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Wild Swimmers in Muddy Waters

There are 417 Designated Bathing Sites for Wild Swimmers Across the Country and Only One River is Safe to Swim in

Sir James Bevan, the chief executive of the Environmental Agency, said he would be “cautious” about swimming in any of England’s rivers. Across the UK there are 417 designated bathing spots, meaning they are areas within bodies of water that are marked out for swimmers and those wanting to enjoy a dip. Most of these are located around the country’s coastal line. Inland, there are around a dozen bathing lakes and just one river, located in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. This means, theoretically, in the entire country there is just one river in which you are allowed to swim, and during its last assessment, the Environmental Agency rated it as “poor”.

Wild Swimmer


In fact, roughly 416 of the total 417 designated bathing sites have a poor water quality rating. Sewage, farm, urban and industrial pollution is so vast and widespread that all of England’s rivers failed to meet the legal standard for overall health during the last assessment.

So, what does this mean for the growing population of wild swimmers? Well, they seem to be taking matters into their own hands. The Environmental Agency has known for a long time just how polluted these rivers and swimming spots are, however, the swimmers have been left in the dark, enjoying a relaxing river dip completely unaware of just how truly murky the waters they’re swimming in are.

Last year, the Ilkley Clean River Group succeeded in getting a section of the River Wharfe designated as an official bathing site. Located downstream of a sewage treatment works, the group knew the water would not be safe for swimmers and concluded that by designating it as an official bathing site, the Environmental Agency would have to install a water quality monitor and acknowledge the level of pollution there. A year later, and due to the efforts of the Thames21 Charity, a stretch of the River Thames in Oxford is soon to be granted bathing water status.

Whilst the water quality may be low, could these two new sites kickstart the necessary widespread movement to clean up our rivers?


Throughout the pandemic and various lockdowns, open-air, wild swimming has really taken off, with thousands of swimmers donning their swimming costumes and wetsuits and heading off for a swim in the great outdoors. And it sounds idyllic until you find out you’re effectively swimming in an open water sewage system.

With all these wild swimmers in muddy waters, will the Environmental Agency, the Government and the water regulators clean up their act and make these designated bathing sites safe to swim in? I’ll be sticking to my local lido for now, lovingly cleaned every day!



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