Michael Goodhart and Bruce Huett from Cam Valley Forum visited Gretton School in Girton, Cambridge on 12th October 2023 for a full day to explore the nature of chalk streams with the pupils as part of their sustainability week. The day was organised by the sustainability teacher Yair Doza and the acting head of science Jenny McCran also participated.
Gretton school is for children with Autism from aged from 7 to 19 from Cambridgeshire and wider afield. It has about 140 pupils of differing abilities, some as boarders and others as day pupils.
Four sessions were held in the science lab. Bruce used a powerpoint to elicit responses from the children on their experiences of rivers and chalk streams. He explained how he was involved with a river group that had made significant changes to the river Mel in Melbourn, Cambridgeshire. One of the pupils lived in Meldreth and was able to recount his experiences of playing near the river.
Using slides depicting animals and plants in the river he explored how it was important to maintain a healthy river environment to support biodiversity. The children enjoyed the reference to Ratty, the water vole from Wind in the Willows, and were concerned about the threat to them from predators if water levels dropped. This linked into a discussion of food chains and the role of otters. Otter spraint – a small deposit containing fish bones that otters leave on rocks to attract females has been found in the Mel and interested the pupils.
Some pupils had enjoyed seeing kingfishers and some had encountered leeches, including having their blood sucked.
The Hach kit was used to demonstrate phosphate levels in water, giving a blue colour if phosphate was present. Luckily the distilled water didn’t turn blue but Mel water, from below the sewage works, did. However, surprisingly this was lighter than a sample from Byron’s pool.
Bruce also brought samples of gravel and soft chalk from the base of the Mel to illustrate how the base of the river was formed.
With some classes there was brief discussion on the spirituality of water and the many types of water gods and forms of spring, river and water worship around the world.
Leisure activities in and on water were explored and Michael talked about and showed pictures of his experience of learning to swim in the Cam. Bruce confused one of the pupils when he asked about which stroke he liked to use. He thought it was about stroking a cat!
Michael explained the idea of designating a stretch of the river for bathing.
He also raised the issue of the declining level of water in the streams and the problems of abstraction, over use of water and climate change (illustrated by a slide of a completely dried up Mel). This led into discussions on how we could reduce the amount of water we use, with interesting suggestions from the children. The dangers of flooding were also mentioned.
There were a lot of questions from some of the pupils and this kept Michael and Bruce on their toes.
The school was very appreciative of their efforts and it was an opportunity to widen the profile of Cam Valley Forum and raise chalk stream issues with a new audience.
Anne Miller, Cam Valley forum’s lead on this says “I’m so pleased, and grateful for the hard work of everyonewho has helped, since Jean Perraton and Michael Goodhart started working towards bathing water designation back in 2020”
We are very hopeful that Defra will approve our application, and that this will unlock at least £5 Million in much needed investment from Anglian Water to help clean up the Cam. We know from the monitoring work over the last few years, that the aging and overloaded sewage infrastructure in the Haslingfield area is a major source of the faecal pollution of the Cam. This is resulting in such poor water quality that swimmers at times get sick, and it contributes to the phosphate pollution that is so damaging to habitats and wildlife. ”
“The investigation and improvements won’t happen overnight, but we hope that within a few years, it will be much safer for people to swim in the Cam”
Michael Goodhart said “The Town Bathing Place at Sheep’s Green has a history going back several hundred years, as a place where people could swim. Back in the 1960s my family would picnic and catch tiddlers along Rush and float rafts in the paddling pool. I was taught to swim in Snob’s Stream, before being allowing to dive into the main river Cam. I still love swimming in the river Cam, as do so many people. Bathing Water Designation provides a major opportunity for improving the quality of the river water for swimmers, boaters and also, very importantly we hope, for wildlife. “
Sheep’s Green in the 1970s
About bathing water designation for the Cam at Sheep’s Green
Cam Valley Forum will be applying to Defra for Bathing Water Designation for the Cam at Sheep’s Green, to improve the health of swimmers and help clean up the River Cam.
