If you are one of the growing numbers enjoying the fun, freedom and adventure of open water swimming, you may, like me, feel that access to our local waterways is as much a part of our birthright as is access to a local park or footpath. For this reason I can’t help but feel incensed when someone has the audacity to put up a ‘no swimming’ sign at a well loved and comparatively safe bathing place. To wild swimmers, the arrival of a ‘no swimming’ sign equates to being forcibly evicted from ones home, even if officials insists that they are doing it for our own good.
Swimmers have come in for more than their fair share of prejudice throughout British history. Well meaning non swimmers have been quick to marginalise and discredit what amounts to a simple, innocuous pleasure. The latest threat to summertime freedom has arisen in the guise of a merger of the powers that be, when it comes to our waterways. In Scotland, throughout Europe and America, outdoor swimming is accepted, encouraged and enjoyed by all who care to wash away their worries in the sparkling waters closest to their homes. In England we have experienced a mixed response to what is to us a comparatively new trend; escaping from chlorinated confinement and returning to swim in the wilds of the glorious English countryside. Wild swimming guides point us in the right direction to bathing places well away from the disapproving gaze of officials. The Environment Agency have been sympathetic to those preferring to paddle and swim in our aquatic landscape, as opposed to standing on the bank for hours waiting for a fish to take the bait. On the other hand British Waterways stand as guardian of our canal system and insist that aquatic pedestrians keep out of their fiefdom, leaving waters clear for any boats that happen past, however infrequently.
In my home town of Leicester the canalised river was once home to thousands who took a daily dip prior to this change of thinking on the part of the canals custodians. In fact, it was upon discovery of a police notice asking for assistance in preventing crime on the canal side that I decided to publish: Hung Out to Dry. The appeal for witnesses to anti-social behaviour such as vandalism and motorcycle use I could well understand, but to include on the list, children seen swimming in the canal, and such being labelled as ‘criminals’, I found hard to stomach and so Hung Out to Dry found its way (albeit through a maze of complications) into print.
Considering its track record, there is no wonder that swimmers up and down the country were aghast to hear that from April this year the Environment Agency and British Waterways were to merge, and more to the point, British Waterways were to be put firmly in the driving seat. Would this be the end for wild swimming in England? Well it could have been. Thankfully though, with the growth of the Outdoor Swimming Society, and with the publication and wide distribution of wild swimming guides, it was never going to be plain sailing to ride roughshod over the growing number of educated people that relish the pleasure of swimming outdoors. Roger Deakin’s Waterlog remains a best seller and articles extolling the joys of wild swimming regularly grace the pages of broad sheets and red tops alike. Wild swimmers are now in the public eye and perhaps it is time to reconsider their rights.
The growing number of outdoor swimmers could give the impression that freedom and justice for all swimmers reigns countrywide. Yet the big ‘stick of authority’ has not been consigned to the museum. In Leicester, for example, No Swimming is the order of the day and, despite my best efforts, I had just better get use to it. Yet in Sparth, Huddersfield, attempts to get officials to see things from the swimmers point of view have found a very different response. At the end of August, British Waterways brought an end to years of peaceful coexistence with the swimming community by erecting a No Swimming sign at the beauty spot. Swimmers have bathed here since the 1870s, and British Waterways had knowingly allowed swimming to continue up to the midsummer of last year. Since the sign has been erected though, the status of swimmers has changed, the waters were deemed ‘dangerous’, and swimmers labelled ‘foolish’ and ‘irresponsible.’ A Facebook group soon attracted over 200 members through which the long history of Sparth swimming emerged. The ‘Save Sparth Swimming’ Campaign Leader, Fiona Weir will bring you up to date on just what has been going on if you visit this link to the Outdoor Swimming Society web page.
Remarkable as it may seem, this sign and the ensuing controversy could well make possible the biggest step towards liberty for swimmers in living memory. Of course British Waterways are not going to welcome swimmers throughout their dominion, but they did take the objections presented by the Sparth group seriously at a meeting in October. British Waterways sent the Regional Manager and the Head of Health and Safety for the whole country along as representatives and have since publicly stated: ‘We are looking at increasing access and are hopeful that our work with the Sparth swimmers will be a model of how we can allow greater access.’ A second meeting in January was very positive indeed and it is hoped that by the start of the swimming season in May, the No Swimming signs can be replaced with information boards and swimmers legally returned to this inland oasis.
The plan suggested by the group includes the education of children through local schools, which will do much to allay fears for the safety of the youngsters that so love the place. Up until now, water safety education has been considered unnecessary. Telling children never to swim in open waters may make sense in theory, in practice it is no more effective that assuming that youths will avoid teenage experimentation if just told to do so. Although health education has moved on from thinking that ignorance is bliss, we have a long way to go when it comes to educating children as to where and how to swim safely in the great outdoors. Needless to say swimming at well attended bathing places such as Sparth does much to protect youngsters. Adults provide a measure of security and families set an example when it comes to enjoying water safely. Actively restricting access to safe swimming areas pushes youngsters out of sight and into danger as they disperse to swim in lonely waters elsewhere.
Whatever the ultimate decision, the growing number of wild swimmers has found a voice and envoy in the form of the Outdoor Swimming Society. The books: Wild Swimming, Wild Swim and Hung Out to Dry, were coincidentally all published in 2009, yet 2012 could well become the year of the wild swimmer. Although our future lies in the balance, it is encouraging to note that this year for the first time swimmers could be encouraged to use Rutland Water as a swimming Mecca. Perhaps if British Waterways continue to listen to sensible swimmers, 2012 will be remembered, not only as the year that the Olympic Games came to London, but as the year that swimmers were set free!