The notion of wild swimming may have rekindled a Victorian spirit of adventure but it’s tempered with a deep sense of respect for our natural resources, as activists like Rob Apsley take up the cause.

First featured in issue 04
Buy this issue

Share on Facebook | Pinterest | Twitter

The marina at Shardlow on the river Trent in Derbyshire is a fitting address for somebody at the heart of the wild swimming movement, and Rob Apsley – access officer for the Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) – lives here with his wife aboard a converted Dutch steel cabin cruiser. Their boat sits among craft of wildly differing shapes and sizes, the whole looking a little like an aquatic shanty town.

Apsley is a self-confessed recreational swimmer, but far removed from the reservoir triathlete or over-sexed north London literary swimmer of wild-swimming myth. More radical types might prefer their sport in storm drains and estuaries, but the tall, wispy-haired Apsley likes nothing better than pootling alongside his boat. He is nevertheless a committed activist for the cause, representing what you might call the municipal wing of the movement.

As access officer for the OSS, Apsley’s role is to handle and lobby the bureaucracies which stand in the way of outdoor swimming becoming a broader public issue. Wild swimming might exist in the mind of the literary classes, thanks to Roger Deakin’s Waterlog and the raft of titles launched in its wake, but public attitudes still lag far behind, reflecting the nay-saying approach of councils. It is this unhelpfulness that Apsley has set out to address. ‘Basically councils are lazy and put up “No Swimming” signs as if out of instinct,’ Apsley tells me over a pint in the Shardlow marina bar. He says that councils have been ‘excessively nervous’ since the Occupiers’ Liabilities Act of 1984 made them responsible for trespassers on their land.

Strong cultural and social currents have also been at work since the Second World War, adjusting our idea of what it means to swim outside. The UK’s booming post war economy, and a parallel boom in cheap foreign holidays, created a generation of swimmers more accustomed to the bathwaters of the Mediterranean and withdrawn from the delights of our own more frigid waterways.

This dislocation has perhaps been most keenly felt in our towns and cities, with urban waterways long considered too polluted to swim in. This may still be the case – 39million tons of raw sewage is pumped into the Thames each year, requiring ingenious solutions from urbanists determined to bring outdoor swimming back to the city.

One recent success has been Of Soil and Water: King’s Cross Pond Club, a radical intervention on the part of Dutch architectural firm Ooze and the Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrc. Open to the public since May 2015 Of Soil and Water features a naturally purified, prefabricated irregular-oval shaped 40m x 10m pool dropped into the no-man’s land of the King’s Cross construction site, a jewel among 27 hectares of mud and heavy machinery. The project was commissioned as part of Relay, a public arts scheme set up to engage with the transitional nature of the King’s Cross site as it moves from industrial dereliction towards its future as a modern townscape. The space has provided plenty of opportunity for reflection, as Ooze architect Sylvain Hartenberg explains: ‘The dialectic of nature in process and building in process was very interesting and important for us.’

The Of Soil and Water pond is gravel-bottomed and seeded with reeds and other water plants; algae and zooplankton will form as a part of the natural water cycle and a pond ecosystem will develop. Nothing more than the purifying properties of plants and micro-organisms sustain its cleanliness.

The pond can accommodates around 160 swimmers per day and this strict ecological cleaning capacity, as well as transitional nature of the site, will serve to illustrate how delicate our natural water systems are. ‘It’s about setting up a living laboratory to test balance,’ Sylvain Hartenberg tells me from his Rotterdam base. ‘We wanted to question self-sustaining systems to highlight the broader natural cycle. It’s about the body of water and the body of land – and the human body – all interacting.’

In this way, Of Soil and Water mirrors OSS activist Rob Apsley’s ideas for increased public participation. Rather than ecological radicalism, however, Apsley’s vision is one of revival, which he sketches for me back in the Shardlow bar. Apsley’s contribution is to revive the idea of the Victorian bathing beach, an inland, municipal facility that takes advantage of our natural water resources. (The best remaining example still in use today is the stone- stepped curve giving access to the Great Ouse at Olney in Buckinghamshire.) He approached the Anglian Water authority six years ago with the bathing-beach concept but they have only recently come on board. Why did it take them so long to get it? ‘The profile of outdoor swimming is definitely on the rise. It was as if Anglian had seen a couple of programmes on TV and that was enough to tip the balance in our favour.’

Updated for the 21st century, the vast Rutland Water bathing beach opened on July 5, with lifeguards provided by the water authority and sand shipped in to create a family recreation area. The buoyed swimming area is 20 metres wide and 200 metres long. ‘It’s been a huge success,’ says Apsley. ‘The weather was perfect this year and families often spent the whole day here.’

Apsley is now talking to several other water authorities about designing more bathing beaches – and his hard fought-for prize is indicative of gains being made by the wild-swimming movement nationwide. Hackney council this year opened its West Reservoir in Stoke Newington to swimmers, and the National Trust now promotes its Victorian reservoir in the Carding Mill Valley, Shropshire, as a wild-swimming destination. Added to this, projects such as Studio Octopi’s vision for a floating pool in the Thames in central London continue to generate interest and publicity.

All of which suggests the growing status of a movement that invokes the Victorian sense of adventure, but which also reflects more modern sentiments regarding localism and climate change. Wild swimming may recall the heady optimism of the post-war years: what the writer and environmentalist Ken Worpole has called ‘an unprecedented era of... nature conservation and landscape appreciation’, but it has also become a symbol of a more radical action; our ponds and rivers become a symbol of the value of water and our environmental responsibilities.

1. The river Lea rises at Leagrave Marsh in Bedfordshire, and flows through Hertfordshire, Essex and Middlesex, all the way to its final outfall in the Thames at Limehouse. One of the earliest river navigations, the Lea has also always been a popular wild- swimming river.
2. The Sava river is one of the longest rivers in Europe (615 miles) and connects three national capitals—Ljubljana, Zagreb and Belgrade. It is one of a few European rivers that does not drain directly into the sea.
3&4. The river-swimming club at the Frome (the name comes from the Old English word ‘ffraw’, which means ‘fair’), below, in Somerset, was founded in 1933. It now has 2,000 members.

Photography: Philip Sinden
Words: Ben Williams