Summer evening at Sheep’s Green
Importantly, because the water quality is very likely to be offically rated as “poor”, designation should get us the investment we need to help clean up the river.
We are pleased to see that Anglian Water’s business plan, published on Monday 2 October, confirms this. In it, on pages 174-6, they say that IF the Cam gets priority, by becoming “Designated Bathing Water” they are budgeting ~£5M to improve Haslingfield’s ageing and overloaded sewage infrastructure. We need this!
However to apply for Designation, we had to have a formal letter of support from the City Council.
Our consultation has shown that designation is overwhelmingly supported by the community. We received 509 responses to our 10 week online consultation, the vast majority from the local area. 93% were in support. In addition to the City Council, we also have support from 18 organisations, ranging from Scudamores and Cambridge Canoe Club, to the Cambridge Federation of Women’s Institutes and South Cambs District Council.
The most common reason for supporting designation was wanting cleaner water in the Cam to reduce the health risks to swimmers and other water users.
The most common reason given for opposing designation, related to fears of significantly increased visitor numbers and that this would then damage precious habitats.
We share the concern to protect natural habitats, and much of our work is about preserving these. However, the fears of significantly increased numbers of visitors were in part due to rumours that the council would promote it as a visitor destination. These rumours are incorrect. Designation is simply about the health of bathers. There is absolutely no obligation to promote it as a visitor destination, so we are pleased that Councillor Sam Carling confirmed this several times during the meeting, and confirmed that the council has no intention of promoting it either.
Defra currently require us to submit 2 user surveys showing an average of at least 100 “bathers” on the 2 busiest days. Sheep’s Green has long been a popular bathing spot for communities across Cambridge, so our 2 surveys averaged more than 3 times this. However, as few people stay in the water long, we seldom saw more than 12 people in the water at a time.
We think this will have minimal impact on habitats, parks and nature reserves
A fox and paddleboarders watching each other at Sheep’s Green
A hot, but very pleasant day on Saturday 9 September, counting a total of 478 bathers in 4 hours at Sheeps Green. This is our record for the 2023 bathing season.
We already had two user surveys showing 184 and 278 bathers, which is well over Defra’s requirement of a minumum of an average of 100 bathers in 4 hours, in order to apply for Bathing Water Designation. However, as Saturday was forecast to be the hottest day of the summer, we decided to do another count.
As the afternoon temperature peaked at 32C, it was a joy to be in, on or near the river. We counted 478 bathers (ie swimmers, or children paddling) in just 4 hours.
Kids and adults swim from the quayside
Teenagers congregate at Hodsons Folly
Small children and their parents enjoy paddling in the Rush
Worryingly, some people believe that the Rush is a fresh water spring (despite the clear notice saying that its river water). We were told someone had even been drinking from it. This is not a good idea (particularly as there’s a drinking fountain near the cafe)
Very pleasant on the grass by the quayside…
and the Sheep’s Green picnic area was peaceful….
while the Lammas Land paddling pool was heaving…
the Cafe was busy..
and as usual, a few people had parked in stupid places.
Ably and fairly chaired by Jeremy Sallis (formerly of BBC Radio Cambridge), the room was packed with 62 attendees. A wide range of views were heard: Friends of the Cam handed out leaflets and spoke powerfully about their opposition to the principle of designation and their outrage at Anglian Water. Others spoke equally powerfully about the benefits of designation, particularly for the health of swimmers, Cambridge’s young people and their access to nature.
The main concerns related to increased visitor numbers. DBW would be a minor factor in increasing visitor numbers but there are a lot of other factors related to warming climate and less long distance travel for leisure that are likely to be stronger, given that the designation will result in advisories against swimming until improvements in quality can be achieved. Many people in the audience felt that visitor numbers to all green spaces in Cambridge are increasing and likely to increase for multiple reasons and this is good, and obviously will in the long-term need managing – but this should not be stopping us cleaning up the river.
