Campaigners defy wild swimming ban on Dartmoor

Photo copyright Emma Stoner

Signs were put up across the 4,000 acre Spitchwick Estate on Dartmoor this summer forbidding swimming along 17km of the River Dart, including at popular beauty spots. Forty right to roam campaigners held a ‘protest swim’ at Spitchwick on Sunday 10 September in defiance of the ban. Groups included Right to Roam, The Stars Are For Everyone, and Friends of The Dart.

Lewis Winks from the Right to Roam campaign said:

“Young and old have bathed in the Dart at Spitchwick for generations. We need to be supporting people to get into the outdoors, not restricting these vital experiences which offer so many benefits for health and wellbeing”.

“It’s not swimmers who are pouring sewage into Dartmoor’s rivers, nor campers who have left Dartmoor’s landscape overgrazed and mismanaged. On the contrary, members of the public have been at the forefront of raising the alarm on river pollution in England.”

One such group is Friends of The Dart who took part in Sunday’s protest and are on a mission to ensure that the whole of the Dart conforms to bathing standards. Their comprehensive bacteria testing programme has demonstrated that the river currently fails as being safe for bathers. The group is in talks with South West Water, and is seeking a legal contract for accountability.

Hannah Pearson from Friends of The Dart said:

“By connecting to local nature we develop appreciation and care for these precious places. It is essential that communities, landowners and other stakeholders are able to work together to safeguard the health of our rivers, and to ensure that people can continue to enjoy them safely. Our studies have shown the extensive benefits to both mental and physical health of river access.”

Wild Swimming has been championed and supported by the Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS), which has put together comprehensive guidance for those wishing to dip their toes in. They are also actively campaigning for greater access to rivers and reservoirs for people to enjoy the benefits of wild swimming.

Photo copyright Emma Stoner

Kate Rew from OSS said:

“The OSS heartily stands in solidarity with swimmers across Dartmoor. My first childhood swim away from home was in a river pool on Dartmoor and I can clearly visualise it now – fresh and crystal clear.

“As an organisation, we have been campaigning on the Right to Swim for many years, and have learned that the best way to maintain access to water is to keep swimming in it. For landowners, banning swimming is also unnecessary, counterproductive and impossible to enforce. Instead, talking to swimmers and others who use the areas can help find ways to solve issues. It’s also common to say the ban is to protect wildlife, but in our experience this is a red herring and not based on evidence of harm.

“While the situation on Dartmoor is extremely concerning, it demonstrates the urgent need for a legal right to access reservoirs and all other water bodies in England and Wales for swimming. The huge growth in outdoor swimming in recent years has meant more people than ever are enjoying this joyful, low impact immersion in nature, with all the benefits that it brings.”

Ben Seal, Head of Access and Environment at British Canoeing, said:

“The River Dart is a really special environment and one from which paddlers, swimmers, anglers and many others derive great pleasure. The post pandemic boom in visitor numbers has, in some cases undoubtedly placed extra pressure on honey pot sites and subsequently the environment.”

“Simply shutting the public out is not the solution. What’s needed are more places for people to engage with nature, not less. Expanding access to nature on people’s doorstep, supported by education on responsible behaviour, is far more likely to alleviate pressure on the limited places [to which] we currently have access, and subsequently benefit more people who want to be active in the natural environment.”

Photo copyright Emma Stoner

In response to Sunday’s protest, the Spitchwick estate issued a statement saying that they would change the wording of the sign: “The request for no swimming is just that – a request – in order to protect the fragile banks from erosion and the aquatic environment. There is no ban and the wording will be changed to ask people to refrain from swimming.”

Lewis Winks from The Right To Roam campaign responded by saying:

“Until these signs went up, a historic and customary right of access existed here, making Spitchwick one of the very few places where swimming could be enjoyed unchallenged. It really doesn’t matter what the wording of the sign is, the Spitchwick estate have made it clear that they do not believe that the public should have a right to swim in these waters. Until we get a change to the law, piece by piece, we will continue to lose access to our land and water.”

Right to Roam is campaigning for a new Right to Roam Act, which would give a presumption in favour of access to the countryside, to bring England in line with Scotland.

Photo copyright Emma Stoner

The Spitchwick Estate owns land adjacent to 17km of the River Dart between Hembury Woods and Dartmeet. Spitchwick has been historically resistant to public access on Dartmoor. The National Park’s bylaws include ‘Schedule 2’ land exemptions from wild camping on common land. Despite owning 2.2k acres of commons, there are no camping rights on the estate, with no reason given.

Pollution enters the river from agricultural runoff, spills of sewage from inadequate infrastructure and industrial impacts. There is also extensive damage to our land ecology from overgrazing, mismanagement and monoculture farming. Local communities are taking action alongside landowners and river users to remedy this.

The Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act 2000, the act of parliament that brought the formal right to roam into existence in England and Wales, omitted access to water from its scope. As a consequence, there are disputed rights on access to rivers. When reservoirs were privatised water companies had a legal duty to keep the land and the water open to the public for recreation – but water companies have excluded swimmers from this brief, allowing sailing, for example, but banning swimming.

In May this year, more than 500 swimmers entered Kinder Reservoir to assert their Right to Swim. Dartmoor and the many other cases we monitor across England and Wales show that the time has come for change. It’s time to go swimming!

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