Breaking The Law…………To Swim

I hate confrontation. I always have. The threat of a telling off was enough to keep me in line as a child both at home and school. I never had a detention or a red card. As I’ve got older I’ve become braver but I’m still very much a rule follower. I take risks but they’re always, always very well thought through and assessed in my head. A lot of the watery risks I take are based on years of experience in, on and around water.

Many of the risks I take can be wholly mitigated but there is one which I take on a regular basis, one which I cannot mitigate against, one which regularly takes the joy out of swimming outside due to the confrontation it so often creates…………….

I often walk past such signs when I swim. I don’t ignore them because I’m a criminal genius who gets a kick out of breaking the rules. I don’t do it because it makes a funny photo. I don’t do it because I want to annoy other water users or landowners. I do it because I often have no choice.

So, as a rule follower why do I do it? Because in England public access rights to inland water are incredibly limited. A vast amount of the population don’t understand that. Head to the coast and it’s by and large fair game, go for your life but, if like me, you don’t live by the beach you’re stymied.

I’ve been exposed to this since my teens. As a kayaker we were regularly restricted by where we could paddle. Travelling hours to find a stretch of water we could legally paddle on. Often only over winter, sometimes only for a couple of days a year.

The same now applies to me when I swim, even in the UKs first national park where the famous mass trespass on Kinder Scout created a change in attitude that finally allowed access to the countryside for the general public rather than making it the sole playground of the land owning elite.

On my home turf people have the freedom to walk, cycle, run, horse ride etc. entirely free of charge and without threat of confrontation and the classic “ger off my laaaand” moment. It’s why we moved out to this beautiful place after all.

But such freedom and legislation relating to water has never come to England. There have been many iterations and opportunities within countryside access legislation to make that change but they have never been taken. Scotland meanwhile has a longer history of public land and water access which was even more firmly embedded in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. I can swim pretty much where I like up there. The only caveat in Scotland is that you behave responsibly. What a sensible, practical approach 🙂

As for the rest of Europe, well I don’t know the ins and outs of the legalities but many, many European nations enjoy much greater freedom to inland waters. Swimming outside is very much a part of everyday culture in many of our European counterparts.

So who says I can’t swim?

The landowner.

Whoever that landowner may be, quite rightly, have the right to refuse access to their land. I wouldn’t want someone walking through my back garden whilst I’m playing out with my kids.

But the countryside isn’t someone’s back yard. It’s a natural environment, why should one person or large corporation or trust have that all to themselves. That’s what the Kinder mass trespass changed. Public rights of way and Access Land now provide access over much privately owned land in England.

But use of water on such land  has been and still is specifically excluded (Countryside Rights Of Way Act 2000). That’s why when you walk around a beautiful reservoir or lake or river in many parts of England you’ll see “no swimming” or “no bathing” signs. There are exclusions to this standard in some areas but these are few and far between.

In this blog I’m not going to write about why that happens. Why landowners may choose to restrict access to the water on their land would make this into a long winded complex entry when I want this to be a simple “this is how it is” kind of post. I do plan to talk about that on another day though 😉

What I will talk about here though is what the landowner can or cannot do if you choose to ignore those signs and take a dip anyway. Much of my understanding here has come from extensive research undertaken by the Outdoor Swimming Society and other organisations and is all publicly available online. I am not legally trained and you should do your own research to satisfy yourself of the position. This is purely a summary of information already available.

If you step onto someone’s land without their permission you are trespassing, that is clear. However, trespass, unless it becomes aggravated e.g. force is required by police officers to remove you, it falls within civil rather than criminal law. When such trespass falls within civil law it is solely the landowner’s responsibility to take action against the trespasser. Pursuing a civil case costs the landowner money. I shall leave that there for you to decide as to whether a landowner may pursue a case…………….

The article below from the Outdoor Swimming Society summarises things well. Particularly where inland waters are accessible from public rights of way………..which so many are. Of particular note though is the fact that no-one owns the water, only the river or lake or reservoir bed can be owned. I see no point in re-inventing the wheel so have a read yourself

In summary access to inland waters in England is poor. Whenever anyone asks me if where I swim is allowed my honest answer is sadly usually “no”. It’s frustrating beyond comprehension and prevents thousands of people gaining physical and mental health benefits from water………you don’t need to delve far into my blog to see the benefits I gain from it. There are organised venues which offer formal swimming but for many they just don’t hit the spot of a quick convenient dip or the solitude of nature.

Campaigns and discussions are happening on many fronts on this but only time will tell if we can make a change to these restrictive water rules that impact on such a growing and much loved outdoor activity.


7 Replies to “Breaking The Law…………To Swim”

  1. Where abouts do you live? I live in north east in Darlington and I very rarely see no swimming signs. There are loads of places along the Tees that are great for swimming and if I want to venture a bit further the Yorkshire Dales, Durham Dales and Lake District have plenty of lovely spots for a dip. There are also a few lakes that charge entry if you’re into that kind of thing, but being a yorkshireman by birth I obviously prefer to swim for free 😂
    The only place I’ve seen no swimming signs tend to be the dangerous places which seems understandable (although whether they actually are not I’ve no idea).


    1. Hi Jamie, I’m in the Peak District. Things do indeed seem to be easier the further north you go. Much of the swimming I do is in reservoirs and whilst they have been pedalled as dangerous places to swim they are in fact as safe, if not safer, than many other waters as long as you take sensible precautions (which you should in any other type of water too!). I’ll talk about that on a another entry. I was also born and raised in Yorkshire, perhaps it explains my resentment at having to pay too 😉


  2. That sign could be interpreted to mean “no swimming”, but as it shows someone doing front crawl, it could also be interpreted as meaning “no front crawl”, so as long as you swim breast stroke, backstroke or butterfly, you should be fine 🙂


  3. Salford Quays are near to me, I would like the freedom to be able to take early morning swims, swimming clubs are able to use the water but there are signs up prohibiting swimming ……it seems it is ok to swim in groups but not allowed individually, how is this legally enforceable?


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