The overall feeling of the meeting was supportive of designation.
One participant emailed us with her reaction to the event as follows
“Many local residents came along and put paid to the oft repeated fallacy that local people don’t want designated bathing water at Sheeps Green. The overall feeling was supportive……. every attendee received FotC leaflet, and I felt counterarguments most certainly were heard and given space to be expressed. Overall the takeaway was ‘don’t let perfect be the enemy of good’ – all these local pressure groups can and should campaign on many issues for better river health, changes to environment legislation and designation process, but just because DBWs don’t fix all problems all at once does not mean it’s not worthwhile.“
Michael Goodhart, sharing some of the 400+ year history of swimming in the Cam
Anne Miller, explaining why Cam Valley Forum proposes applying for designation
Simon Spooner explaining how the water industry works
Olwen Williams sharing her concerns for Paradise Local Nature Reserve
Success! Having counted 184 bathers on Saturday 19 August, and 237 on Thursday 10th August, we now have the evidence we need to show Defra that there are sufficient bathers to qualify for Bathing Water Designation
Although it was a breezy day, so not as inviting for swimming as our previous count on Thursday 10th August, we still achieved well over Defra’s threshold of a minimum of an average of 100 bathers/ day, counted over 4 hours on the 2 busiest days of summer. Few people stay in long, so the river never felt busy.
It was a lovely afternoon, watching people enjoying themselves, and chatting with the swimmers.
As it was a weekend, there were more punts, canoes and paddleboarders out on the river, than during the week, but everyone mixes along. Unfortunately Defra only allow us to count people as “bathers” if they actually go in the water at Sheep’s Green… But some did!
Wild swimming is a minority activity so, as usual, Lammas Land a few hundred meters away, was way busier. In late afternoon, we counted 149 adults and 110 kids there, with another 7 adults and 13 kids at the learner pool, ie 279 in total.
With just 5 people in the river at the time, this suggests that wild swimmers are only around 2% of the visitors to the area.
Designation is a powerful tool to accelerate the cleanup of the river. Firstly, because it shines an official spotlight on the water quality. Secondly, because the water quality here will almost certainly be rated as “poor”, it imposes legal obligations on industry to reduce the pollution from sewage works, urban sewage overflows and agricultural slurry. This prioritises and drives real change. Some of the key pieces of legislation are the ‘Bathing Water Regulations 2013’ , WINEP, which governs the water industry funding and WISER (Water Industry Strategic Environmental Requirements)
Designation helps accelerate the cleanup, but we’ll need to keep up the pressure for wider change too. Ultimately, we need to change our relationship with the natural world, so water can be good quality everywhere. However, this will probably take decades and the whole farming and water management system will need to change.
I’ve heard that areas with Designated Bathing Water status MUST promote bathing in the area, which will increase the number of visitor. Is this true
“3.—(1) Part 1 of Schedule 2 lists the surface waters that have been identified in England, other than excluded pools and waters, at which the Secretary of State expects a large number of people to bathe, having regard in particular to past trends and any infrastructure or facilities provided, or other measures taken, to promote bathing at those waters.”
We are informed that this means that it is a site that existing bathers use, with no signage prohibiting swimming, and where there are pre-existing facilities or infrastructure, such as steps, that support bathing.
We’ve also had confirmation from Clean River Ilkley that designation is not about marketing, and does not increase the number of visitors
Will designation increase the numbers of people coming to Sheep’s Green and the nearby Paradise Local Nature Reserve?
In the short term, no. We are counting “bathers” this summer, and we qualify for designation. (Defra require an average of over 100/ day on the 2 busiest days, and we counted 237 on 10 August and 184 on 19 August, ie an average of over 210)
We know the water quality on the Cam is very likely to be rated as “poor” which will require the council to put up a sign saying “Bathing is not advised”. This will deter rather than encourage swimmers. The experience of other river groups, such as at Ilkley in Yorkshire, is that designation has made no difference to numbers.
