FEATURES,  Opinion

Why I swim at Shepperton Open Water Swimming

By Christine Chapman

Shepperton Open Water Swimming is a precious jewel but it’s under threat of closure. We’re working hard to preserve it. 

I swim at SOWS from May to November, and despite living some 10 miles away, I’m in the lake up to five times a week. I live much closer to both an indoor 25 metre pool and the River Thames but neither come close to the wonderful feeling of swimming in Shepperton’s clean open water. I love the freedom of the natural environment with only the sky above me, away from chlorine, crowded lanes, appalling lane etiquette and perpetual turns.

The water at Shepperton is glorious and its surroundings are beautiful, too. Tree-lined with native species, wildflowers and herons on the water’s edge, sharing the water with swans, geese, and ducks, often with their young families. Peaceful surroundings and beautifully clean water make for a wonderful swim, every time. I like to imagine passengers on a plane flying from Heathrow seeing us out of their window in the water and thinking how much they’d like to join us. 

Everyone leaves the lake after a swim with a smile, whatever the weather or temperature. There is a special community atmosphere evident in how we gather for a chat and warm drinks after our swim, and that we’re all conscious of each other’s wellbeing particularly when the water is colder. 

The wonder of the natural environment is reflected in the work of the lake staff. Running Shepperton is no small feat, with hundreds of swimmers turning up for every session. The lake is run by a friendly, hardworking team who do everything they can to help swimmers feel confident in the water. The staff in and at the water’s edge are alert and attentive in a way that makes every swimmer feel safe, and it’s evident Shepperton has a culture of putting safety first. There are strict rules on swimming ability, lifeguarding canoeists are always on the lake, spotters on the shore, and rules on wearing bright hats and having tow floats are strictly enforced. I’ve been at the lake when swimmers have had medical problems and the response from the team has been rapid and appropriate. 

Shepperton is a special place for everyone lucky enough to swim there but it’s been an essential part of managing my journey of surgeries, chemotherapy and radiotherapy for two cancers in the last 10 years. Staying as well as I can is so important to me, and the open water at Shepperton is so clean has been vital in not compromising my health when my immune system has been weaker. The water at Shepperton is filtered through the gravel pit and is near drinking water quality. I’ve always felt reassured that the water is checked regularly. This has been vital for me to be able to enjoy the open water swimming so paramount to my emotional and psychological wellbeing through my treatment.

A precious resource under threat

There is a very real possibility that a local flood prevention plan, the River Thames Scheme, could drastically change all this. The current plan is to channel water from the Thames through the lake, hugely affecting the lake’s water quality. We are all acutely aware of the frequently poor quality of the water in the Thames, and this scheme’s plan to divert it through the lake is devastating.  

I’m very worried about the impact this plan would have on the health of all the swimmers at Shepperton, but particularly people like me with a compromised immune system. We’ve formed a dedicated group to follow these plans closely and have petitioned the Environment Agency to consider other options for local flood prevention. Of course, we all understand the necessity for effective flood prevention measures, but the current plan seems not to consider the loss of a venue so loved and renowned for clean and safe outdoor swimming. We have suggested alternatives that we believe would meet the flood alleviation objectives and save the lake. The Environment Agency say it’s keen to increase leisure activities in the local area yet suggests a plan that could close a venue that provides a wonderful open water experience to up to 2000 swimmers each week. Almost all these swimmers spend additional money in the Bbrough supporting local businesses, according to our recent survey.

As a group we’re working hard to raise the profile of the lake and what an asset it is for the community, and how much of a loss it would be if the lake had to close due to the scheme compromising the water quality. We urge the scheme’s proponents to seriously consider an alternative flood relief plan which avoids contaminating the lake. I am one of many swimmers at Shepperton who would be left without a comparable open water venue if this plan went ahead, particularly due to my personal health circumstances.

Shepperton is a special place for many swimmers in the area for many different reasons. We all hope that the joy, safety and peace of mind it provides will be preserved for us and those still to discover the wonder of swimming here. 

Supporters can continue to lobby their local MP to support the prevention of the River Thames Scheme from filtering a constant flow into Ferris Meadow. The Campaign hope to receive an update from the Environment Agency and Surrey County Council within the coming month and will reach out to the community when they learn more.

You can keep up to date on progress through the following social media handles:

Instagram: @saveourlake

Twitter: saveshpprtonlake

Facebook: Save Shepperton Open Water Swim Lake

The petition is still gaining signatures and can be viewed and signed here: https://chng.it/RbNKFNY57z

On behalf of SOWS, its community and Save the Lake Campaign, thank you all for your continued support and interest.

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.