Plunging into the icy depths of Wimbleball Lake takes strength, stamina and commitment.

For the hundreds of brave souls taking part the popular Exmoor Open Water Swim, there’s an extra reason to be committed to the challenge this year.

For the first time, the event is being run by Plastic Free North Devon, which is aiming to create a more environmentally sustainable way of organising and taking part.

There will be swimming cossies, laughter, cake and hot chocolate. What there won’t be (hopefully) is single-use plastic bottles, plastic signs or plastic packaging.

This rather ground-breaking way of organising the event which typically attracts more than 800 swimmers every year is in keeping with the way things are going around here.

In May 2022, Exmoor became the first national park to be wholly awarded plastic-free community status by the marine charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS).

Organisers of swim, which takes place on September 24, say they are delighted to be helping the park’s commitment to a sustainable future.

‘It’s wonderful, it really is,’ says race director Jo Hibberd, adding that swimming for such a good cause will only add to the positive vibes. ‘There is always a whole range of people taking part and they’re all doing it for their own personal achievements.

‘The atmosphere in that paddock before the race starts is incredible as everyone gets ready. People are so thoughtful and tolerant, looking out for each other.

‘There’s so much positivity already. This year, people will feel like they’re doing a really good thing.’

Great British Life: There have been many events organised as part of Plastic Free Exmoor. Photo: Peter HoylandThere have been many events organised as part of Plastic Free Exmoor. Photo: Peter Hoyland

All profits from the event will go to Plastic Free North Devon. But, just as importantly, the event aims to raise awareness of how simple changes can make a big difference to our carbon footprint.

Jo and her team have spent the past few months making sure everything used and handed out at the Exmoor Open Water Swim event is as environmentally friendly as possible.

Every sign and cable tie (and there are hundreds) is re-usable, vendors have been asked not to use sauce sachets for any condiments and flapjacks handed out to volunteers will be in paper bags. The swim’s official T-shirts are made from 89 per cent recycled material.

Participants are being encouraged to bring their own reusable cups for their victory hot chocolate. Even the medals handed out at the end of the swim (which will double-up as magnets or bottle openers) will use recycled ribbon.

Jo says these small changes will be built on year on year as the plastic-free message grows with each event.

‘We’ll be learning as we go and getting feedback from the people who take part,’ she says, adding that she’s looking forward to her first year in charge of this important date in the open swim calendar. ‘It’s going to be fantastic,’ she says. ‘I feel really privileged to be leading it.’

Exmoor’s plastic-free mission is going from strength to strength after the national park received its impressive accolade from SAS last year.

Great British Life: Taking part in the Exmoor Open Water Swim is a great way to help a good cause this year. Photo: Exmoor Open Water SwimTaking part in the Exmoor Open Water Swim is a great way to help a good cause this year. Photo: Exmoor Open Water Swim

More than 40 organisations across the region have shown commitment towards reducing single-use plastic. Many cafes and shops are listed as refill stations, where people can top up their water bottles.

In addition, there have been a series of ‘direct action’ events held to help rid Exmoor of plastic waste. Beach clean ups, litter picks and sessions to dispose of plastic tree guards in wooded areas have all been well attended by teams of volunteers.

Peter Hoyland is community lead for Plastic Free Exmoor.

‘The heart-warming thing about it is that people can take small steps and make a big difference,’ says Peter, inspired by the support the campaign has had so far. ‘I’m massively hopeful about the future,’ he adds. ‘What we’ve done so far has been brilliant, but we don’t want to stop there. We can go further.’


As well as going plastic-free, national park staff and the communities in and around Exmoor are working together on a series of other projects, with the aim of protecting and preserving this special place environmentally, socially and economically.

‘We are proud to have these opportunities to work together,’ says Dan James, rural enterprise manager at Exmoor National Park. ‘It’s about good partnerships. None of these things can be done by any one body.’

Great British Life: Heather Harley from the Sowing the Seeds project. Photo: ENPAHeather Harley from the Sowing the Seeds project. Photo: ENPA

Sowing the Seeds

This project was set up in 2021 to support the creation of wildflower meadows. It’s a collaboration between Exmoor National Park Authority, Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group South-West and Devon Wildlife Trust, supported by South West Water and Natural England. The intention is that ‘Sowing the Seeds’ will revive and restore species-rich grassland across Exmoor.

Project leaders Lucy Cornwall and Heather Harley are working with landowners and managers, local schoolchildren and community groups to spread the word - and the seeds. Last year, up to 110kg of seed was harvested from 3.5 hectares of established meadow, ready to hand out to new recipients in the area so they can start their own patches.

In addition, up to 22 hectares of meadow were restored across Exmoor.

This year, there are plans to set up a wildflower nursery to grow more plants and teach the community about the importance of these habitats and the species that live there.

‘There’s real momentum growing,’ says Lucy. ‘People are really starting to understand the value of meadows. It’s also a good way for everyone to share their skills.’

‘They can get involved at any level,’ adds Heather. ‘Whether they want to take an active part in the restoration themselves, or habitat monitoring or even if they just want to come out and enjoy being in a meadow.’

The CareMoor for Exmoor scheme is currently raising funds for the Sowing the Seed project.

Great British Life: Sue Applegate Public Right Of Way and Access Officer for ENPA and Simon Gibson, farm manager at the Lee Abbey estate. Photo: ENPASue Applegate Public Right Of Way and Access Officer for ENPA and Simon Gibson, farm manager at the Lee Abbey estate. Photo: ENPA

The Lee Abbey Estate

The 288-acre Devon estate in Exmoor National Park Authority is part of a nationally recognised Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The estate’s farm manager Simon Gibson has been working closely with the national park’s rangers and conservation team to improve access and rights of way for visitors across the site.

All the signposts used for the paths are made from wood grown from seed in Exmoor’s nurseries and local woodland, sawn and made in the park’s workshops by the estates team.

‘It’s worked really well,’ says Simon. ‘Some of the paths have never been open to the public before.

‘It all links up now – more people have been able to find their way around! It’s all about people being able to access the countryside.’