It’s 9am on a grey November morning and a group of women start to gather near the entrance to the beach. Just a few to start with, then a slow trickle of others join until the 30-strong women stroll straight towards the sea. From a distance the robed women could easily be mistaken for a coven of witches gathering to perform some kind of ancient ritual to the sea gods. But closer inspection reveals something much more common along the UK coastline, but no less intriguing: a group of changing-robe clad Bluetit Chill Swimmers!
A Bluetits revolution and the start of something big
At the beginning of 2020, 7 brave women started dipping daily in the cold Atlantic Ocean at Perranporth Beach. Among them was Sarah Walsh, a local ocean-lover and all round inspirational being. Inspired by the first Bluetits group set up in Pembrokeshire by Sian Richarson in 2014, Sarah decided that Cornwall beaches also needed to be populated with dipping fledglings. So, together with some roped in friends, Sarah and co-founder, Sophie Reeves, took the plunge on a bracing January morning. And the Perranporth Bluetits were hatched! There are now 1400 members in Perranporth alone, with new members joining the flock each week.
Our first dip was with 7 people the first week of January 2020. We now have over 1,400 wild cold water swimmers in Perranporth alone!
In the last year or so, cold water swimming has taken the UK by storm, with groups growing in numbers by the day.
Joining the flock
But surely there is very little that is pleasant or appealing about baring all to the freezing wind and sea or lakes and rivers in the depths of winter? Intrigued to understand more about this hell-brained phenomenon sweeping through beach and water-based communities far and wide, I decided it was high time I tried it for myself.
I’m no stranger to spending time in the ocean. I live right next to it, surfing, paddle boarding or canoeing as often as I can. But I’m usually wrapped up in the security and warmth of wetsuits, the thickness of which increase as the temperature decreases. I’m rarely cold in the water and when I am I either get grumpy or I get out!
So as you can imagine, the idea of voluntarily getting in the sea, mid-winter with nothing but a flimsy swimsuit between my fragile skin and the shock of the deep chill, doesn’t exactly thrill me. However, I’d read and heard so much about the benefits of cold water that I made a deal with a friend to take a dip once a week for the whole winter.
We started dipping in October when the water was still on the warm side and the air didn’t have much of a chill to it. And thank goodness we did, as the day I joined the hardy banditry of Perranporth Bluetits would have resulted in frozen fingers and a very grumpy me!
A positive community gathering
One of the first things that struck me when I approached the Perranporth flock on the morning of my first dip with them, was how much positive energy was in the air. It was infectious and I found myself chatting energetically with everyone and anyone. Perhaps they were trying to distract me from the pending doom of the frigid water? Or maybe this is what happens every morning?
The Perranporth Bluetits were the first group in Cornwall that Sarah set up. She then set up all the groups in the county which now run themselves leaving her free to swim everyday with her home flock. As it turns out, the immense positivity I experienced is just how the group rolls. And with Sarah at the helm it really is no surprise.
As we walk towards the sea, everyone comments on how incredible Sarah is. Their respect for her is huge, and it’s very clear that it’s reciprocated. She knows everyone by name and chats with them all as if she’s known them for years. It’s an incredibly welcoming environment and one which this amazing woman has subtly and infectiously instilled in all of the fledgling Tits of the Perranporth flock.
One lady, who dips daily, doesn’t seem to think she’s affected much, one way or another, by the cold water. Yet she still comes back for more! What driver her to keep dipping is the people. For her, it’s all about getting out of the house and having a good time with like-minded folk in nature. Yes, it just happens to be based around getting into freezing water, but she likes that enough to keep up the daily commitment.
I overheard a couple of ladies saying that they’d probably still come to the beach to meet even if they couldn’t get in the water. At which another informs me that only last week she had a chest infection and decided it was best to stay out of the deep freeze. But she came along anyway, just for the social.
The more time I spent with this amazing group of people, the clearer it became that what drives them to keep coming back to the sea day after day is much more than just the numerous physical and mental benefits of cold water exposure. It’s the camaraderie and community spirit, and a safe environment in which they can be completely themselves. A place to belong.
For some, it’s also a place to forget.
You can come to the beach having had the worst morning or week and as soon as you get in the water, everything else is forgotten. The water seems to wash it all away.
Talking to people and listening to their accents, many of the women are relative newcomers to the village or the area. This relaxed and welcoming group is a lifeline for many of them which instantly provides purpose, a place to meet new people and an excellent opportunity to have fun!
One of the members reflected that she never expected, at her time of life, to develop such meaningful relationships. Through this unique way of bringing people together she has made a lifelong friend with whom she is deeply connected.
The sense of belonging and acceptance this group of brave women feel couldn’t be more evident. It’s a club that they are all proud to be part of. And they even have badges! I was delighted when Sarah presented me and another fledgling with a little pin badge. We were snapped in a photo and I later discovered my grinning mug shot on their group Facebook page.
Joy and confidence
As we get changed into our swimwear, huddled behind a rock to shelter from the wind, one of the older members of the group – who, incidentally, can’t swim – describes why she keeps coming back to the water, day after day. “When those first waves hit me”, she says, “I feel like a little girl again!” At this, everyone agrees in giggles and smiles. The water seems to take away any inhibitions that may have previously been present and replaces them with joy.
