Around London In 11 Swans

By M@ Last edited 18 months ago

Last Updated 06 January 2023

Around London In 11 Swans
A swan, in a big, big pond

The swan. Not a bird to be trifled with. The elegant-yet-wrist-fracturing waterfowl have a firm place in our city's history. Every year, the Thames swans are divided up between the Vintners, Dyers and the Crown in a tradition known as "swan upping". They also pop up with surprising regularity in the statues and sculptures of London. Here are a few we've clocked on our travels. Any of them could break a man's arm.

See also: Around London in 12 elephants - Around London in 12 dragons - Around London in 13 tigers

And if you're new to swans: Swans in London: Things you Should Know

1. Two swans at Battersea Bridge

A sculpture of a swan in flight, seen from below, with a glazed office block behind

Swans are the A380s of the boating lake, needing many litres of runway to launch themselves skyward. The moment of take-off is beautifully captured in this two-piece sculptural group at the south end of Battersea Bridge. The bronze beauts were crafted by Catherine Marr-Johnson in 1984 and are mounted on separate pedestals.

2. The swan pedalos of Alexandra Palace

A line of swan pedalos on a lake, some are pink others white

Seekers of pedalo action on Alexandra Park's boating lake face a testing decision: swan, flamingo, sea serpent or unconvincing sports car? The correct answer, of course, is "none of the above", for pedalos are like supermarket onion rings: nowhere near as pleasurable as you'd expect. Further swan pedalos can be found in the Olympic Park, if you must.

3. Street art swans in Southwark

Street art under a rail bridge showing two swans forming a heart shape with their bendy necks. Aw, bless.

"Did you know that swans like to mate beneath railway bridges?"
"No, they ignore the ducks, and just go for it."

As you can see, this lovey-dovey mural can be found on Redcross Way (famously home to the Crossbones graveyard). It was painted by the pointillist street artist JimmyC, who also did the Shakespeare mural on nearby Clink Street. Aw, bless 'em.

4. Swan upping in the City

A bronze statue of a member of the Vintners company upping a swan

A man who's raided the Village People's wardrobe holds his spanking rod aloft, while a confused swan looks on. Out of context, this Garlick Hill sculpture is surely one of London's more peculiar. In fact, he represents a barge master from the Vintner's Company, participating in the age-old tradition of marking the Thames swans. Standing on a box to gain height over his co-star, he is very much the Tom Cruise of the "upping" world. The piece was sculpted by Vivien Mallock in 2007.

5. More riverside upping

A 20th century tower block with the sculpture of a man and swan on the side.

London contains more public sculptures of swan upping than it does of Charles Dickens. Fact. This more abstract affair decorates Riverbank House near Putney Bridge. It was created in 1963 by Edward Bainbridge Copnall, who also did that remarkable sculpture of Thomas Becket in St Paul's churchyard. It's made of fibre glass, just like the pedalo swans.

6. Posh swans

Two white swan benches stand outside a posh hotel

From swan upping to swan seating. This brace of benches is a temporary feature outside the Sofitel in St James's. The swans form part of the hotel's 'Flora Terrace', otherwise known as the pavement of Waterloo Place. Not sure why they're playing football. You wouldn't want to get into a crunching tackle with a swan — lethal.

7. Swanning around the River Lea

A logo on a post marking the River Lea Walk. It includes the form of a swan

Walk along any stretch of the River Lea between the Thames and Luton (yes, it really does flow there) and you're likely to see many swans. Not just of the feathered variety, but also of the two-dimensional, stylised disc persuasion. An open-bummed swan is the emblem of the Lea Valley Walk, a 50 mile route with many features of interest (including the only suspension bridge over the River Lea).

8. A swan on the tube

A zig-zag picture of a swan made from blue and white tiles, with an orange beak

Why does Stockwell tube station have an abstract zig-zaggy swan thing inside it? Every Victoria line station has its own unique tile mosaic, most of which reference a local landmark. For example Brixton's platforms feature a ton-of-bricks pattern, while Warren Street has a maze. For Stockwell, the designers chose the first thing they saw when emerging from the subway — a local pub called The Swan (obvs). Such a shame when they could have drawn on any number (so long as it was less than 2) of alternative Stockwell landmarks.

9. A sturdy stone swan

A stone swan sculpture

Want another reference to swan upping? Almost certainly not. But here's one anyway. The lithic Cygnus can be found within the halls of the Vintners company on Upper Thames Street. This beakster really could break a man's arm, were it dropped from a moderate height.

10. Now we're getting a bit obscure

An old timber-framed building with a swan weather vane on top

The pretty village of Monken Hadley lies just within the Greater London boundary, to the north of Barnet. It's famous for its role in the Battle of Barnet, its many fairy doors, and this splendid swan-shaped weather vane. (Fame, in this case, may be subjective.) I have no idea why a swan was chosen, though you can occasionally see them in the local ponds. I'd have gone for a fairy, or a maimed medieval soldier, but there we go.

11. And finally, by way of swan song...

A poster questioning the disappearance of a baby swan

We encountered this conundrum pasted to a noticeboard in Springfield Park, Hackney. The mind boggles.

All images by Matt Brown