However, 3-5 years time, hopefully the water quality downstream from Haslingfield Sewage Works will have improved (something we’ve all been campaigning for). More people are then likely to feel safe enough to swim in the Cam at Byron’s Pool, Grantchester Meadows and Sheep’s Green.
We welcome more people connecting with nature, particularly in our highly unequal city.
When considering the Sheep’s Green area, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of the people that come to the area, do so to access the Lammas Land paddling pool, playground, cafe and local walks. When we counted visitors to Lammas Land and Sheeps Green on 19 August 3:40pm-3:55pm, only 2% were swimming in the river. This means that even if the number of wild swimmers at Sheep’s Green does ultimately increase, it will make very little difference to the overall numbers in the area.
Why choose Sheep’s Green, when most people swim at Grantchester Meadows?
Defra only allow applications from inland sites if there are toilets within 500m, and if it’s a short stretch of less than 500m. This ruled out applying for Grantchester Meadows. Nevertheless, designation will benefit the whole river between Haslingfield and Cambridge, and people will remain free to swim anywhere.
I’ve heard the council wants it to become a “Destination”. Won’t this increase numbers?
This rumour is based on a misunderstanding. It may have come from the section of the city council motion on 20 July that ‘affirms the goal …of having the water management plan for our chalk streams based on being an ‘environmental destination’ with subsequent protection as sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)”.
Note that in water resource management government jargon, an “environmental destination” means a “long term goal”, not a “destination” in the tourism sense of the word. The council motion is about getting a higher level of protection for the chalk streams from abstraction, which is something we very much welcome.
I’ve heard people calling it a Designated Bathing Area or DBA, saying that this means it’s obvious its intended to attract people to a small designated area. Is this correct?
No. The correct name, used by Government is “Designated Bathing Water.” This is because bathing is NOT restricted to a small area. In a river, water flows though the site, so a large stretch of river benefits from clean-up as a result of designation .
Are you independent?
Cam Valley Forum is a voluntary group, established in 2001, registered with HMRC as charitable. We are entirely independent, and politically neutral.
As our website states, “We work with our extensive network of partners to protect and improve the environment of the River Cam and its tributaries” We frequently criticise the water companies and others for pollution and over-abstraction.
In 2021, when our volunteers started monitoring the Cam for faecal bacteria (ie bacteria from poo), we received a small grant of £1,500 from Anglian Water as a contribution towards the costs of laboratory analysis. In September 2022, Anglian Water took over the test program, and they are providing us with test results until September 2023. We are publishing these on our website here.
We think the public deserve to have more reliable, independent information on water quality, than that provided by volunteer citizen scientists like us, or by the Water Company itself. This is why we welcome the help of a very experienced and professional body like the Environment Agency, who have responsibility for monitoring Designated Bathing Water sites.
Will it be 100% safe?
Bathing Water Designation will reduce the chance of diarrhoea and vomiting from ingesting faecal bacteria.
Most people who swim in the Cam do so without problems, however wild swimming is never 100% safe, so you should make your own judgement (and keep your mouth shut while swimming). For certainty about safety, we advise swimming in swimming pools like Kelsey Kerridge, Abbey and Jesus Green Lido where the water is filtered and chlorinated, and the pool is supervised by lifeguards.
If the site becomes a Designated Bathing Water site, the City Council will have to display the Environment Agency’s annual water quality rating, in order to help inform the public of the level of risk. In addition to this, we are also encouraging the Council to display some Wild Swimming safety advice, as Oxford City Council has done at their Designated Bathing Site.
On Thursday 10th August, the Cam Valley Forum team had a glorious afternoon at Sheep’s Green, and counted 237 bathers over the busiest four hours.
This is way higher than Defra’s requirement* to show a minimum of 100 “bathers” per day over the 2 busiest days of the summer. Nevertheless, the river never felt at all crowded.
