The Old Swan Upping Story

On a quiet reach of the River Thames, yellow leaves flutter to the water. Two courting Swans, face each other closely, turning their heads from side to side.

Swans choose their mates for life. This pair will stay together all winter, grazing in company with other swans or gathering where people put out bread or lettuce to help the swans through the harsh weather when natural food is scarce.

In the crisp clean days of the early spring, the pair began to claim a territory around a good nesting place. They pile up an untidy heap of all twigs, rushes and moss within reach and mate in an elaborate dance on their stretch of water. The cob guards his territory fiercely and drives other swans away. The pen eats as much as she can and in ten days she lays her first egg. Every two days she lays another till she has six in the clutch.

She sits patiently incubating the egg for five whole weeks eating only when the cob takes his turn on the nest for a short while each day.

Luckily no harm comes this spring to the birds, their nest or their eggs from flood, fright, foxes or thoughtless boys. The pen hatches out her downy ash-colored young.

The cygnet swims without being taught. They clumsily preen to oil their down. But the parent birds have to help find food, pulling up shreds of water weed, stirring up tiny insects and snails that the cygnets quickly gobble. The young swans take the rides on their parents’ backs to keep warm and out of danger.

Even so, two of the young cygnets soon die of cold and hunger. Another is snatching by a rat. One more is killed by a dog.Only two survive to follow the beautiful white swan parents, stretching their slender necks down through the water to root in the weed for themselves.

In Cookham, a village on the thames, there is a white-boarded boathouse with some basking brown rowboats for hire. punts and launches wait for customers, too. Tucked in behind is the home of Captain John Turk. His Office, upstairs in the boathouse, looks across the river to his workshops and fleet of hire cruisers. His Grandfather and father lived and worked here. His family have built boats for over two hundred years.

Ten miles down river, the majestic outline of Windsor castle looms over the winding thames. William the conqueror built the first bold castle that stood on this cliff. Following Kings and Queens made it larger and grander. All claimed as Royal Game the swans on the river and the swans swimming free on any common water in England because they were welcome meat on the Royal tables in winter.

But in 1473, as a particular honor, the Worshipful Company of Vintners and, later, the Worshipful company of Dyers were allowed by Royal Charter to keep swans on the Thames as well. Marks to shoe Company ownership were put on the birds’ beaks. Unmarked Swans belonged to the Crown. Even now, five hundred years later, all cygnets are so marked in a yearly ceremony.

Summer has come. Below the castle, visitors crowd by the river. Holiday cruisers and Salters steamers jog the jetties and queue at the quays. Trippers trip abroad while criss-cross wavelets catch bright snippets of sunshine and bounce dazzling stars into everyone’s eyes. Ducks, Geese and Swans wait for pieces of sandwiches hot dogs or buns.

It is nearly the third week of July. Now coming up river from Staines, Sliding on the silken water towards Royal Windsor, are six slim skiffs. Bold flags fly at the stem of each brown varnished boat; their design show ribands, crests and swans. The Swan Uppers are here!

Here is Captain Turk the Queen’s Swan Keeper in a bright scarlet jacket. He sits with dignity before the largest flag. Its white folds partly hide the large red letters saying E II R. He has five hearty lighter men borrowed from the barges of London in scarlet jerseys at the oars of his two boats. Accompanying Captain Turkis the Swan Master of the Vintners Company wearing a forest green jacket, and the Swan Master of the Dyers Company in a jacket of navy blue. Each has four men to row the two skiffs.

The Swan Voyage started on Monday from Blackfriars Bridge. On Wednesday at midday the skiffs enter Romney Lock. They fit in with holiday cruisers and the gates close behind them. The water is at its lowest. Then the sluices of the upriver gates open, lifting the boats steadily to the upriver level. As the water rises in this lock, the nearest to the Royal Castle of Windsor, the Swan Uppers drink their traditional toast: “The Queen, God bless her!”A roomy river bus has been following the skiffs. Its passengers have now disembarked. They watch from the side of the lock. They are the Court of the Dyers Company and in splendid style each gentleman has a fine big swan feather sprouting from his lapel.

