Much work has been done by the OSS and others to better understand those corporate and H&S risks for landowners even before this year. This article looks at the reality further https://www.imogensriverswims.co.uk/blog/issues/landowner-liability-and-swimmers/. The Visitor Safety Group have also pulled together excellent guidance for landowners on outdoor swimming this year in light of the large increase in participation we’ve seen. Sadly it’s a paid for document which is why I can’t share here. It has however looked in detail at the legal risk profile of swimming for landowners and comes out with a much more positive conclusion than the average landowner assumes. For info the VSG is made up of various representatives of large landowners, including water companies so it’s not biased towards swimmers. ROSPA, The Fire Chiefs Council and the wider Water Safety Forum all publicly now recognise that simply telling people to keep out doesn’t keep them safe. Those most at risk are those least likely to take note of no swimming policies. What we actually need is better education across society on water use. Part of the issue here is that we’ve been told for ~40 years that water is dangerous, people stopped swimming outdoors, an entire society then lost all the basic skills necessary to do so. As a coach, I teach both children and adults to swim outdoors and the level of basic understanding in the adult population never fails to surprise me. Parents don’t have the basic knowledge to educate their children and there’s only so much the very limited school swimming curriculum can achieve. I also face continual barriers to be able to deliver practical water safety sessions, I can’t coach wherever I want and the hoops I have to jump through to do so are extensive. Many people have abandoned it as a result. Better access would mean these kind of sessions can be delivered more widely and cut a hole in that vicious cycle. As far as Scotland goes the Land Reform Act simply took away Scottish Water’s ability to restrict access to their reservoirs. Legislation’s absolutely what we need here but I can’t see happening with our current government. Scandinavia just has a far longer, more historic approach to outdoor activity in all ways. This is a useful read https://visitsweden.com/what-to-do/nature-outdoors/nature/sustainable-and-rural-tourism/about-the-right-of-public-access/. Both Scotland and Sweden’s way come with responsibility on the individual too. Here’s to a brighter 2022!

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