A Cambridge University college has signalled a climbdown in its ban on wild swimming by stating it will not be prosecuting anyone who swims responsibly in the Cam.
King’s College has also promised a review after the ban prompted defiance from local swimmers, a petition signed by more than 17,000 people, and ridicule aimed at leaders of the college.
The ban was imposed last Thursday with the erection of “no swimming” notices at Grantchester Meadows, once a favourite bathing spot of the writers Lord Byron, Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke.
Over the weekend the ban was openly flouted and at least one “no swimming” sign was defaced. A spoof notice on King’s headed notepaper was posted at the site, mocking what it portrayed as an elitist decision by the college.
Addressed to “Dear Peasants”, it said: “The fact that Grantchester Meadows and the river have been enjoyed by and provided inspiration to generations of people is irrelevant, we own the land.”
King’s said there remained a problem with antisocial behaviour at Grantchester Meadows but it had agreed to review the swimming and boating ban in consultation with campaigners. The college has agreed to meet Camila Ilsley, a local resident who set up the protest petition, and Lucy Nethsingha, the leader of Cambridgeshire county council, who has also expressed unease about the ban.
On Monday a King’s spokesperson said: “The advice we have been given would suggest that legally 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 swimming. This advice will be reviewed.
“In the meantime we cannot imagine any circumstances under which the college would bring a civil claim against someone swimming responsibly.”
Asked if the no swimming signs would be removed, he said a decision could be made on this by Tuesday.
Ilsley said: “I’m very happy about the review and that it happened so quickly, but I hope it will be a genuine conversation. Our bottom line is to restore public access to the river without any restrictions.
“Ending our right to access the water cuts out most of the enjoyment. Being able to swim and come to the meadows by boat is a big part of living in Cambridge and has been for donkeys’ years.
“People are carrying on normal swimming, including me. Protest swims are on the horizon, but I’m going to keep out of that while the negotiations are on.”
Nethsingha, who took over as leader when the Lib Dems won control of the council in May’s local elections, said: “Now is the time for a serious conversation between all the partners about the future management of the area, and I am very glad that King’s is now willing to engage with that discussion.”
Asked whether she would advise local swimmers to continue to bathe at Grantchester, she said: “Swimmers in small groups actually swimming do no harm, but there are real issues when there are large groups larking about at the water edge for the whole summer.”