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It's rather warm outside (32.6°C or 91 F) and I'd like to go for a swim. Having lived in The Netherlands and Sweden, I'm used to living near lakes and the fact that any surface water is by default open to swim in (unless a nature reserve or industrial site), but I have a hard time finding those in the UK. Looking at places near me on wildswim.com, one says Open Water Swimming Sessions can only take place during supervised sessions run by the Activity Centre. No swimming is to take place other then through and organised session., another has specific opening hours. Both make no sense at all for wild swimming, so now I'm rather confused. I also found this list but it's incredibly short for a country the size of the UK (NB: the aforementoined link is currently misconfigured which may trigger security warnings, but lists to a dozen or so popular public lake beaches within the UK)

There's plenty of surface water near me, and I'd like to take a dip and cool off. I don't care for changing rooms, safety buoys, or supervision (but I'd appreciate not to have to wade through 3-metre high stinging nettles to reach a lakeshore). If I identify a pond, lake, canal, or river, how would I tell whether swimming is permitted there? Is it permitted unless explicitly prohibited, or is it by default not allowed?

Related: Swimming in a river in England or Wales with a right of navigation


Edit: I ended up having a nice swim in Bear Wood Lake. One end of the lake had a sign Swimming strictly prohibited, dangerous water. The other end had a wooden platform with a ladder down into the lake. Very unclear but apart from if you can't swim you may drown I did not see any indication of danger and I don't know if the prohibition was just at the sign or at the entire lake.

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    You are never more than about an hour's drive from the sea. – DJClayworth Jun 21 '17 at 17:15
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    @DJClayworth ① Yes, I am more than an hour's drive from the sea, as are many Britons; plenty of places are more than 2 hours by car from the sea. ② There are hundreds if not thousands of small lakes, ponds, streams etc. closer by ③ Lake swimming is much safer than sea swimming, which I no longer do after nearly drowning in a rip current ④ I don't own a car ⑤ An hour drive each way is far longer than I find reasonable to travel for a quick (5 minute) dip to cool down – gerrit Jun 21 '17 at 17:24
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    Hi gerrit! Would you mind posting your edit as an answer? It would be a good way for people to see what you ended up doing, and a self-answered question is always helpful. Thanks! – Sue Jun 22 '17 at 1:04
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    @Sue Unfortunately I don't find the list anywhere else. I have the same problem and I have added a security exception within Firefox. As long as you don't submit any sensitive information I don't believe there is a risk of information being stolen… As far as "posting my edit as an answer is concerned": my question is rather where is it permitted than where is it physically possible, and my edit answers the second but not the first! I've added a summary of what I found at the link. – gerrit Jun 22 '17 at 7:37
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    Ah welcome to UK access law. Basically the rule of thumb is, so long as no one notices it's not illegal :) – user2766 Jun 22 '17 at 8:10
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Here is a good summary of the legal position of swimming in the UK www.river-swimming.co.uk/legal.htm

I think the opening line is most interesting "The right to swim is a complex issue which, in many cases, is undetermined." and I think that this forms the basis of my answer which is...

Go for a swim wherever you fancy (apart from the areas listed ( reservoirs, private fishing lakes etc.)

As long as

  1. You can access the water without trespassing on private land
  2. You have carried out your own personal risk assessment (ie. the water type, the conditions, your swimming ability, hazards, does it smell/look clean?)
  3. You do no harm
  4. You are not interfering with, or endangering other legitimate users.
  5. It "feels" right

    (6. You don't say that I said it was OK!)

If someone challenges you, be polite and leave quietly.

More than likely no one will notice, or be bothered, and you'll have a lovely swim.

  • Even if you are challenged, it's unlikely that it will lead to any legal consequences unless you have caused actual damage. But you should be aware that in some areas breaking a byelaw can lead to an on-the-spot fine (of up to £1000 in some places!), so it's always best to research the local conditions. – Tullochgorum Jun 22 '17 at 14:46
  • It looks like the link may be broken now (2019) – Chris H Apr 23 at 13:24
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    @ChrisH - Thanks for pointing this out, I have now replaced the link with an archive page from the Wayback Machine – Martin Hügi Apr 30 at 19:25
  • Thanks for updating, Martin. I'd have a quick suggestion for an edit. The UK law you reference doesn't really cover Scotland - here we don't really have a trespass law. As long as you avoid military or other restricted areas, and don't impact crops etc, you have a right to roam. – Rory Alsop May 1 at 12:09
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As a supplement to Martin Hugi's excellent answer I would add that there will likely be groups of people locally with an interest in outdoor swimming, and they will know all the best spots.

In my area there is a Facebook Group, a website with a detailed guide and map, and a couple of bloggers who write up their swims with details of temperature and conditions.

Simply hook up with people on social media and you should be on your way.

This is mainly an issue in England and Wales. As a Scot, I should proudly mention that we have some of the most enlightened access laws in the world and that these apply to swimming as well as walking.

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