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On Sunday 24th April 2022, a group of over 400 swimmers staged a protest, taking to the water at Kinder reservoir in a mass Swimpass to highlight what organisers describe as ‘inadequate access to public waterways’. The event was one of a number of commemorative protests and events marking the first Kinder Scout mass trespass in 1932.
Activists donned their swimming costumes or wetsuits and waved placards, intent on improving access and their right to roam in bodies of water in England and Wales. The demonstration happened just days after the UK government back-peddled on plans to evaluate and improve access to nature, shelving its review of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
We wanted to demonstrate in a really meaningful way, the huge numbers of people that are experiencing the benefits of outdoor swimming
‘We wanted to demonstrate in a really meaningful way, the huge numbers of people that are experiencing the benefits of outdoor swimming. It’s clear that those benefits can be shared back into the environment by people being engaged,’ Owen, one of the organisers of Sheffield Outdoor Plungers (SOUP) tells BASE.
‘It’s supported by so many people with all these different expertise – people who work in law, risk, the environment, community engagement, healthcare workers and the water industry itself. So when we campaign we have this real elite team of knowledgable, skilled people.’
Kinder reservoir is owned by United Utilities, who operate a year-round swimming ban at the site. Access rights to reservoirs are a hotly disputed topic by swimmers – according to the Outdoor Swimming Society, ‘Reservoirs are usually owned by water companies, and they have a legal duty to provide public access for recreation to the land and water, though in practice most have a no swimming rule and notices. There are campaigns to change this, with very good reasons why swimming should be allowed’.
Allowing access rights to reservoirs would mean 2000 more dipping spots would open up in England and Wales, mitigating issues with overuse and overcrowding as outdoor swimming continues to surge in popularity.
‘Doing this at Kinder, on the 90th anniversary and following the route that the trespass took – it was very momentous,’ says Owen.
Whilst the right to swim in the sea is undisputed, currently only 4% of inland waterways in England allow uncontested access to paddlers and swimmers and the legal position surrounding access is complicated and uncertain.
Taking the plunge in water where the right of access is contested means you could very well be accused of trespass, which is a civil offence, though not a criminal one. Conversely, swimmers in Scotland can swim freely in open spaces as part of their right to responsible access and have had unrestricted access to almost all 800 of the country’s reservoirs since 2003.
‘Reservoirs are particularly safe and clean, they’re sited upstream of pollutants, generally have stony banks with good footpath access and what’s underwater is relatively known. There’s so many good things about them and yet we cant swim in them,’ continues Owen.
‘You only have to look to Scotland to see that opening up access to reservoirs is fine, and there are plenty of models that we can follow as to how this can work.’
From a healthcare perspective, wild swimming is something which ticks all the boxes
Also at the demonstration was Emma, a Mental Health Nurse and passionate advocate for wild swimming and the benefits of spending time outdoors.
‘From a healthcare perspective, wild swimming ticks all the boxes of the biopsychosocial model for health promotion, prevention and recovery. Looking at ways which we can improve people’s health for free, should be high on the government’s agenda, especially ones which may result in longer lasting positive changes than just prescribing medication on its own,’ she says.
‘This is why I, and hundreds of others, joined the Kinder trespass swim. To continue fighting to open up the countryside for all. I hope the roaming rights will increase and include areas for swimming. I would also like to see investment in how we can make the outdoors accessible for all, as there continues to be disparities in use.’
‘It’s a joyous activity and I wish for everyone to have the opportunity to try it, or to just enjoy the great outdoors and laugh at us strange folk who like to get cold for a hobby from the water’s edge!’
Swimmers were given guidance on water safety by the Outdoor Swimming Society and the event passed peacefully and without disturbance, with one police officer joking that he ‘had his Speedos on underneath’. The weekend also saw walkers take to the hills, not only on Kinder Scout but at multiple venues throughout the UK in satellite events to mark the 90th anniversary of the original trespass.
For another four-minute wild swimming fix, check out Andrew Birkett’s story about the transformative power of the ocean in The Freedom It Gives Me.
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