2006 SWAN-UPPING CEREMONY HELD ON THE RIVER
Andrew Collins reports
The Swan-upping flotilla reaches Goring Lock, Oxfordshire, on 20 July 2006 (Pic: Andrew Collins)
20 July. I travelled to Oxford and Berkshire
in pursuit of one of the River Thames's oldest traditions, the Swan-upping
ceremony, whereby all cygnet swans are weighed and marked during a colourful
journey that takes place over five days in July each summer. The whole
thing is conducted by members of two of London's oldest livery companies,
the Vintners and Dyers, who, along with the monarch's swan-warden, gradually
make their way from Sunbury, Middlesex, to Abingdon in Oxfordshire,
capturing any young bird they might come across. It is a truly royal
ceremony, as the reigning monarch is deemed protector of all swans in
Britain. On the Thames itself, only the Vintners and Dyers are granted
the right to own swans, this being in honour of their annual contribution
to the Swan-upping ceremony.
Swan-upping appertains not only to the 'upping' out of the water of the cygnets, but also to the up-river journey itself. In many ways, it is like a symbolic journey to the source of the waters of life, something that I am convinced has being going on here on the Thames for thousands of years. Officially, Swan-upping began only in the fifteenth century, but the Royal Windsor website speaks of it going back as far as the thirteenth century, and I argue in THE CYGNUS MYSTERY that it is an echo of something much more ancient, when the city's vintners came under the jurisdiction of the Roman temple of Isis, the inventor of wine, whose avataristic forms included the swan and goose. Moreover, the Vintners' Martinmas feasts held each year in honour of the swan resonate with pre-Christian traditions that saw this bird as the carrier of souls into the next world.
I thought it was having a fit, but then all saw as it ejected a large white feather, before settling back down again. As quick as a flash, we were on the bank attempting to will the long white feather in our direction, drawing it too us finally with a long stick. What a fine gift for the day - a feather straight from the back of one of the swans that had led the Swan-uppers out of the lock. It was an act that in the past would have been seen as particularly fortuitous by those belonging to a shamanic based society. I stuck it in my hat, and with the sun shining we moved on to the next site.
We had meant to catch
up with the Swan-upping flotilla in Goring-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, but
passing a riverside pub, appropriately named The Swan, in Pangbourne,
Berkshire, I suddenly noticed the blue and red flags of the Dyers and
Vintners, and realized that they had stopped for a much needed pint
and some lunch. This was odd as Sue and I had come across this pub in
January, and thought then that it would be a great place to await the
Swan-upping flotilla. Now they were here, and so we ordered our own
food and drinks, and absorbed the vibrant atmosphere. I talked to the
Clerk of the Vintners Company about THE
CYGNUS MYSTERY, and chatted to one man whose father had a very unique
job in the Swan-upping process. He rides ahead of the skiffs on a bike
looking for any cygnets. When he finds one he keeps watch over it until
the flotilla arrives.
We arrived home late, and just as we got out of the car Sue said that to make the day complete it would be great to see one of the Alpha Cygnids, meteors that appear to come from Deneb, the brightest star in Cygnus. They reach their maximum number per hour on 18 July, which has always made this astronomical firework display strangely coincident to the Swan-upping ceremony on the Thames each year. At that very moment a bright streak emerged from Cygnus and shot northwards, a perfect end to a wonder day.