Unlike the rest of us, the swans of the Thames have spent the past year or two freer to glide and to paddle than ever before. The annual ritual of swan-upping, usually held over several days in July, had been cancelled completely in 2020 for the first time known to the history books. All the more fun for 30 World Traders and their friends and guests (including a smattering of Actuaries, Chartered Surveyors, Entrepreneurs, Gardeners and Glaziers) to board the Hibernia and set out from Henley-on-Thames on a glorious summer’s day to watch this ancient rite resume.
Since the 12th century in England, all mute swans found swimming in open waters have belonged to the Crown. At first this was to ensure that these royal birds graced only the grandest of tables; rights to capture them were granted by the monarch only to a select few. Nowadays it is illegal to kill a swan. Nonetheless, the Dyers and the Vintners in their rowing skiffs still enjoy the right to accompany the Queen’s own swan-uppers to inspect and mark young swans on certain reaches of the Thames. The “marking” these days, however, is by leg ring, rather than a nick in the beak. This census of young swans helps the Royal Swan Warden keep track of the cygnets’ numbers and health.
But perhaps these royal birds, like their royal owner, are more tech savvy than many might guess. The Swansnet up and down the river must have got wind of these plans. In the few hours that we watched from the comfort of our well-stocked floating kitchen and bar, the rowers toiling along in the hot sun in their skiffs found only a single family of two adults and two cygnets. Corralled by the skiffs, these were gently lifted out of the water and inspected, their legs tied awkwardly but apparently comfortably behind them. Getting these few swans on land put at least one of the swan-uppers in the water. Then, with cygnets weighed and ringed, the family were released to sail off again looking cross, but with heads held high. The damp and by now wilting swan-uppers meanwhile retired hurt—“for lunch,” they said. A lesson for all in swan-upmanship on the Thames!