Bring on the river bathing waters!

An opportunity for dozens more riverside bathing water sites

Matthew Woodard


The Government has just published its list of proposed new bathing water sites for public consultation, and it includes a record-breaking number of river sites. Of the 27 popular swimming spots brought forward, a whopping 22 of them are inland and along rivers!

The Rivers Trust is pleased to see the Government starting to recognise popular river bathing sites across the country. We know just how many of us love to swim and paddle in our beloved local rivers, reaping the physical and mental wellbeing benefits of cold-water dips.

Local Rivers Trusts have supported successful bathing water applications in the past; Thames21 supported the designation of a stretch of the River Thames at Port Meadow, Oxford [1], and Essex and Suffolk Rivers Trust backed the designation of a stretch of the river Deben at Waldringfield [2]. This year is no different, as trusts across the country have supported local campaigns:

  • Thames21 submitted the application for Wallingford Beach on the River Thames.
  • Ribble Rivers Trust’s Safe to Splash campaign has got Edisford Bridge on the River Ribble onto the list.
  • West Cumbria Rivers Trust is leading the application for Derwent Water, which sits along the River Derwent.
  • Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust supported Nidd Action Group’s application for the River Nidd site.

The Rivers Trust is responding to the public consultation in support of designation, particularly in the case of sorely lacking riverside sites. If you are local to any of these sites, or simply want to support improved access to blue spaces, please take the opportunity to submit your own response! The deadline for responses is on Sunday 10th March.

What’s so good about bathing waters?

Wild, open water, or river swimming has surged in popularity in recent years and it’s not surprising, as the many and varied benefits keep us all coming back for more.

  • Getting out into the water is a fantastic form of physical exercise, boosting both physical and mental health.
  • Surrounding ourselves with nature, with a mix of both green and blue space, nurtures mental wellbeing; in fact, blue spaces have been shown to have even higher wellbeing benefits that green space.
  • Swimming, paddling, kayaking, etc. can be wonderfully social activities, getting us out of our houses, bonding with old friends and making new ones.

By getting out along our rivers, we are also learning to connect more deeply with these vital ecosystems. At a time when nature connectedness is so low, bathing water designations can be a crucial tool to enable more people to gain positive experiences of the natural environment.

The Rivers Trust supports more designated bathing sites not only because of the human benefits they provide, but also because they can strengthen action to restore our natural spaces. Designation can drive water company investment to tackle poorly performing storm overflows, as well as local nature restoration action, such as woodland and wetland creation, to clean up pollution. While we recognise that designation is not a silver bullet to make rivers safe and healthy, we believe it can raise awareness of the state of rivers among local communities and act as a trigger for improved action, monitoring, and investment, from local stakeholders.

The Rivers Trust movement supports communities in their bathing water applications by providing citizen science kits to test water quality, supporting surveys of water users, and engaging with local stakeholders like landowners, councils and businesses. And we’re definitely not alone in this space! Surfers Against Sewage have a fantastic Community Toolkit on their website and do lots of work with local communities supporting their applications.

Flaws in the system

All that being said, a lot more needs to be done to make the designation process fit for purpose, as too many applications get rejected, and too many sites get de-designated without being given a fair chance to improve.

Last year, applications for designated bathing water status on at least six rivers in England were rejected by the Government and no feedback or explanation was given, leaving many local communities frustrated and confused. We need a more transparent decision-making process and a more proactive approach from the Government to support and encourage communities submitting applications.

We also need to see changes in the de-designation process. As it stands a bathing water is automatically de-designated if classified as “Poor” 5 years in a row. However, 5 years is not always long enough to see water quality improvements. E.g., agricultural pollution could take several years to resolve through significant changes in business practice. If we want to see nature-based solutions harnessed to tackle pollution sources, we need to give these time to mature. We risk de-designating sites before they have a chance to get better!

Instead of automatically de-designating these sites, we should be giving them a better chance to improve. Designation should be the start of a proactive and iterative process that puts greater accountability on responsible bodies to take steps to improve water quality and instigates regular reviews of actions taken to assess whether sites are on-track for improvement. If it’s on track we should be spurring on progress, not de-designating.

The Rivers Trust continues to support the designation of more inland and river bathing water sites, while also working to improve the process itself. We work with other eNGOs, community groups, businesses, scientists, and many others, to advocate for a stronger bathing water regime that delivers better for public and environmental health.

We encourage you to do your bit by:

  • Responding to the public consultation in support of bathing water sites, especially for any that are local to you or that you use.
  • Checking out our map of ‘Rivers you love to play in’ and telling us where you love to swim, paddle, catch or play in your local river.
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