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Wild Swimming access, legal and law – am I allowed to wild swim in rivers and lakes?

Llyn Gwynant by Daniel Start IMG_7951

Staying Legal and Respecting Others

If you swim in a water body you need to make your own judgement and undertake your own research about whether it is legal to do so, but these issues and laws may help you decide.

Tidal waters up to the tidal limit

There is an express right of public navigation, including river estuaries, up to the NTL (normal tidal limit). This can extend a long way inland and is marked ‘NTL’ on OS 1:25k Orange Explorer map scales, and by a change of water colour on OS 1:50k Purple Landranger maps (e.g. the River Dart at Totnes here and here at different scales). Of course, tidal rivers, estuaries and the open sea pose their own wild swimming health and safety issues related to tides, swell and mud / sand.

Larger inland rivers with boats (currently navigable waters)

In some other European countries, including Scotland and most of Scandinavia, there is an explicit  (statutory) legal right to swim or navigate in all water bodies, related to the public rights to roam. These do not yet exist in England and Wales, however many larger rivers have a statutory public right of navigation created from acts of parliament (some are listed at the bottom of this page). This right of navigation is generally interpreted to extend to swimming, although bylaws may restrict swimming on some stretches (e.g. near locks) on safety grounds due to the chance of a collision with a boat. Many canals are not suitable for swimming due to water quality issues and generally swimming is not formally permitted. Note that many larger navigable rivers may look like canals in places, but are managed rivers with weirs, locks and parallel ‘cuts’ to shortcut meaders, called river ‘navigations’.

The River Access for All provides a very good river access map of navigable rivers, and how well accepted river access is by the riparian owners. Generally the ‘green’ rivers have a statutory right of navigation.

Small and Medium rivers that were once navigable (common law, Bracton and the PRN)

Many more thousands of miles of rivers, even if they have no locks, were once used for navigation to transport goods, even if they are no longer used for this purpose. This stretches back to Roman times, and is well documented in the Magna Carta. From the Medieval era use grew through temporary ‘pound’ locks. This pamphlet about the history of our rivers summarises some of the findings, including the convincing case for a time immemorial common law historic rights of navigation and river use, now called the ‘Public Right of Navigation’ PRN, and why this common law right has never been extinguished, even after Henry VIII created ‘riparian’ ownership rights and privatised fishing rights and ownerships of the the river banks and river beds. The argument for a public right of access to rivers starts at Bracton’s statement in c.1260 that ‘perennial rivers are common to all persons but that temporary streams may be private’ (in line with Roman Law) also discussed here by Getzler. The rights of navigation, and ancillary use related to that navigation, were never lost and can only be extinguished by new parliamentary statute laws. This area of legal investigation and insight and is summarised on Douglas Caffyn’s website and also by the multi-organisational campaign website River Access for All. The logic argues that since the public right has not been extinguished it still exists. This work casts doubt on the received wisdom published in several law texts books (particularly the influential Halsbury’s Laws of England) relating to the extent of ‘riparian rights’. Riparian private rights include fishing rights (profit a prendre), and ownership of bed and bank, but not other access rights or controls over the water.

Many fishermen and landowners do not know about the ‘public right of navigation’ (PRN) research, or be interested in the implications, especially as fishing rights and waters can sometimes be expensive (though not always), and there may be a fear that hoards of swimmers or canoeists could disturb their peace and their fishing. The research underpinning the PRN, clarifying the limits of a riparian right, and the existence of other common law rights alongside, is relatively recent and poorly disseminated (although the principles of common law and traditional usage are of course ancient). Some further articles and discussion on this debate can be found here and here. Cases for and against the PRN have also been written up in detail by Lisa Busch QC and David Hart QC respectively, who provide different sides of the argument. NB whatever you believe the PRN says about river access, the PRN does not confer a right of access to the bank across private land unless a right of way (either prescribed or by long usage) already leads to that bank.

Specific local waterbodies historically used for domestic bathing and recreation (community long use)

In many of the above locations, and in many, many other places too (smaller rivers, older lakes, upland streams and waterfalls etc) we know from studies of social history that local people would have regularly come to bathe, launder, wash animals, swim and use the water. For the social history related to swimming see Jean Perratons Swimming Against the Stream and Susie Parr’s Story of Swimming. There can be no doubt that local waterbodies (rivers, lakes, streams and springs i.e. even those unsuitable for navigation) would have always been used for pleasure and amenity purposes alongside the (reserved and private) riparian hunting / fishing rights, with both sets of users (local communities and the landowners / fishermen) showing respect to each other, so as not to damage the usage of the other. This customary historic and long term domestic / bathing use is especially common where public rights of way, such as footpaths, footbridges, fords or common land meet riverbanks and lake shores, or where natural beaches formed. The books Wild Swimming by Daniel Start, 2000 Wild Swims by Rob Fryer and Wild Swim by Kate Rew, as well as various online maps, all attempt, to differing degree (based on local interviews, ethnographic research, geography and observation) to chart traditional historic bathing locations in the UK. They do not claim that all these places have a statutory right to swim, or that they were all once navigable, or benefit from a generic ‘Public Right of Navigation’ but that each of these specific individual locations has been used for bathing and swimming and have thus acquired a common law right of access through traditional and historic use. In practice the period of time over which continuous use establishes a specific local public right of access under common law is around 20 years and this continuous period can have occured in the past.

