‘It is an amazingly positive experience’ – Wild swimmers call on council to celebrate popular Sheffield site

It is one of Sheffield’s best-kept secrets, but could a ‘wild swimming’ lake just yards from the hustle and bustle of the city centre also be one of its greatest assets?

By Dan Hayes
Tuesday, 18th August 2020, 12:00 pm

Every day of the year, several dozen hardy Sheffield souls plunge into the deep, dark, bitterly cold water of Crookes Valley Park’s lake and call it fun.

They have been doing it around five years, and have even set up an online swimming club for aficionados on Facebook called the Sheffield Outdoor Plungers - or SOUP for short.

But a row is brewing between the club and Sheffield Council over the use of the lake, with the authorities insistent it is not safe for leisure use and the swimmers showing no signs of stopping.

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Pictured are Mandy Gamsu, Zama Zwane, Owen Hayman, and Mary Peace. Picture: Chris Etchells

Gardener Owen Hayman, aged 29, was one of the first to start swimming regularly at the city beauty spot around five years ago and has swum all the way through every winter since.

He said: “People swim here every day of the year. It is really difficult to gauge numbers but on a sunny day there will probably be hundreds and even in winter you might get 10 or so every morning.

“Unfortunately, we have got wind that the council may be putting up even more and bigger anti-swimming signage, but nothing about informing or educating people to help prevent harm.

“In my opinion, ‘no swimming’ signs are about as effective as trying to preventing pregnancies using abstinence-only sex education.”

Pictured are Mary Peace and Owen Hayman. Picture: Chris Etchells

‘Wild’ or open-water swimming is increasingly popular, with countless books and websites devoted to the pastime detailing hundreds of sites all over the UK.

Those who participate in the sport report not only physical but mental health improvements, with the revitalising power of cold water credited with alleviating chronic pain, depression and anxiety, to name but a few.

Owen said the Sheffield group - which currently has more than 5,000 members on Facebook - has been trying to get the authorities to recognise the benefits of safe swimming at the lake for several years, but have so far been rebuffed.

“It is massive now,” said Owen, who used to live near to the lake in Crookes but now comes in from Penistone.

Pictured is Owen Hayman. Picture: Chris Etchells

“If you go to the Lake District they provide lots of sensible advice, organisations like the National Trust are embracing it and there are plenty of councils which allow it like Birmingham and Huddersfield.

“I have provided these case studies to the council but they don’t seem interested.

“It comes down to them being afraid of being held liable if something was to go wrong but that is not necessarily the case. People enter the water at their own risk.”

In the last few weeks, some of the swimmers have even erected safety signs of their own, which feature the council’s advice but also contain guidance on safe swimming for those who wish to do so.

Pictured are Owen Hayman, Many Gamsu, Zama Zwane, and Mary Peace. Picture: Chris Etchells

But Owen said he believes if the council continue to be intransigent and demand that the new signs are removed, it could ultimately lead to a tragedy.

Joining Owen at 7.30am on a bright and dry mid-August Monday morning were Zama Zwane, Mandy Gamsu and James Smith.

Mandy, a retired GP from Crookes, who is now in her third year of swimming at the lake, said that as well as the well-documented health benefits, it was also great fun.

“You can’t not smile when you are doing it - it is intoxicating,” she said.

“It’s not just the cold but being outside in nature with a group of other people doing something that is a bit crazy. It is an amazingly positive experience.”

Owen agreed: “I used to work at the university and would come on my lunch break or before or after work. It gives you a real sense of rejuvenation and is a great way to destress.

Pictured is Owen Hayman. Picture: Chris Etchells

“We also get a real cross-section of people swimming here from all backgrounds and it is just a shame we can’t do it with the blessing of the authorities.”

Last month, Sheffield Council reiterated its opposition to swimming at the lake, arguing it was dangerously deep and cold, and could have unknown objects under the surface.

They also cited fears over water quality and testing and said very limited views from the main road could delay the reporting of emergency incidents.

“We do not want to give people the false impression that the lake is a safe place to swim,” a spokesperson said.

“Signage is in place to remind people and our staff do inform users against it, but without a continuous presence on site it is difficult to prevent people entering the water.

“For their own safety, we advise everyone not to swim in the lake. For those who want to swim in the great outdoors take a look on The Outdoor City website for the best local spots to take a dip.”

However, the Outdoor City website currently only features one legal wild swimming site – the Rivelin plunge pools – which is within the borough of Sheffield.

But Owen says the plunge pools could never accommodate the numbers which currently swim at Crookes Valley Park, leaving Sheffield open-water swimmers with little option other than to use the lake.

“I believe the Sheffield Council has a responsibility to help people live a healthy lifestyle and this is literally on their doorstep,” added Owen.

“I can’t understand why they don’t make more of it.”

For more information, you can apply to join the Sheffield Outdoor Plungers Facebook group at www.facebook.com/groups/181406392266654.

To find out more about the Outdoor City, visit www.theoutdoorcity.co.uk.

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