With the warmest February day on record reminding us that long, sunny days are just around the corner, everyone is thinking about getting outdoors and enjoying everything that’s great about the British summer. One of the biggest growth areas in outdoor activities over the past couple of years has been ‘wild’ swimming. As splash-happy kids and adults turn away from the mundane lane slogging of public swimming baths and go in search of watery adventures, they’re naturally drawn to the rivers, lakes and beaches of the UK.
We are fortunate to have some truly stunning spots in the UK, and our water quality is much higher than in many other parts of the world. Generally, (and as long as there’s no natural issues such as farm/field run-off or blue-green algae blooms) rivers and lakes are usually fairly safe to swim in without the risk of catching any nasty diseases. But one thing to bear in mind is that these rivers, lakes and reservoirs are someone’s responsibility, and the land you’re going across is rarely what could be termed ‘public access’ land. So, if you are packing up your DryRobe and your water shoes, grabbing your costume and your swimming goggles and heading off into the great outdoors, what are your responsibilities? And what happens if things go wrong?
Public access – are you allowed to wild swim?
We may have some tempting diving-in points all over the UK, but unlike places such as Scotland, there is only a legal right to access the water in some English and Welsh rivers, not all. So, bear in mind that you may not have right of access to that secret spot you think you’ve discovered. Most swimming spots are based on longstanding tradition or have been used for generations as a swimming spot. You’ll usually find these close to footpaths and public rights of way.
If a lake or river is on private land, then you certainly don’t have the right to access without the landowner’s permission.
What about National Parks and Forestry Commission land?
Under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, you do have an extensive ‘right to roam’ across some land, which means some rivers and lakes are now within reach. However, this still doesn’t give you the right to access the water itself. On some rivers there are laws that allow ‘public navigation’ which includes swimming, and some local by-laws allow anyone legal access and passage along any river that is navigable to small boats. Again, this varies from river to river, so don’t automatically assume that just because you see canoeists paddling down the river that you can access it to go swimming.
Who is responsible if things go wrong?
This is where things get tricky. A landowner may allow swimming in lakes and rivers on their land on the understanding that the swimmers are entirely responsible for their own safety, but this could still be disputed in a court, and the landowner could be held accountable for any injuries or even a death. The result of this has been that a lot of landowners have put up ‘No Swimming’ signs on their land to cover themselves in case of an accident.
The Environment Agency and local councils (as well as many fishing and angling clubs) also tend to put up ‘No Swimming’ notices because of the concern of litigation. The advice that some (somewhat overenthusiastic) lawyers are handing out is that landowners (including land management agencies such as reservoir and lake management teams) should not allow swimming at all unless there are lifeguards present. The result? Some of the UK’s best swimming spots are currently ‘off limits’ and are fenced off.
If there are clear ‘No Swimming’ signs and the water is on private land, then the onus of responsibility does lie with the swimmer. Wild swimmers are a tough lot (you have to be to go swimming in the middle of winter with a water temperature of 2°!) and are usually well aware of the dangers of swimming in open water. Statistics suggest the majority of injuries and deaths by drowning are influenced by the consumption of alcohol beforehand or are the result of high spirits. Suing the landowner after ignoring ‘No Swimming’ signs or even being asked to leave the water by the landowner is unlikely to succeed in court.
If you’re a landowner and are concerned about your legal position when dealing with wild swimmers, contact us and we will be able to advise you on your rights.