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Making London more swimmable


There’s an ad going round social media this week by the city of Oslo, presented with irony by a droll Norwegian who asks if Oslo is “even a city” because of all its seemingly non-urban attributes, to a backdrop of swimmers in the city’s harbour. “I don’t understand why people go swimming in the middle of the city”, he deadpans.



As an avid swimmer, I’ve always regarded outdoor swimming as the pinnacle of civilised urban life. Indeed, I’ve actively searched out swimmable cities  - places like Dubrovnik, Zadar, Kotor, San Sebastian, Genoa, Zurich, Munich and Copenhagen in recent years – and they haven’t disappointed.


In the runup to next month’s Olympics, Paris is showcasing its cleanup of the Seine for distance swimming events, with mixed results. But the intent is clear – it wants to become a swimmable city. And its mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has proven her ability to get Parisians active and moving with her cycling initiatives.



London is certainly not bereft of outdoor swimming spots. The Hampstead ponds and the Serpentine are accessible and have a dedicated body of swimmers, and with the recent announcement of  a new lido planned for Redbridge, London has upped its provision of outdoor lidos. CNN even ranks London highly in its list of “best cities for swimming”. I haven’t mentioned the Thames, because most of London is on the tidal bit and there are no public swimming areas. And while I’m a regular non-tidal Thames swimmer, (that means upriver, beyond Teddington Lock), I must admit I’m put off by the recent sewage scares. Yesterday’s temps inspired me to head to  Brighton for a long “wild” swim.


But here’s the good news. There are a number of initiatives to improve access and availability of outdoor swimming to Londoners, and two of these are particularly visionary. They are, in my opinion, worthy of your support. Not just because they will increase the number of places to swim outdoors in London, but because they also take a more holistic approach to advancing the role of “blue spaces” in improving the health and wellbeing of urban inhabitants.



The East London Waterworks Park is a community-led initiative that has its roots in local activism, and it’s this activist mindset that continues to drive it forward, standing up to numerous challenges.


In 2017 a group of campaigners dedicated to the preservation of the River Lea marshes in east London learned about the recent sale of a former waterworks in the Lea Valley Park by Thames Water to central government, which subsequently announced its intention to develop the site to further its free school programme. The campaigners felt these plans were being developed with no local consultation and, moreover, that the project would generate more harm than benefit to local communities. With the support of CPRE, they formed a coalition of local interest groups which met to discuss what local people would like from the site and what could be developed instead.


Through this process the East London Waterworks Park was created “to transform this huge slab of concrete into a vibrant and biodiverse community park for wild swimming, with a forest school space, arts and science buildings and a mosaic of dry and wetland habitats for wildlife and people to enjoy. All created with the love and commitment of our growing group of volunteers”.


I spoke with Caroline Day, a volunteer with the ELWP, about the process that drives the initiative and the challenges facing its success.


Delivering health and wellbeing and social value are at the heart of the project’s objectives and its operation, demonstrated in the  “Listening Project” which reaches out to underrepresented communities, partnership with the University of East London to assess sustainability aspects of the project, and a focus on intergenerational needs.


Its intention to purchase the site continues to face numerous challenges. While fundraising has been strong and a dedicated group of volunteers contributes time, energy and valuable expertise, the site owner (central government in the form of Department of Education and Skills) and its representative LocatED have been unwilling to engage openly or constructively, leading to FOI requests and a current stalemate over a planning application to develop a secure children’s facility on the site.


The ELWP is an example of how grassroots energy combined with technical and legal expertise can attract money, volunteers and widespread goodwill. This is aptly depicted in the ELWP logo and its numerous “ripples” – a desired outcome both literally and metaphorically.


Thames Baths is a Community Interest Company which was formed “in the belief that it is all of our basic right to have access to the River Thames, not just to travel over it or around it”.


It proposes to reintroduce swimming in the River Thames by establishing “an intimate and playful link between Londoners and this historic lifeblood of the city” through a series of swimming facilities"

Its vision extends beyond London: “our vision is to inspire people in cities around the world to reclaim their rivers for swimming and increased public use…we aim to launch a series of natural swimming baths which can be replicated and licensed in cities across the UK and worldwide, enabling people to enjoy swimming safely in their own rivers”.


In addition to making London more swimmable, these projects aim to make London greener and bluer, contributing to the health and wellbeing of all Londoners.


If this is something that wets your whistle, you can support these initiatives here and here.



Clare Delmar

Listen to Locals

27 June 2024


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