The season is turning toward spring proper. The morning swims increasingly start in daylight or twilight and are accompanied by a flood of morning birdsong which grows in volume almost day-by-day as the avian choir grows in number. This Swimmingpod podcast is with Sian Richardson, a chorister in her earlier life, and who started an acquine ‘choir’ of swimmers in 2015 which has swelled in number and volume ever since. I am talking about The Bluetits Chill Swimmers, now more than 6,000 in number across three continents. It all started in Wales, and the beach near the farm where Sian has lived all her life. The root of The Bluetits lies with Sian's drive to do what seems to be almost impossible, at least at first sight; in this case it was the Ice-Mile. As she trained and trained and trained, she drew the attention of locals, who asked her what she was doing and when she told them, they mostly said the usual things – ‘you must be bonkers’ or some such. One person in twenty, more-or-less, however said something like ‘I’d like to try that – winter swimming!’. Sian is such a lovely out-going person who would usually reply with ‘you should!’. Then some of them did, and then did some more, then more 'you shoulds!' came, and more yet, and before Sian knew it, she had started a social movement in her metaphorical back-yard. This was a case of perhaps accidently (I don't know for sure) following the Mahatma Gandhi at his word - 'if you want to change the world, start with yourself'.
A movement needs a name, she decided, and being a cheeky sort of person, decided on ‘Bluetits’. Because that is what they were, especially in deepest winter. The Bluetits grew in number, and Sian made badges and handed them out free, ‘for the good of outdoor swimming’, and for the good of the people who had joined. Later, she founded The Bluetits Chill Swimmers as a social enterprise, as they grew and grew in absolute number and in numbers of flocks.
I first heard of them from Emma Gibbard, the Marshall of the Oxfordshire Bluetits. Emma is a channel swimmer with a heart of gold, and she is exactly the right person to carry this responsibility for Oxfordshire. Emma explained the set-up to me (mostly women, but men can be Bluetits too), and said I should speak with Sian if I really wanted to know more, which I did, avidly so. So I heartily thank Emma for the introduction.
Bluetits are not new to Oxfordshire. At nearby Wytham Woods, which shadows the Thames downstream of Eynsham Lock and before Oxford, the University of Oxford has its bird ecology field station and it’s ‘Wytham Tit Project’. Bluetits, and tits of all descriptions have been watched intensely there for over fifty years. The study of their behaviour and demography is helping inform social processes in evolution, while understanding their behaviours help the tracking of climate change at the micro-level. Studying the diseases that infect them helps us understand how and why diseases can jump the species barrier into humans, either directly or indirectly. In this case, think of bird-flu, Ebola, SARS, as well as the potential for birds to infect humans with new coronaviruses. Birds carry a lot of them, coronaviruses, as do bats (the source of origin of the virus that causes COVID-19). The present pandemic is unlikely to be the last that will be caused by a coronavirus that takes a liking to humans, and it is good to know how this happens – knowledge in this case is being fore-armed. Bluetits helping people, making the world a better place.
Sian is an avid, passionate and addicted outdoor swimmer herself, and loves to bring people to it. This because she sees that it can genuinely help people, and it can help make the world a better place. She didn’t actually say ‘make the world a better place’, but I think she meant so, in not so many words. How? She has worked with, and continues to work with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) on open water swimming safety, ocean swimming especially. While the RNLI might prefer that people don't swim out in the ocean because of the possible call on their services if they get into trouble, ocean-swimming is on the increase and is not going away. People might as well be properly briefed, she says, to be aware of the risks of open water swimming and to plan properly. It is Sian’s belief that open water swimming can make people better versions of themselves, and so helping people do it and be involved in it should help make the world a better place. Helping people to avoid killing themselves through poor swim preparation should also help make the world a better place. She is also helping to make the world a better place with her infectious passion and huge outgoing enthusiasm for outdoor swimming and the creation of the Bluetits Chill Swimmers social enterprise.