Typically, at any one time, there were 2-10 swimmers in the river, and a similar number of small children paddling in The Rush. It was a warm day at ~26C, but after weeks of cold weather, the water was still cool at ~14C, so few stayed in longer than a few minutes. The river never felt busy.
(For those interested in the maths… if a site had an average of 5 bathers in the water at any one time, each staying in 5 minutes, that would result in 60 bathers / hour, or 240 bathers over 4 hours)
Swimming in the river gives so much pleasure: Small children and their parents picnic and play by The Rush. Adults and older kids swim from the Canoe Club quayside, while the teenagers gather at Hodson’s Folly, socialising and swimming.
“Do user surveys on 2 days during the bathing season to count the number of people bathing.… Do your user surveys for up to 4 hours at the busiest times of day. The 4 hours can be consecutive but do not need to be. For example, you can survey the site for an hour at a time at different times throughout the day, or survey the site for 4 hours in one go. Defra will use your surveys to calculate the average daily number of bathers“
We did our user survey in accordance with this, counting in four, 1 hour sessions between 12:30 and 16:50 on 10 August 2023.
We hope to do another count, later in the bathing season. Let us know if you’d like to help.
We are very pleased that at the full Council Meeting on 20 July 2023, Cambridge City Council voted overwhelmingly to approve Cllr Katie Thornburrow’s motion (with a supportive Lib Dem amendment) in support of our proposed application for bathing water designation, subject to consideration by the Environment & Community Scrutiny Committee on 5 October.
The key section of the approved, ammended motion included the statement that : “This Council.. Agrees to evaluate the potential of a formal application to Defra for an inland water stretch along the River Cam within Cambridge City Council boundaries to be designated as a bathing site, working with Anglian Water and local partners such as Cam Valley Forum, in order to secure an improvement in water quality while also taking into account the impact of any increased usage and avoidance of significant additional cost; and requests a report on this to the Environment & Community Scrutiny Committee to inform a balanced decision by the Executive Councillor.”
We welcome this addition to our consultation process.
Why do we want to apply for bathing water designation?
Cam Valley Forum wants to apply for designated bathing water status for Sheep’s Green, because this is the most powerful way we have to improve the water quality in the Cam, for the benefit of swimmers, paddling kids, punters, kayakers, our rowing crews, other river users. We hope that a reduction in sewage pollution will also benefit our wonderful natural habitats.
The requirements for designation were changed a few weeks ago, and there is some confusion about this, because the DEFRA website is confusing. However we’ve had clarification from DEFRA that they want to see evidence that an average of at least 100 “bathers” a day use the proposed stretch, at least briefly during the peak 4 hours, averaged over just the 2 peak days of the summer bathing season. We are currently gathering this evidence, so you may see CVF volunteers out counting bathers at peak times at Sheep’s Green. Our impression is that, assuming we have some nice weather this summer, the current bather numbers at our proposed stretch (from Hodsons Folly to The Rush) are sufficient to achieve designation.
It is important to note that designation is about protecting the health of existing “bathers” not attracting new ones. The experience of other inland river groups, such as at the river Warfe at Ilkely in Yorkshire is that designation results in no change in visitor numbers, not least because it highlights the “poor” water quality (as we currently have in the Cam)
This “poor” classification then creates statutory obligations under the Bathing Water Regulations 2013 that should accelerate the much needed improvements in Haslingfield sewage works.
This is why councils and community groups across the country are applying. Sixteen inland sites have already achieved designation, including Wolvercote Mill Stream in Oxford, the River Wharfe at Ilkely, and the River Deben at Waldringfield in Suffolk. Hundreds of coastal sites have of course, had designated bathing water status for years.
Cam Valley Forum, like many other local organisations, cares deeply about the River Cam and its tributaries. We are informed on issues affecting the health of the river and are allied to those of other river-related groups such as the dozen or so local practical river groups, environmental activist lobby groups, the Rivers Trust, the Chalk Stream Alliance, and the local Catchment Based Approach grouping CamEO.
