Swimmers denounce increasingly difficult access to UK waterways

Landowners, councils and residents across the UK are increasingly putting measures in place to either discourage or ban the general public from accessing waterways.

Swimming groups say the measures are creating further challenges to already complex rights to roam and increasing division between visitors and residents, who are often wealthier.

During coronavirus lockdowns, many sites have had an unprecedented influx of visitors, which has often led to littering, problems with limited parking and antisocial behaviour.

“Landowners and local authorities often don’t understand people swimming,” said the Outdoor Swimming Society’s inland access officer, Imogen Radford. “They don’t always understand that swimming is done at people’s own risk and the landowner’s liability is limited when people willingly take those risks. Sadly, these unnecessary misunderstandings lead to attempts to close places to people who swim.”

Caroline’s Lake at St Aidan’s nature park, Leeds, is the most recent location to ban swimming. There has been a significant increase in the number of inexperienced swimmers at the site and signs have been placed waterside by the RSPB, who manages the lake.

Grantchester Meadows in Cambridgeshire hit the headlines earlier in the summer after King’s College, Cambridge, which owns the land, banned swimming and restricted access to the River Cam at the popular spot.

In Buckinghamshire, meer as 50 roads that previously provided free parking and access to the River Thames, Jubilee River, Dorney Lake and Burnham Beeches have had restrictions introduced either banning visitors completely or limiting parking to two hours.

“Hurley Island [in the Thames] is packed during a heatwave; it is totally understandable that residents want restrictions,” said a local farmer and swimmer, Malcolm Burfitt. “I do empathise with them, it’s been crazy, there are just too many people visiting and there just isn’t room for all their cars. In Hurley, people seem to see the parking fine as the fee they are happy to pay for a day’s parking and don’t really care if residents can’t get in or out of their driveways, let alone get any emergency services access.”

Radford said: “Landowners and local authorities can’t stop people taking the risk of swimming in open water, but they could choose to give information to help people stay safe.

“They could also talk to swimmers and discuss ways they could work together to spread messages of safe swimming to those most at risk and mitigate any concerns and impacts on their land. It is welcome that discussions with swimming groups have now begun in several of the places.”

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