Who are The Bluetits, and what is their behavioural ecology? Bluetits Chill Swimmers, like blue tits, the small birds, are cosmopolitan. The latter you can find across Europe and Africa, the former across Europe, North America and into Australasia. Beyond Sian’s back-yard beach in Wales, Bluetits Chill Swimmers flock in Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Spain, Croatia, Greece, Cyprus, Canada, the United States, and New Zealand. Bluetits Chill Swimmers flock to their local beach, lake or river to swim and be free and be merry. They carry their flasks of coffee or tea with them, usually in preference to a cappuccino or something similar at a water-side café (although I am sure they would not bypass either drink if and when the opportunity presents itself). They are, according to Sian, ‘Primarily an informal group of adults (mostly women, but men are not excluded) who come together to relax and enjoy time together talking joyful nonsense while setting the world to rights and enjoying time together in the water way from constraints imposed by work and home life’. They are not about global domination, their ecological success being a natural one, especially during the corona-winter of 2020 - 2021, which saw very rapid growth in informal winter swimming more broadly across the UK.
Bluetits form and flock wherever there is a need for the mindless mindfulness that goes with outdoor swimming, especially in winter. If you join, you will most likely go to the group closest to where you live. But you can go to any group, anywhere. In the future, if you are travelling or on vacation, you might be able to find fellow Bluetits to flock with. Or you might plan your travels specifically to flock with new Bluetits. Their proximity to water and their colourful attire might lead you to confuse them with flamingos, except that cold-water flamingos don’t exist in the wild. Chill-Swimmer Bluetits do.
The Bluetits radiation from Wales and across the UK and across continents happened with the help of badges. ‘Everyone loves a badge’ says Sian, they are ‘joyful vestiges of childhood’. Swimming joyfully with The Bluetits encourages childhood-like playfulness, and she has sent out many, many hundreds of sew-on badges to Bluetits everywhere they flock. She used to pay for them herself, spending many hundreds of pounds in encouraging winter-swimming in this way. Now you can buy them, and there are many badges to have. There is the classic ‘Bluetit’ sew-on badge, but also the ‘Blue Tit Lake Swimmers’ badge, the ‘Double Dippers’ badge, the ‘Ice Breakers’ badge, and a ‘No Tit Left Behind’ badge. Going on, there is the ‘Commando Tits’ badge, the ‘Bluetit with a Dog’ badge, the ‘Adventure Tit’ badge, the ‘Dare Tits’ badge, the ‘Double Dippers’ badge, and the ‘Flash Tit’ badge. To each Bluetit Chill swimmer their own style of swimming, their own set of badges, their own swim-identity. As an individual, you can chose the badges you want, and to wear your swim-identity on your dry-robe. And because most of the badges are pin-on, you can even change your swim-identity as easily as changing the badges you wear. Sian has thought of everything. Some of the badges also reflect the extent of Bluetit dispersal – there is a Bluetits Jersey badge, and a Bluetits of Cyprus badge, and badges that express Bluetit identity in England, Ireland, Denmark and Cornwall (which might be regarded as a separate country, especially in respect of the expansive swimming scene there).
The badges are designed in-house at Bluetit HQ, in Wales. Sian has great elan, and a great sense of style. Did I mention flamingos earlier? The very striking Bluetit swimming costume (which Sian designed herself) would give a flamingo a swim for its money, such is dash and panache of this very dotty cozzie. She designed the leggings too. And the swim caps, and the hats, the towels, the snoods and the hoodies and beanies, collectively called ‘Bluetit Kit’. Word of The Bluetits has spread, continues to spread, around the world. The idea and practice of swimming in such elegant flocks is infectious. Bluetit HQ is close by a beautiful bay near St David’s in Wales, the place where Sian has lived all her life and where she tries to swim every day. She tells of a magical moment in the chocolate waters of evening swimming, hearing John Rutter’s ‘Deep Peace’, sung by Aled Jones – ‘Deep peace, of the running wave to you’. But all swimming can be magical - you just have to be open to it. She has started a phenomenon, a running wave. She would say modestly that it started itself, it couldn’t not have done so, the expansion has been almost inevitable (COVID-19 Lockdowns have helped). She herself is a phenomenon, a force. I find her amazing, an inspiration, and I thoroughly enjoyed making the podcast with her. I hope you enjoy listening to it.
Listen to the podcast here
Royal National Lifeboat Institute open water swimming advice here
Images by Ella Richardson