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King’s College’s fear over legal claims is behind Grantchester Meadows swim ban



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King’s College has revealed fears of injury claims from wild swimmers prompted it to ban people entering the River Cam at Grantchester Meadows - and now it wants assurances from council health and safety officers before lifting the restrictions.

The college, which owns the meadows, put up signs last week announcing the ban, citing erosion of the riverbank and danger to life caused by swimming in the river as reasons for stopping the swimmers, adding that ambulances had been called out four times this year.

It now says that in spite of a petition against the ban garnering more than 18,000 signatures, the college will not reinstate swimming rights at the meadows without “the express support of the councils and their health and safety officers.”

The scene by the river where King's College is trying to put into place a wild swimming ban . Picture: Keith Heppell. (48905827)
The scene by the river where King's College is trying to put into place a wild swimming ban . Picture: Keith Heppell. (48905827)

A spokesperson for King’s told the Cambridge Independent: “The college has a legal responsibility to try to deter activities which may result in harm. The advice we have been given would suggest that it is not sufficient for us to indicate that entering the river would be ‘at the swimmer’s own risk’, unless we have taken action to prevent it. We have every wish to temper the language of ‘no swimming’ to a less prohibitive form of words, but feel unable to do so without the express support of the councils and their health and safety officers. We hope they will be willing to co-operate on this and bring the ‘ban’ to end.

“The college would be supportive of the installation of swimming platforms, which would not only mitigate some of the riverbank erosion but would also allow safe entry to and exit from the water. It is unlikely that the college could instal the platforms while fulfilling its legal responsibility to deter potentially harmful activities, and so we are again looking to the councils for advice and support.”

King’s has now admitted it will not carry out patrols in Grantchester Meadows or prosecute anyone bathing in the river on their land, including the 500 people signed up for the Slow Swim between Grantchester and Sheep’s Green due to take place on Saturday.

But it will not officially reinstate swimming unless its insurers agree the college is not liable should anyone be injured while swimming.

There is a reasonable argument to say that anything which derives from public access should really be the responsibility and liability of the relevant council

King's said: "We are trying to identify internally to see if there is a way that we can amend that wording but highlight the risks that are there and actively discourage swimming but without saying 'no swimming'. If we are able to have a form of wording and the insurers are happy with that then we will change it."

The college is asking for local councils to help deal with both the public safety aspect of allowing swimming as well as clearing up litter on the meadows.

The spokesperson for King’s said: “The college has no intention of undertaking any patrols to prevent responsible use of the river, on Saturday or any other day. Our concern is that everyone stays safe, and we would ask any swimmers to consider the potential risks before entering the water. If they decide to proceed, no action will (or indeed can) be taken.”

The scene by the river where King's College is trying to put into place a wild swimming ban . Picture: Keith Heppell. (48905823)
The scene by the river where King's College is trying to put into place a wild swimming ban . Picture: Keith Heppell. (48905823)

The spokesperson added: “This signage was installed in consultation with local authorities and nearby residents. Nevertheless, we recognise that the restrictions added to the signage would adversely and unfairly affect the many conscientious users of the river.”

But it suggests responsibility for keeping swimmers safe, controlling bad behaviour and clearing up litter on the meadows needs to be “hammered out” with local councils.

King’s said: “Obviously as landlords we have responsibility and liability for the protection of the natural environment there but it’s slightly less clear when it comes to things which derive from public access. So, the council maintains the footpath and the bins but with issues like litter left outside the bins, it is unclear whose responsibility that falls to.

“During the past few weeks there have been four cases of ambulances being called. In May, because it was so busy, the college paid for a private security firm to do some rounds and make sure things weren’t getting out of hand. That was at the request of local residents.

“There are a lot of things that fall through the cracks in terms of whose responsibility they are, including the installation of (swimming) ladders and decking, but because it’s related to public access it feels like it should be the responsibility of the public authorities.

“There are two issues here, the actual platform and the issue of liability. As things stand, the college is liable for any dangerous activity and over the last few weeks it has really ramped up. We feel we have had to take some action.

King's College, Cambridge. (48994814)
King's College, Cambridge. (48994814)

“There is a reasonable argument to say that anything which derives from public access should really be the responsibility and liability of the relevant council. At the moment pretty much everything falls to us and we don’t really think that is the right solution.”

The meadows are within the area run by South Cambridgeshire District Council, which is responsible for emptying the bins at the entrance to the fields.

The council’s lead cabinet member for community resilience, health and wellbeing, Cllr Bill Handley, pointed out: “The land at Grantchester Meadows is private, owned by King’s College, so we have no powers over what takes place there. That being said, local people have enjoyed access to the meadows, and swam in the river there, for generations.

“We are keen to understand the college’s position in more detail and so are contacting them to discuss their concerns. When it comes to littering, through working with Grantchester Parish Council last year, we put in extra bins on the public land at the entrance to the meadows. These are emptied regularly, with fly-tipping around these bins also investigated and cleared when needed.”

The clarification that there will be no action taken against “conscientious” swimmers has been met with relief by the author of the petition to save swimming at the meadows, Camilla Isley.

Camilla, 47, who works for a wildlife charity, is a regular swimmer in the River Cam from the banks at the meadows.

The signage at the Newnham end of Grantchester Meadows which says swimming is no longer allowed. Picture: Keith Heppell. (48994859)
The signage at the Newnham end of Grantchester Meadows which says swimming is no longer allowed. Picture: Keith Heppell. (48994859)

She said: “It’s really wonderful and very moving to see how many people have signed the petition.

“I set it up because I have lived in Cambridge all my life and that piece of the river at Grantchester Meadows has been really significant to me. We go for Sunday walks there with my family, I went there with my parents while growing up and gatherings always include a dip in the river. Punting down there and being able to moor your boat up is just such a lovely part of living in Cambridge and a lovely part of so many people’s memories and connections to the city.

“It gives you a feeling of being free in the countryside and you can access it so easily on your bike or by walking and to think that was being taken away was devastating really.

“I’ve gone back to that river and found it has really helped my well-being during the pandemic. I started swimming there regularly in early spring, which was brilliant and reviving. It was also somewhere my daughter could swim as she is keen but not strong enough yet to manage lengths in Jesus Green pool.

“I was pleased that King’s have now said they won’t seek to prosecute any ‘conscientious’ swimmers. I think I’m one of those, so I went for a swim on Sunday and it was lovely – very peaceful.”

Camilla added that she hoped the huge numbers of people signing the petition would be enough to persuade the University of Cambridge college to meet with her and other campaigners to discuss the way forward.

A ladder in the water to help swimmers at Grantchester Meadows where swimming is to be disallowed. Picture: Keith Heppell. (48994871)
A ladder in the water to help swimmers at Grantchester Meadows where swimming is to be disallowed. Picture: Keith Heppell. (48994871)

She said: “We have had too many years of town versus gown. I have lived here for 47 years and that has always made me incredibly sad because I know many people in the university who are kind, wonderful and progressive and many people in the city are the same and we should come together more rather than have this division.”

Read the full background, including views from Grantchester, in this week's Cambridge Independent - on sale now.

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