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Mass protest swim planned in River Cam at Grantchester Meadows

Campaigners are planning a mass protest swim at Grantchester Meadows following the ban on wild swimming by King's College last week.

The ACORN union in Cambridge is organising the event at 11am tomorrow (Saturday, July 10) at the meadows and is welcoming everyone who feels confident to swim.

They are demanding the removal of the 'No Swimming' signs erected at the entrance to the meadows and want installation of safe access points to the river as well as a "meaningful consultation" with the wider public by the college.

A spokesperson for the group said: "The demonstration is in response to the decision made by King’s College to ban wild swimming and boating at Grantchester Meadows—an indispensable part of Cambridge community life. This restriction on access to such a widely-loved green space by a private landlord is an insult to the whole community, for whom Grantchester Meadows has been particularly vital during the recent lockdowns.

A ladder in the water to help swimmers at Grantchester Meadows where swimming is to be disallowed. Picture: Keith Heppell. (49038414)
A ladder in the water to help swimmers at Grantchester Meadows where swimming is to be disallowed. Picture: Keith Heppell. (49038414)

"To demonstrate our opposition to this move, ACORN members will stage a mass swim in the Cam and demand the removal of ‘No Swimming’ signs, provision of measures to facilitate safe use of the river (e.g. installation of access points), and a meaningful consultation with the wider public about access to the space.

"There has been considerable public resistance to the ban with more than 19,000 people signing a petition demanding public access to the river. Our action will be more visible and targeted, sending a clear message about the right to roam nature and green spaces that we think your readership will be interested in.

"Finally, it will confirm ACORN’s opposition to the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts (PCSC) Bill. In its current form, the proposed legislation would see the criminalisation of trespass, a further entrenchment of the already substantial rights of landowners at the expense of the way of life of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities."

Caitlin Cheshire, 23, from ACORN, added; "We want as many people to come as possible. We are holding this demonstration because we are keen for people to still get to have access at the meadows, swimming there has been a long standing tradition. I know the college is reviewing the decision but we really want to send a message to them that this is something the community cares about and there are ways to go forward with this that don't involve a ban on swimming. If safe swimming is an issue then there should be safe swimming access points, there should be barbecue areas like the ones on Jesus Green and there should be some bins to help with the littering. We are keen to make it a productive conversation but the community will not stand for this ban."

The signage at the Newnham end of Grantchester Meadows which says swimming is no longer allowed. Picture: Keith Heppell. (49038420)
The signage at the Newnham end of Grantchester Meadows which says swimming is no longer allowed. Picture: Keith Heppell. (49038420)

Last week, the University of Cambridge college erected signs stating that swimming and watersports would no longer be allowed from the riverbank at the meadows, which it owns.

The decision by the college, who did not consult with local residents, has caused outrage and a petition against the ban has already attracted 20,000 signatures. King's College has stated that there are safety concerns regarding people swimming in the River Cam at Grantchester Meadows and that it will not reinstate swimming rights at the meadows without “the express support of the councils and their health and safety officers.”

Wildlife charity worker Camila Isley, who launched the petition, said she would not be joining the protest as she wants to "focus on dialogue" with the college. However, she added: "I am pleased that people are taking up the cause. It shows how much it matters to so many people. Reading through the petition comments has been very emotional and I can feel how important this issue is to people. I'm not surprised that there is protest. The more we speak to people, the more we understand that this is an issue of an exclusive few getting their way without process or representation... it's not fair to the thousands who care about the meadows."

Cambridgeshire County Council leader, Lib Dem councillor Lucy Nethsingha has organised a meeting between King's College, the petitioners, local councillors and residents' groups. However, she warned: " I do not know at this point whether it would be possible for anyone else to take over the responsibility for public safety."

King's College confirmed the meeting would take place, saying: "We are pleased to be meeting with representatives from the Councils and petitioners next week, and hope to quickly arrive at a solution for the benefit of all."

Earlier this week, Cllr Nethsingha told the Cambridge Independent: "She said: “If you look at the signs they are quite small. I think that maybe King’s thought people wouldn’t necessarily notice. But my goodness they have and they don’t think that they had any idea it would get the sort of response it has.”

South Cambs District Council have also been invited to discuss the suggestion from King's that local council's could take on more responsibility for public access. Their Lead Cabinet Member for Community Resilience, Health and Wellbeing, Cllr Bill Handley, said: “We remain keen to understand the college’s position in more detail and look forward to meeting to discuss their concerns. However, as we’ve already said, the land at Grantchester Meadows is private, owned by King’s College, so we have no powers over how it is used.”

The scene by the river where King's College is trying to put into place a wild swimming ban . Picture: Keith Heppell. (48905831)
The scene by the river where King's College is trying to put into place a wild swimming ban . Picture: Keith Heppell. (48905831)

Grantchester parish councillor Maggie Challis is a member of Grantchester Meadows Forum, which has been in discussion with King’s for “years” about issues of safety, anti-social behaviour, littering and environmental damage to the meadows and the dangers to grazing cattle. This is the forum where the swimming ban was mooted by King’s.

She said: “We love our meadows and we love everybody loving them. We are absolutely not trying to stop anyone having a good time on the meadows but the meadows won’t survive if people have a good time in the way they are doing at the moment. The other day there were half a dozen extremely well built chaps in the river ducking each other. They’d had quite a lot to drink, there were lots of empty beer cans around on the riverbank, how any of them got out alive I have no idea. It was extraordinary! They weren’t going to have a swim, they went to have a good time in the river, but behaving like that stirs up the bottom of the river bed and it disturbs the wildlife, it disturbs the neighbours and that is when it becomes challenging."

“We’ve had ambulances out, we’ve had concussions, also a lot of organisations advertised Grantchester Meadows as a place to come for a day out. It’s not just people in Cambridge having a day away from the city, people come from far and wide to go wild swimming. The swimmers are not the problem but all this other bad behaviour is.”

She added that the catalyst for trying to sort out anti-social behaviour was the death of a cow after it choked on litter and the Grantchester Meadows Forum has been looking for solutions ever since. Sitting on the forum are parish councillors, Newnham councillors, residents’ associations and King’s College.

“The forum has discussed all sorts of possible ways to solve these problems,” says Cllr Challis. “There isn’t a suggestion that we haven’t already explored but it would be good if everybody, rather than just a focus group, had an opportunity to discuss these suggestions and realise why some of them are not practical.

The scene by the river where King's College is trying to put into place a wild swimming ban . Picture: Keith Heppell. (48905854)
The scene by the river where King's College is trying to put into place a wild swimming ban . Picture: Keith Heppell. (48905854)

“The most popular suggestion we get is to put bins along the meadows but you can’t because who is going to empty them? It’s farmland. It has locked gates to keep the cattle in. We have been round these loops over and over again.

"I have to say we have a range of different views on who should manage the Meadows and how draconian or liberal the rules should be. If there was an easy solution we would have found it years ago.”

She added that everyone on the forum, including Newnham councillor Lucy Nethsingha, had been shown the wording of the King’s College signs banning swimming and “nobody objected”.

Cllr Nethsingha disagrees. She said: “I did express concern in the meeting but the signs had already been produced by King’s and were going up in a couple of days.”

Cllr Challis said: “It is something everybody knew was coming. On June 9, the focus group was sent a mock-up of the signs with the wording on it so we all knew and nobody disagreed, which isn’t the same as everybody agreeing but certainly was shared with everybody.”

Now she hopes the petition will spark an open discussion about how the meadows can be enjoyed while being protected.

“I hope it will make people think a little bit, once their blood pressure has come down, about how lucky we are to have the meadows.”

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