LONDON — Have you ever watched a grown man try and catch a swan? No? Well, you should. You really, really should.
One of the weirder quirks of British tradition is that the Queen can claim ownership of any unmarked mute swan in open water in Britain. Today, this right is exercised on the River Thames, with ownership of swans along the river shared with two medieval-era organisations — the Dyers and the Vintners.
And every year, representatives of the Crown, the Vintners, and the Dyers set sail up the Thames in a flotilla of skiffs, catching swans in a surreal week-long census of the regal birds known as the “Swan Upping.”
It’s an ancient, 800-year-old tradition, steeped in history and quintessentially British. On Wednesday morning, I went along to experience the Swan Upping for myself.
It’s a right old jolly. School kids and elderly watchers gathered ahead of the day’s launch in Marlow to meet the Royal Swan Marker — the Queen’s representative in her absence — David Barber, and the other assembled Swan Uppers, or catchers. Attendees had a glass or two of wine and a nice natter before it all got underway.
The Uppers themselves are a mix of old boys, weather-beaten and balding, and younger lads that look fresh off the Durham University rowing team — all dressed in faintly archaic uniforms. They paddle their way upriver in a fleet of wooden skiffs, shiny with varnish and gold detailing. Flags and pennants flutter behind them in the breeze.
The small fleet is accompanied by a motley armada of hangers-on and watchers. A boatload of journalists is there for the duration. Hulking passenger boats cruise alongside, angling for a view of a catch. Families and fifty-somethings tag along in vessels decked out in swan banners, drinking bubbly and bantering with the other river-goers. The odd motorboat buzzes past, and rowers and kayaks glide downstream.
After a few minutes on the river, we spot our first couple of swans — but don’t slow down. This is because the Swan Upping is a census of cygnets — young swans — so if the birds haven’t got kids, the Uppers aren’t interested.
Not long after, the traditional call goes out: “All up!” It’s the first catch of the day.
The Uppers carefully position their skiffs around the birds, edging closer, before catching and tying them. The cygnets are taken ashore and weighed, measured, and recorded with rings attached to their legs, and the adult swans are checked against the records. (Two cygnets, both healthy, in this case.)
Once the cygnets’ ownership is decided and recorded (whether it belongs to the Crown, the Vinters, or the Dyers is generally down to its parents’ ownership, though the Crown sometimes gifts swans to the other companies), they are released with their family, unharmed.
As the catch takes place, locals come out to watch. Throughout the day, the Upping is a popular sight — with people (mostly the elderly, and the very young) turning out to watch the skiffs and maybe a catch if they’re lucky, at locksides, along riverside paths, outside their homes.
After our second stop at a lock, we’re joined by a boatload of what are quite possibly the poshest Englishmen (and women) I’ve ever seen. Tweed and wide-striped blazers. Shining gold buttons and swans feathers in hats. These are people for who “nautical-themed” isn’t just sartorial inspiration — it’s a way of life. As the day goes on, they let out cheers of “hip-hip-hooray!” for the catchers more than once.
Swan Upping, while niche, clearly remains a subject of fascination for a certain kind of person.
Hundreds of years ago, swans were a prized culinary luxury, and the Upping performed an important function: Keeping track of who owns which swans on the Thames. (The Worshipful Company of Dyers and The Worshipful Company of Vintners are the only two organisations that have retained their right to own swans on the river to the present day, after being granted them in the fifteenth century.)
Today, eating swans isn’t really the done thing, but the Upping continues. It has now taken on new functions: Conservation and education.
Swan numbers have been in decline in recent years, with cygnets threatened by everything from domestic dogs and fishing tackle to predatory pikes and minks, an invasive species. In 2014, there were 120 cygnets recorded. A year later, it was 83. In 2016, it was just 72.
“More and more people seem to walk their dogs along the riverbank and don’t really respect nesting birds … people don’t mean to do it, but the problem is they’re off the lead, the dog sees the nesting swan there, before we know it, we’ve got a dead swan. We’ve lost a lot that way,” Barber told me as we waited beside a lock.
“Respect wildlife. You have to respect wildlife, that’s most important.”
A handful of catches and a few hours in, and we hit a lull. Barber and the other Uppers have boarded the bigger ship to chat to the observers, while the press boat floats, moored up next to a burnt-out wreck, hundreds of meters away. It starts to intermittently drizzle. The world is a wall of grey and green. The photographers start to get antsy.
The skipper onboard is exactly what you’d expect: Sunburnt and weather-beaten. He shares stories and nautical trivia, occasionally chatting on the radio to the other boats. Fun fact: Despite the movies, “over and out” is meaningless, he says, as “over” means you’re awaiting a response, and “out” means the conversation is over. “You can’t be over and out at the same time.”
Another fun fact: BBC journalists bring their own special life-jackets when they need to get on boats.
The monotony ends as the fleet is reformed, followed by another catch. Everyone gets very excited: The parent swans are both owned by the Dyers — a rare event, apparently. Grinning Dyers pose for photos with the swans before releasing them back into the river.
The Swan Upping exists in that strange category of arcane rituals that are at once unfamiliar and deeply British. Like Morris Dancing or the symbolism of the State Opening of Parliament, it feels deeply rooted in the national psyche — even if you have no idea what’s going on.
The event seems disconnected from the realities of modern, urban, multicultural Britain, but it has a pageantry and tradition that stretches back hundreds of years into the nation’s past. In 800 years, throughout war and disorder, there has only been one recorded year when it was cancelled: 2012, due to heavy flooding.
(Barber disputed that it’s overly ritualistic. “It’s a ceremony that’s gone back 800 years, and people wear uniforms like they would in any other type of business.”)
It’s also incredibly wholesome. At locks, catchers climb out to teach gawping children about the boats, and share boiled sweets. Upper-middle-class old ladies gossip, drink, and cheer. It tracks a beautiful route through the idyllic English landscape, past weeping willows, wildflowers, and the almost unbearably picturesque town of Henley.
It’s like a floating National Trust special exhibition — and one that does real good. “I do it for the simple reason I love the river, I love the wildlife, and we want to preserve the swan population for the future,” Barber said.
There’s a few close shaves throughout the day. A motorboat floats too close to a weir and becomes stuck, necessitating a rescue from the the press boat — almost pulling us in too. A photographer nearly kicks a £1,000 lens overboard. A red-faced man on one of the big passenger boat starts swearing at our vessel, angry that it’s blocking the view of a catch: “Bugger off!” “Stop being so bloody greedy!”
The final tally of cygnets won’t be known until Barber prepares his report at the end of the week — but it’s looking pretty positive. We make four or five catches throughout the day, with some families counting as many as six cygnets.
One catcher estimates midway through the day that 86 young swans have been counted so far this year, in less than three days, versus the 72 overall in 2016. After several years of decline, things are finally on the up.
“Marvellous,” one woman exclaims.