People Are Flocking to British Rivers and Lakes to Swim

This raises urgent questions about ownership and stewardship.

swimmers in a British river
People escape from the heat by swimming in the River Medway as record temperatures of 28.6 degrees centigrade are registered elsewhere in England, on August 26, 2019.

Leon Neal / Getty Images

When the weather is hot, nothing feels quite so wonderful as submerging oneself in cool water. So it should not come as a surprise that Britain's waterways are filling up with overheated humans looking for a chance to cool off this summer. With public pools still closed, due to the coronavirus, and many beaches overcrowded or too far to access easily, rivers and lakes have suddenly become hot spots for "wild swimming." 

The BBC reports that many people are exploring Britain's "blue spaces" for the first time: "The Canal & Rivers Trust, British Canoeing, the Outdoor Swimming Society and the Angling Trust all report a surge in interest during lockdown and after the easing of restrictions began." In some places, visitors have outnumbered local residents 28 to one. 

The UK's Outdoor Swimming Society had to take down its online crowd-sourced map of top wild swimming spots, due to a tremendous surge in interest that was overwhelming the locations. Kate Rew told the Guardian,

"Local swim spots and beauty spots are struggling in England right now – as one of the limited things people can do outdoors. Small villages and beauty spots are being overtaken." 

Adding to the complexity of the problem is the fact that most UK waterways (95%) are privately owned. Landowners own the riverbank, as well as into the center of the river, which means that anyone swimming through is technically trespassing. There is no English (or American) equivalent of Scotland's famous 2003 "right to roam" rule, which allows people to roam over privately-owned land and water because "the public's right to nature supersedes the landowners' right to exclude them." In Britain, unless you have permission to be in or on the water, you're likely breaking the law.

Many people would like this to change, hence a campaign to open waterways to the general public that's currently being reviewed in parliament. Amendments to the Agriculture Bill seek to "encourage farmers and landowners to allow the public better rights of access to rivers [and] it could see those who allow that access qualifying for government funding."

There is debate over what this would do to wild waterways. Obviously there would be many happy individuals who could now dip, paddle, and float without fear of repercussion; but with increased numbers comes increased damage. Humans can be a nasty bunch, generating enormous quantities of trash and contaminating sensitive waterways with their sunscreens and hair products. Then there's the issue of human waste, when people are spending hours hanging out in the wilderness without bathroom facilities; this isn't an issue when it's just a few individuals, but if a crowd gathers it does become a problem. 

Johnny Palmer, who owns a weir (a low dam built across a river), told the BBC that he's had to deal with all sorts of messes and trash from visitors, but that he ultimately supports the opening of waterways to the public. 

"People protect what they love. It's been difficult, but we have changed the culture here. There is a lot less littering. People respect the place more."

He makes a good point. The more time people spend in nature, the more they grow to love it; and with that love comes a deepening respect, which translates to a fierce desire to care for something. How else do we work toward fostering that connection with the natural world if access to it is blocked? It's like wishing people would read more, while barring them from libraries.

For those people fortunate enough to visit wild swimming spots, it's important to understand a few basic rules that will help preserve the spot and lower one's impact.

  • Follow the 7 principles of Leave No Trace, which include disposing of waste properly and leaving what you find. Women, consider buying a Kula cloth to avoid leaving toilet paper behind.
  • Consider not sharing pictures on social media, and certainly not geo-tagging the location, in order to prevent overcrowding. I wrote several years ago, "Geotagging specific locations on social media remains a faux pas, as it can spell destruction."
  • Avoid wearing chemical-based sunscreens, body oils, antiperspirant, and leave-in hair products that could wash off into the water and harm fragile ecosystems – and never, ever use soap to wash your body in a lake or river, even if it claims to be biodegradable soap.