The skiffs skim from the lock. upriver level is held by a weir; the main flow of the river spills over it and takes a separate course. The Dyers and Vintners boats go on ahead. They separate and pull to either side. The Queen’s boats then pass between the pairs. All the men stand, raising high their caps or oars, and give three rousing cheers for the Queen.

After a stop for lunch at a riverside inn the skiffs come under Windsor Bridge past all the swans begging from holiday visitors. There is not one cygnet among them.
But Captain Turk knows where the mated pairs and their broods are likely to be found. Soon a swan family is spied on the bank.
Someone shouts, “All up!” With swift strokes of the oars the skiffs come alongside. The men leap ashore. They grab the adult swans safely,high up on the neck and by their feet which are tied resting over their tails.

Other hands hold the two cygnets. They sit meek and unharmed on the grass. The beak of the cob swan has no marks, so he belongs to the Queen. The beak of the pen has a nick on the right side. She belongs to the Dyers. The first cygnet is always marked like the cob, so this one goes unmarked. The second cygnet is always marked like the pen. This one is given a nick on the right side of its beak.
Next, the cygnets have to be pinioned. Their bony downy wings have not yet sprouted strong adult feathers. A warm fine hand unfolds a wing at a time.

Quickly, cleanly, expertly, the tip joint is cut of to shorten the wing-span. Some tar is dabbed on to heal the cut and wisp of grey down is stuck back on the place.
When grown, cygnets will not be able to fly away from the river. They cannot roam, but they will not be in danger of crashing into overhead wires. Many free swans are hurt and killed like this.
The task is done. The swan family’s feet are untied and they are put back on the water. They shoot away together with a splatter, flap and waggle.

Next day it is the turn of the Court of the Vintners to follow the Swan Uppers as they come under Cookham Bridge. A crowd of Cookham children calls the skiffs to a swan family swimming by the towpath. The Skiffs quickly surround the swans. They are lifted dripping into a boat.

This time the cob is a vintner bird because he has a nicks on both sides of his beak. The pen belongs to the queen. The first cygnet is marked like the cob. The second is left unmarked like the pen. The third is marked like the cob again. Every cygnet found by the Swan Uppers has been marked by these rules.

This time the cob is a vintner bird because he has a nicks on both sides of his beak. The pen belongs to the queen. The first cygnet is marked like the cob. The second is left unmarked like the pen. The third is marked like the cob again. Every cygnet found by the Swan Uppers has been marked by these rules.

On the fourth and last afternoon sometimes towed by motor cruiser the Swan Uppers glide past summer meadows, under dreaming trees over shimmering water. They are lifted through locks and pass mills beside spilling weirs. Late in that day, they turn in sight of Henley.

The swan Upping is over for this year. The swan uppers are cheerful though wet. Most have been doused or tumbled into water. There is spluttering and laughing. Such larks are part of the tradition as the Swan Voyage comes to an end.
Captain Turk has counted only fifty-six cygnets, though many pairs mated swans were seen without young. One hundred cygnets used to be found on the Swan Voyage. Why should there be so few?

More and more people want to enjoy the river. They walk and picnic and fish and go boating. But their coming disturbs the swans’ patterns of courtship. The pen may be scared off her nest. Her eggs may be broken or taken, her young may be chased or killed by family dogs.

The constant wash of the boats may wreck or flood nests. Anglers’ discarded lines and hooks may entangle the swans or be swallowed. What a shame that our enjoyment is unkind to the swans, as unkind as cold or foxes.

And yet, in rhythm with the seasons, by autumn the cygnets and their parents will separate. The swans will court again, and mate in spring. New cygnets will be hatched. And in july the Swan Uppers will come.