Our rivers are like the veins running through the land. They bring life, connect people, places and the natural world, inspire and sustain cultures and different ways of life. Rivers are a way of life for many outdoor swimmers. So, how can we best look after them?
Finding a swim spot
Finding a river to swim in can be pretty daunting. There are lots of factors to consider – water quality, safety and legalities, as well as considering your own impact on the environment, wildlife and other river users.
Fortunately, as outdoor swimming grows in popularity so do the number of resources to help you swim safely in rivers. And, as more and more swimmers get to know and love rivers, the pressure on government to do something about their health also grows.
The first thing to consider is your legal right to access a river. In Scotland, you can legally swim in rivers as part of the Scottish right to responsible access. In England and Wales, it’s more complicated and depends on access rights to the land next to the river.
Rivers are governed by ‘riparian rights’ meaning that the landowner owns the banks and the river bed, but not the water. For us swimmers, it means that a landowner has the right to stop you from getting to the water by crossing their land. While many landowners encourage or tolerate people swimming in their rivers, some don’t. If you’re ever challenged, always be polite and leave. Your best bet is to find a spot used regularly by other swimmers, a designated swimming spot, or somewhere off a public footpath where you can dip discreetly.
Once you’ve found a spot, do a dynamic risk assessment of the conditions that face you that day. Check for signs of pollution like litter and bad smells, and look for hazards like weeds and debris in the water. Notice the river’s flow and depth, and make sure you can easily get in – and more importantly – out. The Rivers Trust’s river safety routine has some great tips on this.
Think about wildlife, too. Avoid nature reserves and areas where water fowl nests, and be courteous to other people enjoying the river like kayakers and fisher-people.
Do your bit
If you love swimming in rivers, you might be interested in how you can take action to support their health. There are lots of ways in which you can get involved, from testing the water where you swim to supporting campaigns for better water quality.
“We’ve got lots of problems in our rivers,” says Michelle Walker from the Rivers Trust. “Only a very small number of them are in healthy condition – only about 14%. A lot of the problem is coming from sewage and also from farm run-off as well.”
The Rivers Trust is supporting local outdoor swimming groups to apply to the government for Inland Bathing Water status. This would require water companies to stop sewage pollution upstream of the swimming site making the water quality safer for recreational use. There’s only one river in the UK that currently has Inland Bathing water status, and that’s the River Wharfe in Yorkshire.
Other than supporting the Rivers Trust, you can use its free sewage map to detect any sewage spills upstream of your swimming spot. And you can also sign up to test the water quality where you swim – find your local group here.
You can also put pressure on your MP. If you see a pollution incident, report it. And write to your MP to tell them how important outdoor swimming is for you, and therefore how important it is to clean up rivers and protect our entire ecosystem.
Should we be swimming in rivers?
Rivers are a delicate and important ecosystem, and swimmers often worry about their impact on them. But, so long as we’re sensitive to these environments and enjoy them thoughtfully, us swimmers can have a huge positive impact on their future.
“You’ve just got to take your own judgement into account,” says Michelle. “There are so many benefits of swimming outdoors and being in nature. And if we make our rivers a no-go zone, nobody’s going to care about them and nobody’s going to notice when the wildlife goes. We need to fight to protect it.”
Top tips for river swimming:
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