River Safety

Oxfordshire is a county of rivers, canals and waterways; do you know how to be safe on and around the water?
Buoyancy ring floating in water

Footpaths, towpaths and bridleways run alongside Oxfordshire's rivers, waterways and canals. They are used every day of the year by people commuting, fishing, or just hanging out and having fun. They are also popular for canoeing, punting, kayaking, narrow-boating and swimming.

Enjoy rivers and canals safely:

  • Don't cycle or walk on flooded towpaths or meadows.
  • Only go into the water if it is warm weather and safe.
  • Look out for your friends and make sure everyone is OK.

Crucial: Water is especially dangerous for people drinking or taking drugs, who are more likely to fall in, and less likely to be able to swim effectively when they do. Passing out in or near water is especially dangerous, as water levels and flow can change suddenly at any time of year.

Avoid falling in

Most people who die from drowning did not intend to enter the water. They fell in. Soft banks and vegetation can make it hard to see the edge of the river. Running or cycling might make it harder for you to avoid the water. Drinking, taking drugs or messing around can all lead to falling in the water.

Take action: If you, or someone else falls in, know what to do - shout for help, stay calm, and swim to the nearest bank, working with the current. There's lots more information from Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Water Safety including tips for dog-walkers, anglers and more.

Learn to swim

Anyone who goes into the river is at risk, especially when the water is cold or fast flowing. But if you can swim, you are safer. Learning to swim is always worthwhile. It stops you panicking and gives you skills to keep yourself safe.

In summer lots of people enjoy swimming for fun in Oxfordshire's lakes, waterways and rivers. There are traditional bathing places, and people have a lot of fun on the water. But it is important to take care because the bottom is often not visible, and there may be currents and hidden objects.

Remember, even strong swimmers are at risk, especially if you are ill, tired, cold, or have been drinking or taking drugs. In murky or unfamiliar water, you risk sudden changes of depth, strong currents and injury from underwater hazards.

Unless you are a trained lifesaver, you should not jump into the water to save someone. 

Instant expert: A great way to get confident around rivers is to learning swimming, canoeing, sailing or other activities. Find information about activities for young people on Activities Oxfordshire.

Have fun on the river

There are lots of ways to enjoy Oxfordshire's waterways, like boating, punting, rowing, canoeing, kayaking, sailing and pleasure-boating. But every year there are accidents. Young people may be more at risk, because they are smaller, which makes them more likely to get chilled. 

If you are having fun in or around a river:

  • Stay out of water unless you know it is safe.
  • Make sure you can get help and have access to safety equipment.
  • Never enter the water alone
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs as these make accidents more likely.

Crucial: Don't forget to protect your skin from the sun!

Swimming in rivers

There are traditional swimming areas on many of Oxfordshire's rivers. These are very popular during hot days in summer with confident swimmers. But they are not as safe as swimming pools, because the water is unheated, there are no lifeguards, and the water is murky. This means that if you do get into trouble, it may be hard to find you, and there will be no-one there who is trained to help.

Instant expert: Whenever you enter cold water, you risk cold shock. This is where your body is shocked by the change in temperature and starts to shut down. This can happen as soon as you enter the water, or it can come on gradually after you have been swimming for a while. It happens to all kinds of people, including fit, healthy people and strong swimmers. Cold shock makes you feel weak, tired, breathless and can make you lose consciousness. It is a major cause of drowning. Water in UK rivers and reservoirs is cold all year round. Be aware of the risk.

Floods and Freezes

Some parts of Oxfordshire flood in wet weather. This causes inconvenience and damage, but can also be dangerous:

  • Unexpected floods or currents can knock you off your feet or bicycle.
  • Floods hide the edges of waterways, so you can accidentally enter deep water or stray off paths.
  • Flood water is dirty and murky, covering obstacles and dangers like storm drains

During winter, ice and snow on rivers, floodplains and meadows is dangerous. Snow hides dips and ditches, and ice is not thick enough to walk across. Floods, snow and ice can also hide the edges of deep, cold water.

Crucial: Cold and wet? You may feel fine, but still need to get warm and dry as soon as possible. If you are ill, hungry, thirsty, tired, or have been drinking or taking drugs, there is more risk. Never rest where you are, even for a moment - get to somewhere safe and warm where you will be looked after. In an emergency (for example, if someone is unconscious) call 999.

Don't get cold

Cold weather, wet clothes and water (even shallow water) can kill. Exposure, hypothermia, drowning and accidents claim lives every year. Symptoms of hypothermia include violent shivering, clumsiness, falling over, slurring your speech and becoming angry or irrational.

Alcohol increases the danger of hypothermia, and the symptoms are easy to confuse with being drunk. Alcohol and drugs are much more risky in cold conditions.

Cold weather, snow, water levels and floods can all quickly get worse. If you need to travel, take a charged mobile phone and have an emergency plan. And always make sure you look out for all your friends.

Crucial: Younger, smaller people are more at risk from the cold - but so are older people, and not all of the risks are as obvious as hypothermia. Find out more about how your body copes with cold weather and why keeping warm matters - for all the family.

Plan, tell, check, remember!

This video from the #gotyourback campaign is all about looking after your mates when you are out and about. It was made as part of a campaign to help young people living in towns where there are canals and river - like many of Oxford's towns - get home safely, no matter what. Always:

  • Plan a safe route home, avoiding waterways - would a bus or taxi be safer than walking?
  • Tell your friends how you're getting home - and when you're home safe
  • Check that everyone in your group is there, OK and not taking risks
  • Remember what to do in an emergency - and where life preservers are

Find out more


Posted by Zara d'Archambaud
Posted ago
We have a Health and Safety Week the week beginning Monday 16th July. Would anyone be able to come into school this week and talk to the children about water safety?

Leave a comment or question

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.