The Bluetits has inspired thousands to take up wild winter swimming. Liz Jones takes a chilly dip with founder, Sian Richardson, to find out more.

While it is easy to see the appeal of a refreshing dip on a sunny summer day, an icy immersion on a cold winter morning may not be so enticing. But a few minutes in the company of outdoor swimming trailblazer, Sian Richardson, is enough to tempt the most unlikely of winter dippers to take the plunge.

I am meeting Sian on a chilly winter’s morning at Pembrokeshire’s Whitesands Bay. Set beneath the majestic Carn Llidi, Whitesands attracts thousands of holidaymakers during the summer, when it becomes a magnet for surfers and water sports enthusiasts. But today, the sky and sea are an ominous grey, and the beach is almost deserted, and I’m beginning to wonder if it is a good idea to join Sian for a swim after the interview, as agreed. But first, to the business in hand: how did the Bluetits begin?

“I used to be a triathlete,” Sian tells me, “but had to stop when I was struck down by a severe attack of arthritis.” She was still in her forties. “I had always been a very active person, but suddenly I could only walk with the aid of sticks. I didn’t handle it very well.”

Two years and two hip replacements later, Sian was thrilled to be able to walk again. Yet knowing her triathlon days were behind her, she settled instead on the gentler pursuit of non-competitive swimming. “But I still longed for more of a challenge than swimming lengths in a pool, so decided to take to the sea. Then in the summer of 2014, a friend agreed to swim with me every day.”

To make their daily swim more interesting, the two women would vary the location. From the picturesque cove of Porthselau, to Broadhaven’s wide sandy stretch, they sampled just about every swim-friendly stretch of water around the St David’s Peninsula.

Then as summer turned to autumn and the mornings turned chillier, instead of hanging up their swimsuits, they decided to carry on. Says Sian: “We were enjoying ourselves too much to stop. So as the water temperature dropped, we decided to see how long we could just keep swimming.

Discover the art of wild swimming

“Although we both loved the water, neither of us had considered winter swimming before. So we agreed to take it day by day. The only rule was that there would be no pressure; if one of us didn’t want to continue, we could stop whenever we wanted.”

Despite the inevitable shivers, they were surprised at how easily they could acclimatise to the falling temperatures. They also began to discover other, unexpected benefits, “It just made us so happy. We’d come out laughing and feeling quite ecstatic; it was wonderful. And then we’d have coffee and cake together, and go home feeling full of life.”

Their enthusiasm proved infectious. “We were attracting quite a lot of interest. People would ask us what we were doing. While some would laugh and say we were mad, others would ask if they could join us. ‘Come on in,’ we’d reply. And slowly, one by one, more people were swimming with us.”

With the help of social media, news of their adventures travelled further afield. “People from other parts of the country would get in touch, asking how they could start up a group in their area. It was an exciting time.” Dubbing themselves the Bluetits – a jokey reference to the cold conditions they faced –  Sian and her local group decided to form themselves into a not-for-profit company. Other Bluetits groups were keen to affiliate.

Then came 2020 and Covid. The swimming pool closures meant that more people than ever before began swimming outdoors, with many of them joining their local Bluetits group. And where there wasn’t one, some would go on to set up their own.

Today, the Bluetits Chill Swimmers boasts an astonishing 148 groups in Britain and Ireland, plus 24 groups around the world – including Canada, Iceland, the US, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, and Cyprus.

So what is it that inspires so many to jump into freezing cold waters – and keeps them coming back for more? “It’s the sense of fun and camaraderie. As adults, it can feel like we’ve lost that childlike ability to play. But I don’t reckon we have. It might be buried under responsibilities and worries, but it’s still there – just waiting for that first wave to hit you.”

Ask almost any outdoor swimmer, and they are likely to express similar sentiments. “I love the exhilaration of wading into the cold surf, laughing and gasping with fellow swimmers,” says Linda Rogers, a regular swimmer based in Aberystwyth. “And I love the conversation and laughter afterwards, as we all battle under changing robes and slowly warm up.”

“Swimming in the sea has not only kept me sane and lifted my spirits,” says fellow-Aberystwyth swimmer Jan Hulin, “but it has made me feel I’ve found my own tribe.”

For Lisa Cornwall, a member of Bristol Bluetits, chill swimming has opened up possibilities she could never have imagined. “It’s something I can do for me. Swimming outdoors makes me feel free. Being disabled with a spinal injury and fibromyalgia, for those ten minutes or so I’m in the water, my body isn’t concentrating on pain. It makes me feel free.”

Back in St David’s, the Bluetits headquarters continues to grow. In association with Different Holidays, the company has recently diversified into running coastal swimming holidays, initially in Pembrokeshire and Cornwall. Sian and colleagues have also taken on new premises in St David’s, and employ a permanent member of staff to manage their burgeoning online merchandise sales.

Sian adds: “We hope we can take on more staff in the future. As a social enterprise, one of our aims is to create sustainable jobs for the local community.” St David’s is a uniquely beautiful place to live. Yet with a local economy that largely depends on tourism, any new non-seasonal employment is always welcome.

Just nine years after those early morning dips around the bay, Sian finds herself at the helm of a global swimming company. “It’s something I could never have imagined it in my wildest dreams!.” Despite this rapid growth, Sian is adamant that the Bluetits’ founding values remain unchanged. “I am determined that every group will always be free to join and open to all. And it doesn’t matter how far or how long you swim – in fact, we often just swim in a circle and chat!

“And no matter how big we get, there is always room for a new recruit. I still come across people who say, ‘I would love to do that, but I don’t have the courage.’ It’s great to see the joy on their faces when they take the plunge.”

There is no more putting it off – the time has come for us to take the plunge. I follow Sian into the foam-tipped waves, whooping (well, screaming) as the icy surf splashes me. The initial shock is short-lived. A few seconds later and I don’t feel cold anymore, just invigorated. Then comes the highlight. A young seal sidles up beside us. For a few mesmerising minutes, it fixes its deep brown eyes on us, then swims away.

And yes, we are both laughing as we come out.

So what advice would Sian offer anyone thinking of taking a cold swim for the first time? “Oh that’s easy,” she laughs, “Just get in!”

Staying safe in cold water

  • It’s safer (and more fun) to swim with others – particularly in cold conditions.
  • Acclimatise gradually. Begin with a few minutes, then build up over time.
  • Check local weather conditions before swimming.
  • Learn about cold water shock and how to avoid it.
  • Learn about rip currents – how to avoid them, and what to do should you get caught in one.
  • Have plenty of warm clothing, and maybe a hot drink, ready for when you come out.

For more tips on cold water safety, see