Before departing for France we made one last excursion up the Thames as far as Oxford. Going to Oxford meant that we’d twice again pass through the fine village of Abingdon, a popular mooring spot.
Though it wasn’t our plan, on the way downstream we arrived in Abingdon just in time to see the finish of the Swan Upping. The Swan Upping is a curious ritual where colorfully dressed men in a skiff paddle up the Thames marking the young swans along the way.
There’s a 900-year history behind the Upping. By tradition, the British Monarch retains the right to ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water on the Thames. The marking of the swans allows for health census and prevents “the claim of ownership of swans by ‘yeomen and husbandmen, and other persons of little reputation’”. But there’s more to it than that. With 900 years behind it, the Swan Upping comes with many rules, traditions, and ceremonies that make a seemingly simple activity into a spectator event.
I won’t pretend to understand the ins and outs of the Swan Upping tradition. All I know is that, as the swan uppers neared their finish in Abingdon, they seemed focused on the finish line and were ignoring all waterfowl nearby. The numerous young cygnets paddling nearby in full view went on unmolested as the men in red raced to the finish line at full speed. There could be a good reason for this. Our unofficial survey while cruising on the Thames put the swan numbers on the river at near infestation levels. These days, to mark all of the young swans on the Thames would take a monumental effort. If a complete census were performed, it would not leave sufficient time for the required pomp and ceremony.