Swan Upping – Counting the Swans on the River Thames

Posted on

 Swan Upping on the River Thames - Queen’s Swan Marker, David Barber

 David Barber, The Queen’s Swan Marker

Swan Upping is an ancient ceremony which counts the number of mute swans on the River Thames.  This still relatively unknown tradition is an annual event, which takes place during the third week in July. Earlier this week Julie and I went to Oakley Court hotel to watch this spectacle and to partake of afternoon tea (seperate blog to follow).  

Swan Upping on the River Thames - Skiffs

 Skiffs (small rowing boats)

Swans have traditionally been regarded as a royal bird and by common law have belonged to the sovereign. The tradition of Swan Upping dates back to the 1100s, to a time when swans were highly regarded for their meat and were served at banquets and feasts.

In the 1470s the monarch bestowed the right to own swans to the Worshipful Company of Vintners and later also to the Worshipful Company of Dyers. Both the Vintners and the Dyers are livery companies, or ancient trade guilds in the City of London, and together with the Crown maintain the tradition of Swan Upping. Today the route covers the stretch of the River Thames between Sunbury and Abingdon, a journey of 79 miles, which is completed over five days. The public can watch from a number of viewing points along the river.

Swan Upping on the River Thames - Skiffs

Once the Uppers locate a family of swans they cry "All Up", surround them and then take them ashore for counting, examination and marking.

Swan Upping on the River Thames - Skiffs

The Uppers travel in six Skiffs, small wooden rowing boats. Two each for the Crown, the Vintners and the Dyers with each boat flies their own distinctive flag. The Crown's flag is white, the Vintners are red and the Dyers are blue.

Swan Upping on the River Thames - Swan

The swans and cygnets are carefully carried ashore.

Swan Upping on the River Thames - Oakley Court

The family was kept together and taken to a shady area to try to keep them cool. 

Swan Upping on the River Thames - Cygnets

Today Swan Upping focuses on swan welfare and conservation. The cygnets are counted and traditionally they were marked on their beak with one nick for the Dyers and two for the Vintners, while the Crown's birds were left unmarked. Today the cygnets are ringed.

Swan Upping on the River Thames - Measuring

 The cygnets had a health check which included being measured. 

Swan Upping on the River Thames - Weighing

The cygnets were also weighed.

 Swan Upping on the River Thames - Health Check

 They were also examed for signs of illness or injury.

Swan Upping on the River Thames

Christopher Perrins (left), the Queen's Warden of the Swans, is a biologist and Fellow at the University of Oxford and David Barber (right), the Queen’s Swan Marker. 

Swan Upping on the River Thames

Once the tasks have been completed the birds are released back into the River Thames.

Swan Upping on the River Thames - Swans are released

The swans and their cygnets are then released back into the River Thames together to avoid the risk of seperation. 

Swan Upping on the River Thames

We chose to watch the ceremony at Oakley Court hotel, which is one of the locations where the Uppers come ashore. We found it the perfect location, being more secluded than in the town centres, it was intimate and informal and we were able to mingle and chat with some of the people who were involved.

Swan Upping on the River Thames

The Uppers wear traditional uniform. Pictured the Queen’s Swan Marker (left) wearing scarlet, the Dyers (centre) and the Vintners (right), all with a swan feather in their caps.

Swan Upping on the River Thames - Conservation Talk

School children at Swan Upping were given a talk about conservation and were told about some of the hazzards the swans face, such a fishing tackle injuries.

The Queen's Swan Marker also awarded certificates to some pupils for completing swan themed projects.

Swan Upping on the River Thames - Boats

Accompanying the six Skiffs were these two boats, with their distinctive flags, and their swan shaped flower pots are adorable.

We totally loved our day out at Swan Upping, it makes for a fun day out and we're already planning to visit again next year.

Practical Information

Swan Upping is an annual event taking place on the third week in July. The ceremony takes place over five days.

The route overs the stretch of the River Thames between Sunbury and Abingdon.

We chose to watch Swan Upping at Oaklet Court hotel and we made a day of it arriving early so we could see the ceremony and then relaxing for the rest of the day walking round its beautiful grounds and enjoying afternoon tea.

For more information watch the video clip with David Barber, the Queen’s Swan Marker, talking about the tradition of Swan Upping.

If you enjoyed this blog post you might like to read about the Hot Cross Buns ceremony.

The author of this blog is a qualified City of London and City of Westminster Tour Guide who leads guided walks combining world famous landmarks with hidden treasures often missed by the crowds.