The brave swimmers keeping social lives afloat through winter

In the last year, the UK has seen a surge of new cold-water swimmers taking to the water, with community swimming groups such as the Bluetits and Swimminwimmin growing vastly in size.

The benefits of braving the cold are numerous, most notably aiding mental health by elevating stress and activating endorphins. This has become very important for many struggling over tough lockdown periods in the last year. Sian Richardson, founder of the Bluetits based in Pembrokeshire, told Unmasked News about this:

“Keeping up the contact over zoom has been massive for us swimmers over the last 12 months. It’s been very difficult for everyone, people are really missing that human interaction, and that’s why having this is so important. It takes you away from your daily norm, your daily grind.”

Sian Richardson (middle) leading her flock

The group, which has grown to over 6000 members worldwide, have been able to meet up in ‘Flocks’ (regional groups of the Bluetits jovially named by Richardson) of 6 at times when lockdown rules were lifted, but are now limited to socially distanced duos in some areas:

“We obviously encourage everyone to play by the rules. At first I thought that (the lockdown) wouldn’t bother me, as I live right by a beach. But over the last 12 months I have missed these girls, because it isn’t just about the swimming – it’s about the social side of it. You’re in a swimsuit, it’s freezing, the adrenaline is pumping, and there are great chats that come from this.”  

A cheerful group of the Bluetits

The Bluetits’ journey began in 2014 when founder Richardson suffered what she describes as a ‘setback and wake up call’ in failing to complete the Welsh Ironman. She instead turned her attention to the ‘Ice mile’ – swimming in water under 5 degrees with only a swimsuit. Richardson was determined to find the most extreme element of open water swimming, and after three winters of training, she completed the challenge.

From this training, Richardson’s swimming social group grew, officially becoming the ‘Bluetits’ on Facebook that year. In the last 12 months, they have seen an increase in the number of ‘Flocks’ around the UK from 10 to 90.

“The majority of people that come along are timid – deciding to join any group can be traumatic. A lot of people will join us and say that they’ve been watching us for 6 months on Facebook. But that’s okay, we never pressure anyone.”

The Bluetits have no club fees, registration, rules or requirements- factors that Richardson feels are their greatest strength.

“I’m starting to call it dipping – rather than swimming. Sometimes we will just go in up to our waist, we don’t go off with our goggles on and swim a mile every time, it’s the act of getting in the water, chatting, being together.”

While the group and in turn her responsibility has grown, Richardson is closer than ever with her local circle of swimmers.   

“I’m larger than life, I’m a little too loud – I always shout some profanity when I first go in, but people like that. They’re happy that they’re allowed to swear. I love seeing the enthusiasm I’ve instilled in the group, involving all of the local people around here, they started off with ‘Oh no we can’t’ and then they’re on billboards in London 6 months later.”

Sian Richardson and her daughter Jemeima

They’re not the only swimming group growing in numbers, however, with Swimminwimmin, based in Cornwall, growing hugely through the winter months.

Katie Richards had previously been a member of the Bluetits, before work and parenting commitments lead her to co-create Swimminwimmin:

“I had gone into 2020 with the goal of completing a hundred cold-water swims, and while the Bluetits group near me would be swimming three times a week, I couldn’t fit it around my work and being a mother. I was then recommended the Newquay group, but we decided in November to create our own and from there 25 women turned up for the first swim.”

Katie Richards on @Swimminwimmin Instagram

The group would continue to grow, and just a month after creation raised £6,500 for Newquay RNLI, and £6,700 for Cornwall Mind.

“It’s something we’re hugely proud of, and will continue to do. We have a massive range of abilities – but there is no pressure. The sea is a great leveller, it will always be more powerful than the swimmer.

Sometimes we will swim up the Gannel, or an adventure swim around Towan Castle, but at the same time sometimes we will just splash around in a rockpool.”

Another person who has found joy from cold water swimming is Minnie Harrop, a university student from Cornwall, who made it a habit after taking the plunge every day for four months in the first lockdown.

“Swimming everyday in the first lockdown really sparked my love for it, but when I went back to Uni in London I knew that I would have to find somewhere to swim there, as I couldn’t go without it.”

She managed to find spots around Hampstead Heath with outdoor lidos and ponds, before they were closed in November during the second lockdown.

Now due to current travel restrictions she is staying with her family in Cornwall, and is able to swim far more frequently again:

“It seems like it brings together a really nice, wholesome bunch of people. I’ve found that I’m able to reconnect with old friends and go swimming together. “

Adding this habit has changed her life, and now becomes something she factors into everything:

“It’s been really sweet to have made cold water swimming my thing, wherever I go now, places like Bath, Bristol, I’ll always be on the lookout to find somewhere to swim. Swimming has become such a massive part of my life.”

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