Swimming in Britain’s lakes and rivers became very popular towards the end of the nineteenth century and continued to be popular until well after the last world war. After that it lost its mass appeal with the expansion of affordable travel abroad and increasing concerns about safety and pollution. Recently there has been an increased interest in swimming in lake and rivers.
Until the last few year bathing in our inland waters has been discouraged, and public and private landowners have banned swimming in many lakes in which it had been enjoyed for decades. Local authorities, in particular, have become increasingly influenced by fears of litigation in our 'blame and claim' culture. Ignorance of the civil law in relation to the duty of care, exaggerated assumptions about the risks of swimming, as well as commercial and other pressures from rival interest groups on water space, have added to this problem.
Until recently the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) singled out swimming in inland waters as an activity which must be simply stopped, and the Environment Agency (EA) issued press releases at the beginning of each summer warning people not to swim in any lakes, river or canal. Meanwhile the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) made unrealistic demands upon the level of life-guard cover to be provided at open-water swimming sites.
In 2003, Rob Fryer and Yakov Lev set up RALSA to compaign for a more rational approach and greater swimming access to rivers and lakes.
Since then RALSA have worked to secure more freedom to swim in our inland waters and we have begun to make some progress. As a result of our and others efforts RoSPA has radically modified it advice on swimming and now stresses the dangers of alcohol and swimming rather than swimming per se; the EA no longer issues its annual warnings against swimming in all inland waters; and the HSE has modified its guidance on the level of lifeguard provision and no longer insists that lifeguard must be provided at open water sites where swimming is allowed, but not actively promoted. But there’s much more to be done.
Swimming remains banned, for example, in almost all our local authority-run country parks. We have a long way to go before everyone can find a river or lake near their homes in which to take a dip.