2023 bathing season record: 478 bathers 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

Making a big splash

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.

Successful Bathing Water Consultation Event

We held a well attended and lively consultation event on bathing water designation in Newnham Sports and Social Club on Tuesday 29 August.

Download the presentation here

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

Download the presentation here

Do respond to the consultation here by the deadline of 15 September 2023

FAQs about Bathing Water Designation at Sheep’s Green

How does designation help clean up the river?

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

No. This is completely false

The rumour probably results from the line in the Bathing Water Regulations 2013

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.

Cllr Katie Thornburrow has confirmed that the City Council has NO plans to turn Sheep’s Green into a vistor destination, and none have been discussed

I’ve heard the council will have to build showers and changing rooms and dredge the river. Is this true?

No. Bathing Water Designation is for the benefit of current “bathers”.  Theres no requirement to improve facilities, or to carry out any other changes.

Cllr Katie Thornburrow has confirmed that the designation does not require new facilities to be built and the council has no plans to do so

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.