Water Company Reservoirs (a moral and contractual obligation?)

A special note can be made of the 507 UK reservoirs, mostly built through the 19th century. When these were controversially privatised in 1987 under the Thatcher government on the day, but with a duty to provide appropriate public access and leisure facilities. Although Water Companies are very good at managing fishing rights on their lakes, and often lease out an area for a sailing club, no reservoir except Rutland Water (Anglian Water) has provided a beach area for public swimming and many have also generated bylaws prohibiting any swimming. Whether a common law right to swim or bathe has already been established on some reservoir shores, through long use since Victorian times, depends on the reservoir, but there is clearly an moral opportunity for foresighted Water Companies to do the right thing and finally provide beach areas for public after many years of making excuses about ‘cold water’ and ‘hidden currents’.

In France there are over 550 reservoirs, and over 1200 reservoir beach areas, with simple facilities such as parking, picnic tables, rubbish bins and a water tap. All provide simple safety information, for people to make their own decision and swim at their own risk. The rest of the continent take the same approach, and it is only Britain where such draconian restrictions exist.

Reservoirs, particularly in their upper reaches, are usually safer and warmer than the the sea, rivers or natural lakes and lochs. A network of informal inland lake beach shore areas in the UK would massively help relieve pressure on over stretched village river swimming locations, and encourage outdoor swimming skills a resilience that would save lives.

‘We can’t afford it’? There would be absolutely no legal requirement for water companies to provide life guards, or any facilities, simply to formally permit access ‘at your own risk’. There’s more about how corporate owners could set up inland bathing areas here

Fishermen are our friends, so treat them with respect

Be courteous at all times. Remember that fishermen pay for their sport and are an important ally in ensuring rivers are kept clean and pollution free. Although the Angling Trust does spar with the British Canoe Union over rights of river access and the PRN, the Angling Trust does a huge amount of ground-breaking legal work fighting polluters, particularly water companies, who could do much much more to reduce river pollution from their CSOs, and the Environment Agency and Defra, who could regulate them more stringently. Swimmers should be working with fishermen, not against them.

So give anglers first priority, and 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.

No Swimming signage

You’ll see a variable 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 land owners, local councils, the Environment Agency and other management bodies who, since the 1984 Occupiers, Liability Act, feel they are at danger of litigation should a swimmer 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 provided reassurance that land owners were not responsible for swimmers in their water bodies, as the risks are obvious, 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.

Trespass and respect

If you are asked to leave private land or the river by the land or riparian owner, or their agent, express your views calmly, and then leave politely. Conflict helps no-one, and we have more to gain by educating and working in partnership with riparian owners. There are plenty of other places to swim.

Despite misconception, trespass is not a criminal act, but a tort. Trespassers could be sued for damage they cause to property, but 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 if your use is ancillary to use of the path (and this can include stopping for refreshment) however extensive stops for picnicking and barbeques are disrespectful, and fires and camping are definitely a no-no.

Jumping into Water

Annex: List of Rivers with Statutory Rights of Navigation (NABO 2004)

River Tees
Rivers Ouse and Ure (Ripon to Goole)
River Thames from Cricklade to Teddington
River Medway
River Great Ouse
River Ancholme
River Glen
River Nene
River Wye
River Wey
River Idle
River Ryton
River Dane
River Ribble
River Severn (upstream of Stourport)
River Avon (Warwickshire)
River Avon (Hampshire)
River Itchen
River Arun
River Rother
River Avon from the tail of Hanham Lock to the tail of the bottom lock at Bath.
River Lee Navigation from Hertford to the river Thames at Limehouse and to the tail of Bow Locks.
River Severn from Stourport to its junction with the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal at Gloucester.
River Soar Navigation from its junction with the river Trent to Leicester.
River Ure Navigation from Ripon to Swale Nab
River Stort Navigation

Trent Navigation from the tail of Meadow Lane Lock, Nottingham, to Gainsborough Bridge.
Weaver Navigation from Winsford Bridge to its junction with the
Manchester Ship Canal at Marsh Lock and at Delamere Dock.
Witham Navigation from Lincoln to Boston.
Fossdyke Navigation

Taken from THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF BOAT OWNERS (UK)

https://nabo.org.uk/files/members/right_of_nav.pdf

Featured Getting Started

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.