Swan Upping - July 20th & 21st

What is Swan Upping?

Before June 2021, I’d never heard of Swan Upping. However, I read a Tweet from the Thames Path National Trail reminding people that Swan Upping 2021 would be starting on July 20th.  I had to find out more about this!

 

Swan Upping is a typically quirky British ceremony dating back hundreds of years. It is the annual census of mute swans along a particular stretch of the Thames and normally lasts 5 days. One of the characteristics of mute swans is that they generally mate for life, so no messy divorces or custody disputes!

Since the 12th century, The Crown has had the right to claim ownership to all unmarked mute swans in the country swimming in open waters. Today this right of ownership is mainly exercised on certain stretches of the Thames. Swan Upping originated at a time when cygnets were highly valued for food and were served at banquets and feasts. Establishing ownership of swans and their offspring was done by way of distinctive marks cut into the upper mandible ("bill") of each bird, with cygnets bearing the same mark as their parents.  Swans and cygnets claimed by The Crown were not marked. Every year in July, The Crown would initiate Swan Upping, whereby families of swans would be rounded up and cygnets marked accordingly. July was chosen because the cygnets were still too young to be able to fly. Many of the cygnets were taken away to be fattened up for eating.

 

By the 1850’s very few people retained their rights to own swans. Today, there are just two remaining bodies that are allowed to own and mark mute swans on the Thames; these are both Livery Companies (basically trade associations) – the Vintners and the Dyers. These bodies first received their ownership rights from The Crown in the late 15th century. Cutting marks into the mandible is thankfully a thing of the past and today has been replaced with small metal rings attached to the legs of birds. 

 

Swan Upping today generally takes place over five days in the third week of July. It starts from Sunbury Lock and ends in Abingdon. Due to COVID, it was cancelled in 2020 - the first known complete cancellation in its history. In 2021 it was limited to just three days, starting at Eton and ending at Moulsford. Six traditional rowing boats (“skiffs”) are used, 2 each for The Crown, Vintners and Dyers. The 3 Swan Markers wear very smart uniforms with a swan’s feather attached to their caps. The current Queen's Swan Marker is David Barber. The remaining Swan Uppers wear traditional white trousers with either scarlet tops (The Crown), blue tops (Dyers) or white tops (Vintners). Each skiff flies the appropriate flag. The Swan Uppers are accompanied by The Queen’s Swan Warden and his assistants in a support boat. The post of Swan Warden is held by Professor Chris Perrins, a Fellow at Oxford University. The Swan Warden and his assistants work alongside The Queen’s Swan Marker and are more concerned with assessing the health of young cygnets and examining them for any injuries.

 

Whenever a new family of swans is seen, the skiffs move in and encircle it. The parent and cygnets are lifted out of the river and transferred to shore where they are examined for injury or disease, measured, weighed and where appropriate, tagged. The Queen’s Swan Marker has the final say on ownership. Once complete, the family is carefully returned to the river, ensuring that each member is returned at the same time.    

 

Whereas originally Swan Upping was just about establishing ownership, these days it is mainly concerned with the welfare and conservation of swans on the Thames. Fishing tackle is now the most common cause of injury, mainly hooks. Whenever possible, the Swan Uppers take the opportunity to educate local school children on not just the Swan Upping process but also, how it fits in with swan conservation and the wellbeing of the river in general.

My Experience

I wanted to combine Swan Upping with 2 Thames Path walks that I needed to do as part of my 2021 Thames Path challenge. In 2021 it was restricted to 3 days instead of the normal 5 – Tuesday to Thursday. I didn’t necessarily want to follow the Swan Uppers on each day; I was just keen to see what goes on. So, I booked 2 nights at the Maidenhead Premier Inn from Monday to Wednesday. The 3rd week of July 2021 turned out to be the hottest of the year, peaking on the Tuesday at 31.2°C! On the Monday I did the 11 mile walk from Henley to Bourne End – still my favourite Thames Path walk, even if it was a tad warm. For Tuesday my plan was to see the Swan Uppers off from Eton and then do the 8 mile walk from Windsor to Staines.

 

So, on Tuesday morning I set off from Maidenhead Premier Inn. I drove to Windsor & Eton Riverside station and parked my car there. I did the short walk to Windsor Town Bridge and could see that preparations for the start of Swan Upping were underway on the Eton side of the river. I crossed the bridge and walked down to the riverside, to get as close as I could to the action, without getting in the way. I took loads of photos, including a selfie with the lovely Laura Tobin from Good Morning Britain! Having drunk a toast, at exactly 08:30 the flotilla headed off upstream to begin Swan Upping 2021. This quirky event could only be British – something we do really well! Having seen them off, I then began my walk to Staines.

 

On Wednesday, the timetable said the Swan Uppers would start from Marlow Bridge at 09:00, reach Hambleden Lock at 12:15 and Henley Bridge at 13:00, where they would stop for lunch. Setting off again, they would reach Sonning Bridge by 18:00. After 2 days of walking in the hottest weather of the year, I didn’t really fancy following the Swan Uppers all the way to Sonning from Marlow on an equally hot day to see them in action. I parked the car in Marlow and walked to Marlow Bridge, where I could see the Swan Markers giving a talk in the garden of The Compleat Angler.  At 09:00 they set off again upstream.

 

I followed them as fast as I could along the towpath down to Temple Mill Island, where I could see they had spotted a large family. I could only see what was going on from a distance because they had been guided to the island side of the river. However, I saw enough to see the Swan Uppers in action and got a few decent photos. Having witnessed this, I decided I would next go back to my car, drive to Henley and then walk to Hambleden Lock where I would then catch up with the Swan Uppers.

 

Henley was picture perfect, with preparations well under way for the Regatta that was starting on August 11th. I walked up to Hambleden Lock, arriving just before the Swan Uppers arrived – perfect timing. A small family of a mother and four cygnets had been lured to the mooring just before the lock and fortunately it was on the side of the river where myself and a number of onlookers had assembled to view the spectacle. We got to see everything at close quarters as can be seen from my photos. By the time the flotilla had exited Hambleden Lock on its way to lunch at The Leander Club, it was 1 o’clock. I started walking back to Henley but stopped at a bench to admire the beautiful view and eat my lunch.

 

Back in Henley, the Swan Uppers, duly rested, fed and watered headed off from Henley Bridge at 3 o’clock. Within about 300 yards they were back in action again. Unfortunately for me, the family of swans had been manoeuvred to the opposite bank of the river. There were also quite a few pleasure boats that had stopped to observe proceedings, so I didn’t really get to see a great deal. I therefore decided to call it a day. After a beer and some cake, I went back to my car at Henley Station and drove home. What a hectic but utterly enjoyable 3 days I’d had! I’d been so lucky to experience close up what Swan Upping was all about because obviously there had been no guarantee there would be families of swans at the places I’d decided to go to watch.  

As if life couldn't get any better, a couple of days later I was contacted by a newspaper reporter from none other than Wokingham Today, asking if I’d be interested in being interviewed about my Swan Upping experience! I happily obliged and my interview along with several of my photos were published – https://wokingham.today/her-majestys-swan-upping-team-sail-through-sonning

What a rock'n'roll lifestyle I do lead!! 🤣

Gallery

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London Bridge to Thames Barrier
Illuminated River 
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