Some of the rivers in England and Wales are designated as having a "Right of Navigation". I understand that this is typically interpreted as meaning that you can travel along it in a boat or vessel. I'm interested in knowing whether this also includes the right to swim along the river, so long as one is truly travelling along the river, rather than 'loitering'. I can find no mention that 'navigation' excludes swimmers.

Here is a list of rivers that fall under this category, and some further information. I'm ideally looking for an authoritative answer as swimmers frequently find themselves being shouted at by anglers who claim that swimming is not permitted. However, I cannot find any legislation to suggest that swimming is illegal along a river with a right of navigation. I would expect to both enter and exit the river from public land, just as a kayaker would.

  • It appears that the "Right of navigation" itself is very questionable, even in a boat. From my reading there is no law stating that right of navigation exists (on non tidal rivers). So it's difficult to interpret this for swimming, the law for boats isn't even clear! In general rivers are owned by land owners and they have the right to deny access.
    – user2766
    Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 12:56
  • @Liam: That is correct, for the majority of rivers in the UK. However, a handful of them are designated as "right of navigation" (see the list beginning on page 3 of this document). My question specifically relates to rivers where a right of navigation exists. Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 13:12
  • they all seem to be listed as "Common law". So there won't (that I can find) be any legal definition. I think they only way to find out is to try! Or mount an expensive legal test case.....
    – user2766
    Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 13:17
  • The UK has quite an active wild swimming community. They must have resources on this. The kayaking analogy is reasonable but in England at least, access agreements are important (even on plenty of rivers with a historic right of navigation) and these often restrict access to outside the fishing season, which I assume isn't when you'd want to swim.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 6:43

2 Answers 2


Basically, the law on river swimming in England and Wales is a mess. Below the tidal limit swimming is unambiguously legal, provided you access the water from public land. In fresh water, the true answer is that nobody knows.

This is from a submission by the Outdoor Swimming Society to the National Assembly of Wales, and it's about as authoritative as you're going to get:

The laws governing rights of access to (and restrictions on the use of) inland water are immensely complex and piecemeal, being derived from a combination of very old case law, miscellaneous statutory provisions and local byelaws.

Perhaps more importantly, there is a great deal of uncertainty about what the law actually permits, even where legal advice is obtained. Much of the case law is contradictory and unclear as to its scope. There is uncertainty as to whether laws relating to commercial uses apply to recreational uses, and whether laws relating to certain types of access to inland water (for example, rights of navigation) extend to other types of access (for example, swimming).

See also Douglas Caffyn, The Right of Navigation on Nontidal Rivers and the Common Law, 2004, which comes to a similar conclusion.

In practical terms it seems to boil down to local use and practice. Land owners can allow permissive access at their discretion. On the Dart, where I swim, the situation is good and most of the best spots are accessible.

As for conflict with anglers, we should surely apply a bit of courtesy and commonsense. They have often paid for their fishing, and can be an important contributor to the local economy. As wild swimming groups are pressing for improvements to the law, it would seem best not to antagonise this large and well-organised lobby. So whenever possible it makes sense to avoid the times and places where angling is popular.

The solution, of course, would be legislation similar to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which liberalised access to wild land and water in Scotland. In general, all parties agree that it has been a striking success.

  • 1
    Anglers are also the people doing the lobbying for access (along with canoeists to a lesser extent). So the anglers are very much on the swimmers side when it comes to access. They have strong well funded lobbying groups, so best to keep them on side! :)
    – user2766
    Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 9:35

I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not a Brit, but I've found two articles that strongly suggest that swimmers can travel along a river or portion of a river designated as having a Right of Navigation.

According to this article, Navigation Law and access to water on Naturenet.net:

A right of navigation where it exists is a right to use the river to its full capacity. There is no such thing as a limited right of navigation such as a right limited to canoes.

The above source appears to be neutral on the subject of Right of Navigation.

Another source, which is impassioned on the question of access, speaks at least twice of access being denied to "canoers, kayakers and swimmers". The question of access to the river is the hot issue, and is different from what is allowed on the river where access is permitted. This pro-access article assumes equal rights for swimmers.

  • I'm not sure I'm convinced by the articles here. I think this answer is more correct in that the law simply isn't clear in this regard.
    – user2766
    Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 9:40

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