July 19, 2010, Windsor, UK – One of the beautiful aspects of this project is the opportunity for James and I to explore the places The World Tri takes us. Here in England, between jaunts to the river to cheer Charlie toward France, we have been visiting castles, museums, sampling local food, listening to local music and have even had the opportunity to observe the ceremonial counting of the royal mute swans at Windsor Castle.
One day when Charlie and Brian were making their way down the Thames near Windsor, Brian struck up a conversation with one of the lockmasters. When the lockmaster learned about The World Tri project, he encouraged us to observe the annual census of the swans along the river, a ceremony dating back to the 12th century. So while Charlie and Brian continued the journey down the river, James, his grandparents, Andy and I caught up with the Swan Upping team in Windsor.
Back in the 12th century, the Crown claimed the rights to all mute swans on the Thames. The swans were prized for their meat and considered a delicacy. Every year, the swan families were located along the river and their babies, called cygnets, were counted. Every year, the Queen gifted a portion of the new swans to each livery. The cygnets were then marked with a carving on their beaks.
Today, the tradition continues though the swans are no longer eaten. There are only two groups the Queen continues to grant swans, the Vintners and the Dyers. The cygnets given to the Vintners and Dyers are tagged with bracelets bearing their owner’s crest rather than marked on their beaks. All of the Queen’s swans are left unmarked.
Swan upping is difficult work. It takes six boats of Swan Markers five long days to make their way down the Thames corralling swan families for the official count. Although the swan census no longer serves the purpose it did 800 years ago, it has served a very practical purpose in recent years.
The mute swan population on the Thames is an indicator of the health of the river. Over the centuries the swan population has grown and dwindled due to environmental stresses in and around their home, the Thames. In the 1980s, lead fishing weights were the culprit of many swan deaths due to lead poisoning. They are no longer permitted having been replaced with non-toxic weights. During WWII the swan population declined due to disturbance around the river and destruction of their nesting areas.
The Thames is a much cleaner and healthier river than it has been in recent years but there are still threats to the swans. As humans take over land along the river, the swans lose their nesting ground.
The mute swans are a thread in the fabric of British culture and protecting them has helped the Thames. The Queen’s Swan Marker, appointed to care for the swan population, works with the fishing and boating organizations along the Thames to ensure the wildlife and natural habitat of the Thames are cared for and protected.
If you are interested in learning more about Swan Upping, please visit: The Thames Web: Swan Upping