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Swimming in the Thames - Questions & Answers

What’s changed?

A new byelaw came into force on 1st July 2012, controlling swimming in the busiest part of the Thames between Putney Bridge and Crossness (just below the Thames Barrier) by making it necessary to get the prior consent from the harbour master.  

To be clear: we have not ‘banned’ swimming over the 95 miles of river that we cover.  From Teddington Lock to Putney and from Crossness (roughly the Thames Barrier) to the North Sea there are no explicit requirements, bar people using their common sense. 

Our concern is the busy stretch of river from Putney to the Barrier.  Here you encounter a fast running tide, bridges and eddies which can drag a person underwater in a trice.  And there are also passenger vessels which carry over six million people a year and 1,000-tonne barges carrying freight. 

In this environment, swimming in the Thames is akin to rambling on the M25.  A hazardous undertaking.  That is what we are seeking to apply greater control to, saving the lives of potential swimmers and other river users in the process, in new set of byelaws signed off by the Department for Transport.

Why have you made the change?

Between Putney and Crossness the Thames is a dangerous stretch of the river, with strong tides and eddies that can drag a person underwater without warning. It is also part of the busiest inland waterway in the UK.

In summary the reasons for the new swimming byelaw are:

  • to reinforce the strong advice of the PLA and other organisations on the river, including the RNLI, MCA and the Police, that attempting to swim in the River is dangerous and should not be undertaken.
  • in the interest of other river users, as a boat having to stop suddenly or swerve to avoid a swimmer could put the boat and/or its passengers at risk of injury.
  • to ensure that organisers of swimming events are fully aware of the risks and that the events would not be disruptive to passenger boat and freight operations on the river. Passenger services are a growing part of the commuter and tourist travel network in London and freight services keep thousands of lorries off London's roads.

Won’t this stop fund raising swims?

No.  The new byelaw would not prevent a "David Walliams" type charity swim.  The PLA worked extensively with Sport Relief on this great swim which ended at Westminster and was carefully planned and managed with safety boats in attendance at all times.

We also worked with American adventurer,  Charlie Whitmack, who took to the Thames in July 2010.  He swam to Lambeth Bridge where he got out of the river, ran through the capital before re-entering the water down river of the Thames Barrier.  This was part of his endeavour to complete world's longest triathlon.

The new byelaw is designed to balance the interests of all river users in the use of our great River.

What was the consultation process?

The byelaw is part of a new set of byelaws which were confirmed by the Department for Transport, after extensive consultation.

The consultation involved riparian authorities, the Maritime & Coastguard Agency, RNLI, Police, other authorities and river users.

The new Port of London Thames Byelaws were subject to a two-stage consultation process:

  • preliminary informal consultation by the PLA in 2008
  • formal consultation through the Department for Transport in 2011

These consultations informed the final version of the byelaws, approved in May this year.


See more at Swimming in the Thames - new arrangements