Swan With Two Necks
The recently crowned CAMRA pub of the year for 2014 boasts this sobriquet but what does it mean and what is the origin of the phrase?
To start with there are two variants of the name, the one stated above and the Swan with two nicks. No less an authority than Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist who accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage down under (1768 – 1771), declared at a meeting of the Antiquarian Society in 1810 that the nicks variant was likely to be the origin of the phrase.
The nicks refer to the scratches made on the beaks of swans during the ceremony known as Swan Upping. Traditionally, the British king or queen has right of ownership of all unmarked mute swans to be found on open water. However, they only assert ownership rights on certain stretches of the River Thames and its surrounding tributaries, although recently this has equated to half of England! These rights date back to the 12th century when swan was a favourite form of tucker for the royals.
Under a Royal Charter issued during the 15th century two Livery Companies from the city of London, the Vintners’ Company and the Dyers’ Company also were entitled to share the monarch’s rights. The ceremony of Swan Upping takes place annually during the third week of July. During the ceremony representatives of the Queen, the Vintners’ and the Dyers’ (the uppers) row up and down the river in skiffs. Those swans which are caught by the Queen’s Uppers are left unmarked, save for a ring linked to the British Trust for Ornithology’s database. Those caught by the Uppers of the Livery Companies are given a second ring, affixed to the other leg.
In days of yore the Uppers marked the birds by scratching their beaks, hence the two nicks. These days, only swans with cygnets are caught and ringed – the process gives invaluable scientific data about how well the birds are breeding – and they no longer grace the dinner table of our betters. In 2009, the Queen, as Seigneur of the Swans, actually troubled her arse to watch the ceremony, the first monarch to do so for centuries. Doubtless, the ceremony lost its appeal when you could no longer identify the bird you wanted to eat.
So now we know!