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. Since then it has lost its mass appeal with the expansion of affordable travel abroad and increasing concerns about safety and pollution.
In recent decades 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. This is in marked contrast to the attitude to other potentially dangerous sporting activities such as mountaineering, rock climbing, caving, canoeing and, of course, swimming in the sea. 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.
Unlike other outdoor sports groups, there was no organisation to safeguard the interests of open water swimmers at a national level until, in 2003, Rob Fryer and Yakov Lev set up RALSA. Since then we 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 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 there homes in which to take a summer dip.
The association is made up of the following open water swimming clubs:
Jean Perraton is the author of Swimming Against the Stream. Despite the progress since it was published in 2005, it remains the only comprehensive survey of the need for RALSA. She continues to research and write about these issues, taking a lead in policy consultations affecting inland swimming. Jean lives in Cambridge where she is a member of the Newnham Riverbank Club and chairs the Cam Valley Forum, which works to protect and improve the environment of the river Cam. She believes that, in our affluent and polluting society, we need to regain a delight in simple pleasures, such as swimming in natural waters, pleasures that re-unite us with the earth that sustains us.
Rob learned to swim in the River Cherwell while at school in Oxford. He later moved to west Wiltshire where he raised his family to enjoy the pleasures of river swimming. He is chair of the Farleigh & District Swimming Club, near Trowbridge, and has been compiling his Wild Swimming Guide for the past 13 years. (published annually). His knowledge of watering holes, especially in the UK and Europe, and of wild swimming safety, is extensive. Together with Yacov Lev he founded RALSA in 2003.
Mark has been swimming in open water since he was a child and before it was called wild. He has helped managed Henleaze Swimming Club, based at Henleaze Lake in Bristol, for the last 25 years. He has a special interest in water quality issues for open water swimming.
Daniel Start is natural resources planner with a background in economics and agriculture, particularly overseas. He has worked for various think tanks over the last fifteen years and advises the government and NGOs on rural and community development issues. In his spare time he helps to document and photograph the wild swimming sites of Britain and since April 2008 he has published many wild swimming photo-guidebook.