Until Friday, you can glimpse the Queen’s Swan Marker, resplendent in scarlet jacket and gold trim, gliding along the Thames. He will be overseeing the annual ceremonial census of the Thames swans, known as Swan Upping, leading a flotilla of skiffs to catch, mark, weigh and inspect the birds. Swans are formidable beasts and catching them is a tricky business. Fortunately the ‘Uppers’ have had centuries to practise: when they spot a family, they shout ‘Swan up!’ and surround them with their boats. Boxed in, each bird is plucked from the water with a ‘swan hook’, its feet and wings are delicately bound with cotton and it is registered and checked for injuries.
When did this begin?
One of the British monarch’s titles is ‘Seigneur of the Swans’: she has the right to claim ownership of any unmarked swan in open water. In the fifteenth century, however, the Crown granted ownership of some of the YouThames swans to the Worshipful Companies of Vintners and Dyers. To this day, every third week of July, rival guilds of Swan Uppers jostle alongside the Queen’s Swan Marker, reasserting ownership of their respective avian dynasties by tagging the cygnets.
Watch the proceedings at Cookham when the flotilla passes through at around 2pm today (or find details of the route at www.royalswan.co.uk). If you can’t make it, go to Tate Britain instead and look for ‘Swan Upping at Cookham’, Stanley Spencer’s luminous painting of the occasion.