A wild swimmer’s battle to clean up our rivers, and you can help

From our rivers to Westminster – how a wild swimmer has taken her fight for clean water to our MPs.

“I’m just a wild swimmer and nature lover,” says Angela Jones. “But I knew our rivers were in trouble when I started to smell, taste and see what was happening to them when I swam in them.

“I never wanted to become an environmental campaigner, but I can’t stand by and watch our rivers die.”

Angela Jones wild swimming in a riverCredit: Angela Jones
Angela Jones has loved wild swimming all her life.

Jones, from South Wales, may be a reluctant campaigner but her battle to clean up our waterways has taken her to Westminster where she’s warned MPs that our rivers are dying.

She has been dubbed the ‘Wild Woman of the Wye’, because over the past few years she’s been painted green, towed a coffin in a river flotilla, spoken at public protests and taken part in television documentaries and news articles.

Jones, a former international triathlon and mountain running athlete, says she has been forced into action because of the level of pollution in our waterways.

A report last year by Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee found that no river in the UK is free of pollution and they are contaminated by a “chemical cocktail” of sewage, agriculture and road run off, and plastic.

Jones sees this  first-hand as she teaches wild swimming and paddle sports in the River Wye, which runs along the border of England and Wales. She’s worked with TV personalities Kate Humble and Ant Middleton, among others.

Angela Jones talking to television personality Kate HumbleCredit: Angela Jones
Angela Jones teaching Kate Humble about wild swimming.

The river is one of the most threatened in the UK and tests have shown it has high phosphate levels which are linked back to agriculture and sewerage.

This is where Jones swims. She says: “I have swum in the River Wye my whole life. This river runs in my veins. I have swum it from source to the sea and I love every section of it.

“When I was a child, I used to bunk off school and go swimming. Years ago, everyone thought I was mad, but times have changed, and now wild swimming is fashionable.

“The river has changed”

“I’m almost 57 now and over the years I have seen the river change. I’ve watched wildlife and vegetation disappear and a brown slime start to cover the riverbed. I’ve smelt the sewerage coming into the water and unfortunately tasted it too.

“It’s got worse and worse over the years, and I couldn’t stand by anymore without trying to do something. There are areas of the River Wye now where it isn’t safe to swim. This is happening in rivers and waterways across the UK. We have to stop this.”

A group of wild swimmers in the River WyeCredit: Angela Jones
Angela Jones has helped hundreds of people learn to wild swim.

The start of a campaign.

So, Jones started campaigning. She and a growing group of volunteers started monitoring the river, filming any discharges into the water and reporting them to environmental watchdogs.

She has now trained up more than 300 volunteers to test the water for pollutants and officially record their findings.

When nothing happened, she organised a pilgrimage, where she and other protestors towed a coffin daubed with the words ‘death of the Wye,’ the length of the river to raise awareness.

Angela Jones with a coffin saying death of the wye.Credit: Angela Jones
Hundreds of people joined Jones when she towed a coffin down a river in protest.

She’s hosted protest marches and meetings, was involved in a BBC Panorama programme, has worked on investigations with Guardian journalists and is regularly interviewed on television and for newspapers about her campaign.

And now she’s spoken to MPs at Parliament where she addressed the Welsh Affairs Select Committee.


Speaking to MPs.

She says: “They wanted to hear about my experiences, my research and my campaign.

“I was blunt with them and told them that the level of pollution in the River Wye is so bad now that last summer the whole river was too dangerous to swim in because of poisonous algae.”

“Pollution and dumping of sewage is happening all over the UK. We all need to protest about what is happening to our countryside, but there is a need to do it in the right way. Aggression never brings progression, but longevity does. We have a growing army of people testing their local waterways and reporting their findings. Facts are the only way we can get anything changed.”

Angela Jones leading an environmental protest march.Credit: Angela Jones
Jones has been joined by hundreds of people during her campaign.

“When I gave birth to my two children, I vowed to protect them and I feel the same about nature. I am doing this for our countryside, our wildlife and our future generations. I’ve swum in the river for 35 years and I want to ensure the water is safe for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren so they can do that too.”

What you can do

Jones says we can all play our part in looking after our local environment.

She says: “We think that the problem is too big for us as an individual to get involved in, but it’s not. I’m dyslexic, I don’t have broadband at home and do it all off my phone. I am proof that everyone can do something.

“When you walk your dog, take a dip in your local river or go out for a stroll you can make a difference. Keep your eyes open, if you see something coming out of a pipe into a river that doesn’t look natural take a 10 second video of it. Write down where it is and what day and time it is.

Angela Jones climbing down steps into a river for a swimCredit: Angela Jones
We can all play our part, whether we are walking by rivers or swimming in them.

“Then report it within 24 hours. You will get palmed off, but your report will be logged and environmentalists can access that data and see if there is an issue in a particular area.

“If pollution isn’t logged, then nothing gets done because no one knows about it until the river and its wildlife is damaged beyond repair.

“No matter how small your contribution, it will make a difference.”

How to report river or waterway pollution

Englandwww.gov.uk/report-an-environmental-incident | Phone: 0800 80 70 60

Waleswww.naturalresources.wales | Phone: 0300 06 53 000

Scotlandhttps://www2.sepa.org.uk/EnvironmentalEvents | Phone: 0800 80 70 60

Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her


Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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