Swimmers in the water at Bristol Harbour as part of a floating protest

River Revival: a harbour fit to swim in?

#SwimBristolHarbour is a new campaign to make Bristol Harbour a designated bathing water, and it’s being spearheaded by wild swimming campaigner Johnny Palmer.

Rebecca Duncan


In May, swimmers took to Bristol Harbour in a floating protest and called for an end to the ban on swimming that Bristol City Council has in place. Reasons cited for the ban are water quality, the number of boats in the harbour, and the risk of cold-water shock or drowning. It can, however, be used for paddle boarding. The floating protest was eventually shut down by the Harbour Master, but not before it made headlines in the local and regional press. Now the campaigners are kicking on, are inspired by other European cities such as Copenhagen, where old ports are used for bathing.

It is hoped that an official bathing designation would improve the water quality at Bristol Harbour and make swimming safer overall, as well easing pressure on other popular swimming spots in the area. One such area is Warleigh Weir on the River Avon, where Johnny Palmer is the landowner. For the harbour to receive the designation, it would have to meet a minimum threshold for water quality. Bristol City Council does currently measure the water quality in the harbour, and in May a measurement did give a result which would put it in the “Excellent Bathing Quality” for inland water.

Palmer says: “Wild swimming has massive mental and physical health benefits. Our goal is to make these benefits more accessible to a wider range of people, while also increasing education around water safety.

“The more people swim in their waterways, the more they think about their connection with nature and impact on it – so this is much more than just going for a splash, it ties in with changing people’s outlook on lifestyle and sustainability.

The #SwimBristolHarbour campaign is also addressing other water safety concerns, which are particularly pertinent after a spate of recent drownings. and have made a safety video to try and prevent further tragedies. Palmer believes that the right education and culture would make swimming in the harbour safe. It would also improve health and wellbeing benefits for Bristol residents and tourists.

Palmer adds: ““We have seen massive pushback from the city authorities, with them making claims about pollution which are baseless. We have also had them state the water is not fit to swim in, despite their own water quality sampling consistently showing that the water quality is of “excellent” standards by DEFRA guidelines in the area we swim.

“In time, we will be successful in our vision to make Bristol Harbour an accessible wild swimming spot – when this happens, I hope that we enable other urban waterways to do the same.”

It’s early days, but the campaign team has set up a website and is starting fundraising activity to further its cause. A new shop features exclusively designed t-shirts, with a portion of the profits being donated to us at The Rivers Trust.

“We hope this fundraising will be able to improve our voluntary water quality monitoring work across the country, and support us to share important data with local groups and campaigns, like this one in Bristol. Part of The Rivers Trust’s mission is improving understanding of freshwater quality and empowering local communities” says Christine Colvin, our Director for Partnerships & Communications.

“We would love to see an increase in the number of designated river bathing waters - so far we have just one – but this is only possible if people can be confident that the water quality is good enough.”

More information about river bathing and water quality

Take a deeper dive into the topic of wild swimming.

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