Joy comes up a lot.
When those first waves hit me I feel like a little girl again!
Buoyed by the prospect of connecting with my inner child, I skip towards the sea to enter the water with the group. Some stroll confidently. Some edge their way to deeper water slowly, and others focus on their chatting companion, desperate for any kind of distraction!
For those venturing in deeper, uncontrollable squeals and whoops fill the air as the first wave hits their waists. This crescendo of audible joy is what I found the most endearing part of the whole occasion. That, and the huge grins on all their faces. The kind of grins you can’t fake and which would never even reach the eyes of solo dippers. The excitement and thrill of the first splashes of cold water on bare skin buzzed from person to person creating an atmosphere that exploded with yet more positive energy. I couldn’t stop grinning, either. And I found that, despite being thrown in at the deep end, socially, mentally and physically, I was whooping and squealing along with everyone else, filled with joy and energy whether I liked it or not. I loved it!
An immense feeling of confidence radiates from the group. They all chat with everyone and welcome newcomers with open arms. None of them appear to have any qualms about the shape or size of their body, and the gung-ho attitude towards leaping into the cold, wild waves in the middle of winter is truly inspirational.
Between chattering teeth, confidence comes up in another conversation. “I don’t mean to be boastful, but I feel really proud of myself that I can do it. I look at other people on the beach who are wrapped up in layers and hats and I feel like I’m a strong person for doing this. It gives me confidence in myself that I can do things I never thought I’d be able to do.” A commonly shared side-effect of cold water dipping.
The same lady tells me how she had absolutely no interest in dipping before she started – another common story. She didn’t even own a swimsuit! Finally, her daughter cajolled her into it, braving it in her only bikini and a t-shirt. Now she dips a few times a week and has 5 swimsuits!
Cold water tolerance
Everyone’s body reacts to cold water exposure in different ways. And everyone’s tolerance reaches its limit at different times. But there’s no pressure to plunge fully. A few of the flock stayed in the shallows letting the waves lap against their knees or their waist whilst others were diving around, body surfing the powerful whitewater. Most tended to be comfortable keeping their heads out of the water, swimming in between the waves but still able to touch the bottom. I followed their lead and was glad to retain at least some warmth in my head.
I was amazed at how long they stayed in for. Some got out earlier than others and it’s super important to listen to your body so as not to let your core temperature drop too low. But many of the ladies stayed in for 15 minutes or so.
Needless to say, I was the first to get out of the water, lasting 5 minutes before I started questioning how long it would take me to raise my temperature again later. I looked down at my legs. My usually pale white upper thighs, which hadn’t seen the sun in a long time, were bright red. They call this a Tit Tan! It was definitely time to get out.
In the group of around 30 dippers were three men. One was on holiday for two weeks and swam daily whilst he was visiting. The other was a local who swam on his own but also with the group. And the third was one half of a young couple who had recently moved to the area. All of them were welcomed with open arms. The presence of men didn’t alter the behaviour of the women at all. They all seemed to be so completely at home in their flock, skin bared and accepting of their fellow Tits, not batting an eyelid who joined them to frolic in the foam.
Every Friday the Perranporth Bluetits “Dip and Sip”. They meet, they dip and then they share cakes and guzzle hot drinks. I happened to show up on a Friday! It should be called “Dip, Sip and Twitter” or something, as the group didn’t stop chatting and laughing the whole time! The hot drink really helped me to warm back up. But the twittering did too. I was completely absorbed, listening to the stories of these ordinary, everyday women doing extraordinary things, everyday. It was also an excellent distraction, as it wasn’t until I reluctantly started walking back home did I realise that my sock-clad toes were slowly turning to ice blocks.
Join the Bluetits
As you may have gathered, everyone is welcome to join the Bluetits. You don’t even need to be able to swim. So long as you stay with the group and don’t get out of your depth, you’ll be in safe hands. Some dippers occasionally bring children or grandchildren along, but under 18’s are not allowed to join unaccompanied.
Bluetits are an informal group of people who just like to cold water swim together
There are no club fees, registration, rules, requirements or expectations. Some carry on dipping throughout the winter months, some don’t. But a sense of humour seems to be mandatory. Many Bluetits are undertaking The Arctic Flapper Challenge 2021/22 – Chilly Tits with Baltic Bits! There’s a badge for that too!
Despite the light-hearted nature of the group, they also ensure that swimmers and dippers know the risks of cold water swimming. For more information check out these videos and tips.
These people are a true inspiration that are doing wonderful things for the mental and physical well-being of people the world over. My 77-year-old mother was visiting recently and saw the Perranporth Bluetits dipping one morning. She was so inspired that she braved it the day after with me by her side. It was windy and foul. Almost dark at 3.30pm. The sort of weather most people wouldn’t even go for a walk in and the beach was deserted. But she did it! And she loved it.
So if you’re feeling the need for a new challenge or simply to connect with a new group of people in a meaningful and joyful way, then the Bluetits might just be for you. And along the way you’re almost guaranteed to fall head over heels in love with cold water swimming and all its associated benefits.