Can I swim here?

The beauty of outdoor swimming is immersing yourself in nature. So, when you come across a lovely spot, you might wonder if you can take a dip. But can you?


This is Abbotts Pool in Abbotts Leigh just south of Bristol. It's a beauty spot and a nature reserve, and during the heatwave, it became an attractive place for people to swim. But this prompted pleas from local nature conservationists for swimmers to stay away.


Our impact on nature is just one of many considerations when choosing a place to swim. Others are water quality, tides and currents, accessibility, and legality. In this blog post, I'll look at all these factors so that you can make a more informed choice about where you swim.




Accessibility

I yawn when someone says the words 'risk assessment'. To me, it feels like the very antithesis of being wild and free. And yet, we all make subconscious risk assessments whenever we swim, using our senses to appraise the swimming spot. One of the first things that we notice is how easy it is to get in, and more importantly, out of the water.

  • Accessibility varies from person to person depending on our physical ability. But, we all need to consider how we can safely enter the water without just jumping in, and how we'll exit when we've finished swimming. Points to bear in mind are:

  • a point for making a slow, steady entry as jumping in might cause cold water shock

  • any debris under the surface, including plant growth or litter

  • a gradual exit point unencumbered by plant growth, tree roots etc.

Water quality

There's another quick assessment we make with our eyes and often our noses too, and that's the quality of the water. How clear is it? Does it smell? Are there any obvious sources of pollution nearby, such as sewage outlets or litter? What is the surrounding area like, rural, urban, farmland? We might also look for signs that the water is of good quality, such as living creatures and plants in the water, whether the water is free-flowing or stagnant, and whether there's any sign of potentially harmful algae.


But, water quality isn't always easy to read. It's worth using online resources to find out more, such as the Surfers Against Sewage Safer Seas service that rates coastal bathing water and warns of pollution incidents. River swimmers can use a similar map devised by the Rivers Trust. The Environment Agency is another good source of information about local pollution and water quality.


If you do decide to swim, it's always worth practising good hygiene afterwards:

  • wash your hands or use hand santiser before you eat

  • have a shower as soon as you can

  • refine your swimming technique so that you don't swallow water

  • wear goggles and earplugs if you swim with your head in the water

Tides and currents

Again, this can be obvious: fast-moving water and big waves are easy to spot. But, as most of us know, the most dangerous currents and tides can be the ones that we can't see.


Riptides and fast-moving tides, like those at Clevedon, can be dangerous. A strong swimmer who was unfamiliar with Clevedon recently got swept out of the marine lake by an overtopping tide and taken down the estuary where he had to be rescued. In places like Clevedon, nothing beats local knowledge, so asking local swimmers and checking local information such as signs and websites can be key.


There's also a rather lovely book called How to Read the Water by Tristan Gooley that helps you learn how to spot riptides and eddies, and describes how rivers and streams behave.



The natural world

It is always worth thinking about your impact on the ecosystems in which you are an intruder. In any swimming spot, your presence is an alien invasion; your body moisturiser and sunscreen, your size and movements, the noise you make and what you leave behind.


With this in mind, be considerate of how you swim and keep your impact small and unobtrusive. Your presence need not upset the environment providing that you're mindful, keeping away from nesting birds or those with young, making sure you're as clean as possible, not urinating in the water, and not leaving any trace behind when you leave.


Swimming in nature reserves is not a good idea; these areas have been developed as a haven for wildlife, and so they are teeming with species that may be disrupted by your swim.


Is it legal?

So, with all this in mind, is it legal to swim wherever you want to? The short answer is that it usually is, yes. Any water where boats are allowed, people are allowed to swim. That includes the sea, rivers, and lakes.


If it's legal to swim, it may not be legal to access the water from a bit of privately-owned land such as private beaches or farmland. Some lakes are also privately-owned, including reservoirs where you definitely are not allowed to swim; most reservoirs explicitly out-law swimming. If an angling club owns fishing rights, it only owns the right to fish and not the water itself.


If you swim, it's worth knowing your rights and being prepared to stick up for yourself if challenged by an angler or boat owner. While it's important to be safe and respectful of other water users, it's also worth bearing in mind that swimmers have as much right to enjoy the water as anyone else.


As outdoor swimming grows in popularity, it is being recognised more and more for its health and wellbeing benefits. You may find the increasing number of people in your favourite swimming spots disconcerting, and you may worry about their safety and the impact of more swimmers, but, on the flip side, greater numbers means more investment in water quality improvements, resources and better access for everyone.


It's down to us to lead by example. Swim responsibly, be part of the natural environment and support it, support campaigns for better water quality, stay safe and help others stay safe too.