We all know by now that wild swimming is basically nature’s Prozac. Plunging into a river, lake or sea can raise serotonin levels, alleviate stress, combat chronic pain and boost the immune system. It’s like free therapy and a cocktail of prescription drugs rolled into one. Yet English wild swimmers face a dilemma. That feeling of ritual purification and mental clarity is tempered by the unromantic question: “Am I swimming in sewage?” The health benefits of a cold water swim go hand in hand with the risk of contracting norovirus, E coli or worse, from tainted water. So wild swimmers are finally taking water companies to task.

Kit Yates is part of a wild swimming group that meets every Saturday. Rain or shine, they plunge into Wolvercote Mill Stream, a tributary of the Thames in Oxford. A popular swimming spot, Wolvercote is one of three rivers with bathing water status in England, meaning the Environment Agency test the water quality once a week in summer months. However, it has been rated poor for three years in a row. According to Thames Water data, the water quality could be affected by eight storm overflow pipes upstream, which discharged untreated sewage for a combined total of over 12,000 hours in 2023. When bathing water season ends in September, intrepid swimmers like Yates have no way of knowing what they’re wading into.

“We make sure we keep our heads out of the water, though that’s obviously not the only way you can get ill. If you’ve got cuts and stuff, you can get ill through those. It’s a bit of a gamble,” he says. The high stakes became clear when one of his friends grew seriously ill after a swim. Results from a lab test revealed he had caught dysentery. “I’m not sure he’s fully recovered. He’s had stomach issues for a while since,” says Yates. Since then, some of the group have stopped going, but Yates can’t tear himself away. “It’ll probably take till something bad happens to me for me to actually stop,” he says. “It’s more of a mental health exercise than a physical health exercise. We’re just chatting, floating along the stream… and it’s lovely. So I don’t want to be deprived of that.”

Yates goes to local protests and attends meetings with Thames Water about the river quality, but he decided to take another water company to court after a spoiled summer holiday in Cornwall. He and his family had been unable to swim after South West Water released sewage near the beach where they were staying. Yates tried to sue them over “loss of amenity”, a claim related to loss in the quality of a person’s life. He received a strongly worded letter back from South West Water, which questioned his “inherent right” to swim in the sea, and promised to fight the case robustly in the small claims court. Spooked by the letter, Yates backed down. “I got a little bit of legal advice from a friend and just decided it wasn’t worth following it up,” he says.

South West Water questioned his “inherent right” to swim in the sea

South West Water also told Jo Bateman she had no inherent right to swim in the sea, but it didn’t put her off. Originally from the Midlands, Bateman moved to Exmouth in 2018 after walking the South West Coastal Path. She has since fallen in love with cold water swimming. “On the face of it, it does look bonkers. But for me, it is absolutely the most meditative, mindful experience,” she says.

It’s been a tonic for her mental health. Since she started swimming in the sea, Bateman’s doctor has reduced her anti-depressants dosage by half. She tries to swim every morning, at Exmouth Beach, but not before checking the Surfers Against Sewage map, which monitors the water quality across England’s beaches and provides sewage alerts. “It’s invariably the sewage in the sea that stops me,” she says. “I find it very, very frustrating when I can’t swim. I can feel myself sort of sinking. I need to be in that water.” After raising complaints with South West Water to no avail and receiving little help from the Consumer Council for Water, Bateman filed a claim against South West Water, like Yates, for loss of amenity.

Water companies are allowed to release untreated sewage through storm overflow pipes in “exceptional circumstances”, like heavy rainfall. Bateman’s initial claim was for all the days in 2023 when she had been unable to swim due to what she believed were illegal sewage spills – 54 in total. But after her case was picked up by major news outlets, she was offered legal support from Leigh Day and The Good Law Project, a non-profit aimed at social and environmental justice. They have redrafted the case and narrowed it down to an incident in December when a sewer in Exmouth burst.

“Ten tankers transported up to three million litres of untreated sewage a day for the next three days,” according to the Good Law Project. But they didn’t take the sewage to one of a number of nearby sewage treatment works. “Instead, South West Water drove this untreated sewage straight to a pumping station that was already spilling sewage into the sea, making it unsafe to swim off the beach at Exmouth for ten days.” The claim is now for a mere £60, but Bateman says it’s not about money. “The sea belongs to all of us, and we do have a right to swim in it,” she says. “I really want people to understand that this isn’t actually just about me.”

A spokesperson from South West Water said: “We care really deeply about the quality of bathing waters that are in our region, and it’s always upsetting if anybody feels that they can’t enjoy them when they want to. That said, almost all of the bathing waters in the region are of ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ quality which is set by the Environment Agency.” Exmouth Beach’s water quality is rated “excellent”. But as Bateman points out, testing of bathing waters only takes place between April and September, meaning that months where there is heavier rainfall and a higher volume of sewage spills are not accounted for.

South West Water has until June to respond to Bateman’s redrafted case, before a hearing at a small claims court in summer. Her advice to others is to “wait and see what happens” before launching cases of their own. But for now, she is optimistic. “I think we have a very strong case, and I think South West Water should be worried,” she says. “If I win this, it will open the floodgates for all the other people who are angry about this.”

Claudia Cockerell is a freelance journalist in London. She’s written for The Evening Standard, the New Statesman and The Oldie

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