This article, published by National Geographic Traveller (UK), delves into the surge in popularity of wild swimming in UK rivers, particularly since the onset of the pandemic when individuals sought closer connections with nature. However, as interest in this activity has grown, so have concerns about water quality due to sewage and chemical contamination. This prompts questions about the current situation, the safety of cooling off with a swim this summer, and the steps to make an informed decision.
The State of UK Rivers:
The degradation of rivers in the UK can be attributed primarily to sewage spills and agricultural runoff. Recent statistics are concerning, with merely 14% of England’s rivers classified as having ‘good’ ecological status, according to a government report released in January 2022. In that same year, England and Wales recorded a staggering 375,000 sewage spills into waterways.
Complex Nature of the Issue:
Local community groups have taken action to combat river pollution, and prominent newspapers like The Times and The i have initiated campaigns to raise awareness and advocate for government policy changes. Yet, environmental experts note a deficiency in quantitative understanding.
Professor Andrew Singer, a senior pollution scientist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, acknowledges the significant volume of sewage spills but emphasizes that the exact extent of water pollution remains uncertain. Although no river meets the standard for bathing water, there are cleaner areas.
Dr. Mike Bowes, who leads the river water quality group at the same center, points out reduced frequency in water testing, raising concerns about data availability. However, he notes positive changes, like a 90% decrease in phosphate presence (an indicator of sewage and agricultural runoff) since the late 1990s, attributing improvements to legislation such as the 1991 Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive.
Assessing Water Quality:
To assist in making informed decisions about swimming, individuals can utilize the Safer Seas & Rivers Service app by Surfers Against Sewage. This app notifies users of untreated sewage discharge and provides real-time water quality information at 370 locations nationwide. The Rivers Trust sewage map also offers insights into spills at monitored sites, indicating areas prone to sewage overspills.
Moreover, avoiding swimming a day after heavy rain is advisable. Heavy rainfall can exacerbate water pollution by washing agricultural waste and pollutants into waterways, alongside sewer overflows.
The use of common sense is essential. Checking for odors, floating pollutants, and blue-green algae on the water’s surface is recommended. Kate Rew, author of The Outdoor Swimmers’ Handbook, advises following instincts and seeking an alternate location or waiting a day if something feels off.
For those choosing to swim, precautions are crucial. Daniel Start, author of Wild Swimming Hidden Beaches, suggests avoiding swallowing water and sticking to breaststroke instead of front crawl.
Joining a dedicated swimming group can also be beneficial, as they select appropriate spots. Above Below, for example, organizes retreats across the UK using RuckRafts, waterproof inflatable rucksacks that can be filled with belongings and towed.
By considering these factors, you can discover numerous safe swimming options across the UK, from the serene Deben River in Suffolk to the breathtaking canyons of the Etive in the Scottish Highlands.
This article was featured in the September 2023 edition of National Geographic Traveller (UK). To access the magazine and subscribe, click here (available in specific countries).
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Wild Swimming UK
Is wild swimming safe in UK rivers given water pollution concerns?
Wild swimming has gained popularity, but water pollution is a concern. Sewage spills and agricultural runoff impact water quality. While efforts are being made to address pollution, it’s essential to consider safety. Monitoring apps like Safer Seas & Rivers can provide real-time water quality information. Additionally, avoiding swimming after heavy rain and using your senses to assess water quality are recommended. Following safety precautions, such as not swallowing water and considering organized swimming groups, can also mitigate risks. Always make informed decisions before taking a dip.
How polluted are UK rivers due to sewage spills?
Sewage spills and agricultural pollution are major contributors to river contamination. Figures show that only 14% of England’s rivers have ‘good’ ecological status. There were 375,000 sewage spills into waterways in England and Wales, highlighting the extent of the problem.
What efforts are being made to address river pollution?
Community groups and media campaigns are actively tackling river pollution. Legislation like the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive has led to improvements in river cleanliness. However, there’s a lack of complete quantitative data on pollution levels.
How can I assess the water quality before swimming?
Utilize apps like Safer Seas & Rivers Service to get real-time water quality updates. The Rivers Trust sewage map can help identify spill-prone areas. Avoid swimming after heavy rain and trust your senses—odor, floating pollutants, and algae presence can indicate water quality.
What precautions should I take if I decide to swim in these rivers?
Avoid swallowing water and consider breaststroke over front crawl. Joining dedicated swimming groups can help select safe spots. Always be cautious and prioritize safety while enjoying the experience.