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Is Wild Swimming Legal?

Jumping off Bridge

Staying Legal and Respecting Others

Unlike other European countries, including Scotland, there is only an explicit legal right to access water in some English and Welsh rivers and lakes. In other places swimming rights are customary and based on longstanding tradition or established use. These places are often found where public rights of way, such as footpaths or common land, meet lake shores, riverbanks, bridges or fords.

Give anglers a wide berth, especially in the mornings and evening when fishing is most popular. In salmon rivers try not to trample on spawning gravels, particularly in autumn when eggs are buried. Remember that fishermen pay for their sport and are an important ally in ensuring rivers are kept clean and pollution free. You’ll see an increasing number of no-swimming signs in popular bathing places. Some of these are posted by fishing clubs keen to scare swimmers away. Others are posted by local councils, the Environment Agency and other management bodies who, since the 1984 Occupiers, Liability Act, are at danger of litigation should you have an accident in their waters and decide to sue. Corporate lawyers now advise management agencies that, unless permanent lifeguards are provided at every river and lake in the country, they must forbid all swimming and fence off all waters.

Thankfully a 2003 ruling by the Law Lords looks set to reverse this crazy policy but you’ll still see plenty of no-swimming signs. You should understand that landowners are primarily nervous of your legal actions and these signs are their first line of defence. If you are asked to leave a private river by the river owner or their agent, do so politely. Despite misconception, trespassers cannot be prosecuted and the police can only be called in certain circumstances: when there are more than six vehicles on the land, when damage has been done or when abusive language has been used. If you have doubts as to who is confronting you it is permissible to ask for proof of identity or authority. If you are on a footpath you cannot be asked to move on. You can, however, be asked to leave the water, even if people have swum there for years.

Jumping into WaterWild Swimming and Access Law

In Scotland you can now access all inland waters if you uphold the Outdoor Access Code. In England and Wales – particularly in National Parks and on Forestry Commission, Wildlife Trust and National Trust land – there is extensive ‘right to roam’ (Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000) that has opened up new lakes and river shores. However, there is no automatic right to access the water. You are relying on customary rights and the owner’s goodwill. On about four per cent of our waterways special arrangements and laws exist to allow public ‘navigation’ (e.g. swimming and canoeing) such as on the Thames, Wye, Lugg, Suffolk Stour and Waveney (see www.bcu.org.ukand www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk for a full list). Statute laws also allow a legal right of passage along any river that is, or was once, physically navigable to small boats. The Rivers’ Access Code and Campaign aims to bring English and Welsh access rights in line with Scotland www.riversaccess.org

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Anonymous says:

Can anyone give me guidance about the rights of swimming in the lake district’s big lakes such as Windermere etc. I don’t often see people swimming in them ad hoc but always thought why not?
Neil

Anonymous says:

The big Lake District lakes are all navigable lakes so it is legal to swim.