Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

How to… find a wild swim

Wild swimming expert, Daniel Start, tells you how to locate a safe stretch

Want to take a sneaky dip this summer? Perhaps you’re planning a bold expedition, or just fancy finding a local beauty spot for regular swims – before you go wild swimming, you need to check it’s safe and clean. WideWorld asks the wild swimming expert Daniel Start, author of Wild Swimming and editor of the brilliant wildswimming.co.uk, for his advice…

How to find out the water quality in your local river

Step one: Identify the postcode of the area of the river where you would like to swim. You can generate a postcode from an Ordnance Survey grid reference or long lat reference at Nearby.org.uk, or from a street address at Royal Mail. You can find the longitude/latitude reference from a location on Google Maps by right-clicking and then choosing ‘get directions from here’. The two 8 digits numbers after the ‘@’ are the longitude and latitude.

Step two: Type your postcode into the Environment Agency’s water quality map homepage. You’ll find the postcode box on the right hand side, under the words ‘Is your local river healthy?’ Click GO.

Step three: Navigate around the map (by using the arrow keys, dragging the map or zooming in and out) until you find a blue triangle on the river closest to your area of your interest. They are usually located every 5 miles or so. Blue Triangles represent the Environment Agency’s river water quality monitoring sites.

Step four: Click on the Blue Triangle you are interested in. Sometimes the water quality test results will be for a tributary of the river, not the whole river, and often the test will be done at the junction of two rivers. Data is provided for:

  • Chemistry (A-F)
  • Biology (A-F)
  • Phosphates (1-6)
  • Nitrates (1-6)
  • Year of sampling

On this scale, A or 1 is the best, F or 6 the worst. Nitrates and Phosphates are not poisonous but they can make the river green (eutrophication). You should never swim in a river with a Biological or Chemical rating of D, E or F. You should exercise caution in a river of level C by covering cuts with waterproof sticking plasters and trying to keep your head above water. A and B are good or very good water quality rivers, so jump in and enjoy!

Water quality and ecology

Our rivers and lakes are cleaner today than at any time in living memory. Industrial and agricultural pollution almost succeeded in killing our rivers in the 1960s, but the success of the 1974 Control of Pollution Act and subsequent European legislation has been remarkable.

The Environment Agency monitors all our rivers, streams and lakes regularly at over 7,000 locations. River quality targets are assigned based on biological, chemical and nutrient testing. Over 70 per cent of the rivers of England and Wales are very good (target 1 or A) or good (target 2 or B) on a five-tier water quality scale.

Most people’s first concern is usually sewage but with the new European Water Framework Directive in place all effluent now undergoes at least two treatments before entering a river and, increasingly, a third to make it completely sterile and pure. Any bacteria that do remain are quickly killed by the sun’s UV rays, or eaten up in the micro-food chain of the river so, the further downstream of the treatment works you are, the cleaner the water will become. Treatment sites are indicated on OS maps as a little cluster of four or six circles by rivers near towns.

WWF UK Freshwater Program

Although the water quality of almost every swim in the Wild Swimming book is A or B, there’s still much to be done to make every river and lake in the UK clean enough to swim in. The World Wide Fund for Nature is taking action to improve water laws and policies, demonstrate better management of rivers and wetlands, develop sustainable land management practices and build capacity in community organisations to protect their own rivers.

Why not get involved in supporting their work and see their new report on the state of the Thames? This is a clean river, but climate change is creating new challenges from flooding and drought.

See www.wwf.org.uk/freshwater for more information.

Further Reading