We are happy to advise local government political party groups on river-related matters. We have worked to persuade all the major national political parties of the need to address several river-related matters.
We have members of many political persuasions within CVF, but we as an organisation are not in any close partnership with any political party. We can attest to Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green Party support for our stances, but we ourselves are not aligned to a political party. All four of these parties have acted to support our viewpoints. All four have impressed us with their displayed intention.
As an environmental charity (although too small to be registered with the Charity Commission), Cam Valley Forum is keen to see one or more short stretches of the Cam have a Bathing Water Designation because of the environmental benefits that it will bring. In Cambridge City, we think Sheeps Green is the most likely spot.
South Cambs District Council are also actively investigating the feasibility of applying, following a council motion from Cllr Pippa Heylings in September 2022. We look forward to hearing what they decide.
Some people have expressed understandable cynicism about whether designation will actually make a difference, so we thought it would be useful to summarise our current understanding of why it is worth the effort.
Bathing Water Designation shines a light on the water quality at a specific site which puts polluters in the spotlight. Many of us, including Friends of the Cam and others have been campaigning about the poor water quality in the Cam for years, with frustratingly little result. However, designation results in official recognition. As we know the resulting water quality will almost certainly be “poor”, this will give legal teeth to our demands. This status will be displayed on the Swiminfo website, and at the site.
Once designation is granted the Environment Agency will test the water quality throughout the bathing season for Intestinal enterococci and Escherichia coli (E.Coli) Although in Cam Valley Forum we tested every few months in 2021-22 as volunteers, and Anglian Water are testing for us weekly from September 2022-23, the data is often a month or two old by the time we’re able to upload it our website. When the Environment Agency undertake testing for a Designated Bathing Water site, they upload the data to the swiminfo website within about a week. This will make it much more useful to those of us that care about the health of the river, and to swimmers deciding whether to swim. For example, here is the data that was displayed for Ikley in Yorkshire, on 26 May 2023. (The river at Ilkley was the first inland site to get Designation)
At the end of the bathing season the designated site will be given a classification of: Excellent, Good, Sufficient or Poor. With our likely designation of “poor”, (which we understand would apply for the next year) designation is much more likely to deter, rather than attract new visitors. Ikley have seen no change in the number of swimmers in since designation, despite huge publicity. Swimming will still be allowed, so keen local swimmers will probably continue to swim, but they will be better informed about the level of risk.
Where the designation is “Poor”, the Environment agency is legally required to investigate to identify the sources of pollution. Although we’re doing what we can, they can do much more. For example, they can do DNA analysis to see if the source is human, animal or birds. Although we strongly suspect that the biggest single source is Haslingfield Sewage Works, this independent expert investigation will be incredibly helpful.
Once the source is identified, the Environment Agency will require improvements to be made to clean up. As part of the bizarrely complicated mechanism that regulates the water industry, this releases the OfWat funding that allows the work to be done. Robin Price Director of Quality and Environment for Anglian Water tells us: “Formal designation of a bathing water stretch provides us with a ‘driver’ for investment under the Water Industry National Environment Programme (WINEP) – our five-year environmental investment plan – which, if accepted by the Environment Agency should mean that Ofwat grant us the funding. This investment could include the installation of disinfection at the treatment works and/or improvements to any storm overflows in the area upstream of the bathing water.”
He continued “Please feel free to report that you have Anglian Water’s full support of the application, and that we will be happy to provide a letter of support to Defra at the appropriate moment“
In summary: Designation is no panacea, and we won’t see instant results, but, as at Ilkley it will help improve the water quality, which is something we’ve all been campaigning for.
This is why we’ve decided that its worth trying to get bathing water designation for at least Sheep’s Green. We are liasing with South Cambs District Council, and Cambridge City Council about this.
To apply, the application will need to show that there is local support, so we are planning to do a formal consultation later in the summer. It will also need to show evidence that the site is currently well used by swimmers, so we will be counting the number of swimmers using Sheep’s Green during the peak swimming season.