Fiona Weir led the campaign to have ‘No Swimming’ signs replaced at Sparth Reservoir
Sparth Reservoir is a small body of water at the northern end of the Peak District. It is not particularly deep (about 4.5m at most) and doesn’t have any of the hazards that are associated with drinking water reservoirs. Fiona Weir has been swimming in it for 25 years.
For much of that time, the only swimmers were children in the summer and a small group of mildly eccentric adults. It was more popular in the past and previous generations sometimes used to camp there as an alternative to expensive foreign holidays.
Then, in August 2011, without warning or explanation, ‘No Swimming’ signs went up. This, naturally, caused outrage among the regular swimmers.
At the time, Sparth was owned and managed by British Waterways. Fiona, and other swimmers, immediately wrote to the organisation asking for the signs to be removed and for an explanation.
Initially there was no response. Then, a regional manager from British Waterways did an interview on local television where he suggested that the swimmers were neglectful parents and irresponsible. According to Fiona, he also made other statements, where he talked about dangerous obstacles and currents, that made it apparent he’d never swum at Sparth.
“It was the bit about being an irresponsible parent that really got me,” says Fiona.
“I had pre-teen and teenage children at the time, and I took then to Sparth precisely because it was a safe place to swim.”
Fiona and a small group of her fellow swimmers decided the gloves were off. No more polite letters. They launched a high-profile media campaign, engaged the local MP and took the matter up with the local council. As a result, British Waterways agreed to a meeting at Sparth, which the MP attended.
“It was a bit of a set-piece,” says Fiona. “On one side, you had four middle-aged women and the MP and on the other, the team from British Waterways.”
From the swimmers’ perspective, the meeting went very well.
“We’d prepared very well,” says Fiona. ”However, we also made it clear we weren’t going away.”
As a result of the meeting, the swimmers agreed to carry out a community risk assessment. In parallel, they ran a petition and also organised a ‘Splash Mob’ for the first weekend in October.
“Something like 120 swimmers turned up, half of which had never swum there before,” says Fiona. “Suddenly, from just a handful of regulars, there were now loads more swimmers, including triathletes who started to use Sparth for training.”
Following this, British Waterways agreed to remove the ‘No Swimming’ signs and put up new ones that allowed swimming but explained the risks. And this should have been the end of the story.
But in July 2012, British Waterways’ assets and responsibilities were transferred to the Canal & River Trust (C&RT). The agreement made by British Waterways to remove the ‘No Swimming’ signs was apparently forgotten. The campaigners were demoralised but continued to swim nonetheless. In fact, swimming numbers continued to grow. Some people suggested taking hacksaws to the signs and removing them directly. Others argued that it didn’t matter as the signs didn’t impact on their ability to swim.
However, Fiona still felt strongly the signs should go and the C&RT should honour the promises made by British Waterways. So, the campaign continued with letters, emails and phone calls, and waiting – a lot of waiting. But patience and persistence eventually paid off. In April 2017, the signs were replaced as promised.
Now Sparth has people swimming all year, almost every day, and Fiona estimates there are something like 20 times the number there were when this all started.
For more information see the Friends of Sparth Swimming Facebook group.