Stuff that really goes on in Britain

Last July, the queen’s official swan marker counted the queen’s swans. This is called swan upping.

Okay, the unvarnished truth is that they didn’t count all the queen’s swans, just the ones on the Thames. And not even on all of the Thames, just on one part of it. It takes five days to complete that chunk, and that probably explains why they stop there.

But the queen has other, uncounted swans. Lots and lots of swans, although since no one counts them she doesn’t know how many. She owns all the unmarked mute swans on open water in the country. Why? Because she’s the queen, that’s why, and if that’s not enough of a reason for you, go ask someone who takes this stuff seriously.

By way of a partial explanation, though, I found this is Wikipendia: “Rights over swans may, however, be granted to a subject by the Crown (accordingly they may also be claimed by prescription).”

“Accordingly”? No, I don’t understand what that’s doing there either. But “prescription”? That makes sense. If you can convince a doctor that owning a swan will cure whatever ails you, the queen can grant you one.

You don’t believe me, you cynic, you? It’s right there in black and white. Or it was last I checked. The word may have been re-prescribed to some other entry by now—it’s Wikipedia, after all—but I swear I can’t make up stuff like this. I can, however, mix up my links. I suspect the link about what part of the Thames gets swan-upped belongs to the quote, but I can’t be bothered to check.

You don’t really care, do you?

The usual irrelevant photo: A rose in our garden. Roses here get black spot–or ours do, anyway. You can see the spots on the out-of-focus leaves in the upper left-hand corner. Black spot makes the plants lose leaves like mad, but so far the plants have survived anyway. There’s a life lesson in there if you’re into that kind of thing. At my age, I’ve lost a few leaves myself, but my spots tend to be brownish, not black, so I probably have something different.

The swan uppers traditionally wear red and take skiffs out on the river.

A skiff is a light rowing boat, usually for one person. I had to look it up. It’s one of those words I think I know until I notice that I don’t really. I’ll skip the link. You can google it yourself if you want, but unless you have a strong stomach, skip the Urban Dictionary’s offering. They define it as a verb and the less said about it the better. And in a rare moment of good taste and discretion, I’ll say less. So let’s change the subject and quote the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on the subject of swan upping:

“During the Middle Ages, the mute swan was considered to be a valuable commodity and was regularly traded between noblemen. The owners of swans were duty bound to mark their property by way of a succession of unique nicks in the beaks of their birds. It was the duty of the Royal Swanmaster to organise the annual swan-upping, a tradition that survives to this day.

“The role of swan-upping was to round up unmarked cygnets and once the parentage of the cygnets had been established to the Swanmaster’s satisfaction [how do you do that? you ask, of course], the birds could be marked appropriately and returned to the wild. The ceremony exists these days in a largely symbolic form, although as an exercise it is useful in monitoring the condition and number of swans on the Thames.

“The only two companies that still observe the tradition of owning swans on the Thames are the Worshipful Companies of Vintners and Dyers. The Royal swans are no longer marked, but an unmarked mute swan on the Thames is regarded as belonging to the Queen by default. The Queen still maintains an officially-appointed Swan Keeper, and the ceremony still takes place on the Monday of the third week in July.

“The Queen has a prerogative over all swans in England and Wales. The Swan Keeper also despatches swans all over the world, sent as gifts in the Queen’s name.”

Just when you think things can’t get any more English, someone tells you about a Worshipful Company—in capital letters, yet. You have to love this place. Or I do, Even when I’m reduced to fits of giggles.


On a more prosaic note, a school in Houghton-le-Spring (yes really; it’s somewhere near Sunderland, which is somewhere not near me but that covers a lot of territory and I’m hazy about exactly where in the land of not-near-me it is)—. Let’s start that over: The school sent a bunch of kids home at the beginning of the school year because their trousers (that’s pants if you’re American and definitely not pants if you’re British, except in a sort of metaphorical, insulting way, because pants are underwear except when the word’s used to mean something not good)—. We’re lost again, aren’t we? I’ll get to the point this time. The school sent a bunch of kids home because their trousers were the wrong shade of gray.

If you’re not British, you need to understand that school kids here have to wear uniforms. And that schools take their uniforms as seriously as the queen takes her swan upping. They’re convinced the uniforms give the kids a sense of pride in their school. I have yet to hear a single kid say that it does, but maybe I’m talking to the wrong kids.

I would, wouldn’t I? Mostly I was talking to one kid, who hated them with a passion I really admired.

Great kid.

But back in Houghton-le-Spring (yea, verily, that is the name of the place–I have no idea how it’s pronounced), the school made the kids line up in the rain while someone checked their trousers against a swatch of fabric. Yes, a swatch. They couldn’t just eyeball the damned things and say, “We said gray and that looks more like pink.” Nope. They needed the exact shade of gray.

I’m sure it made the kids immensely proud. Especially the standing in the rain part.

The point of the exercise was to make sure the parents bought £15.99 trousers from Total Sport instead of (oh, the horror of it all) £7 trousers from Tesco, which is a (more horror) supermarket that sells relatively cheap school clothes. Because if you force the parents to spend more money on school uniforms, you squeeze out the lower-income parents and get a better class of dolt filling your school’s seats.

The kids who couldn’t be sent home (presumably because their parents were at work and not available to be shamed with satisfying immediacy) were put in an isolation room, where they wouldn’t contaminate the other kids, and they weren’t allowed to attend classes until they repented, forked out £15.99 times however many pairs they needed, and changed clothes. The three with the wrongest shade of gray were freeze dried and won’t be thawed out until the end of the school year.

The headteacher (that’s the principal, if you’re American) said, “We are very, very particular about the uniform because we need consistency right across the board.

“In doing so some learners were sent home. If you have different types of trousers it leads on to different types of shoes, different types of shirts, etc.”

And the next thing you know, they’ll have different types of—gasp, wheeze—thoughts.

I don’t know when students became learners, but I’m sure they learned a lot from the exercise, and I hope it wasn’t what the headteacher wanted them to learn. And if the headteacher would please contact me, I’d love to correct her writing sample. I won’t charge, but I will point out that “in doing so” doesn’t refer back to a single damned thing.

How do I know? I’m holding a syntax swatch up beside it. She bought her sentences at the supermarket and I caught her at it.


A letter in the Guardian claimed that in the 1970s, when books had to be moved from the old library in Worthing (that’s probably in Somerset, but don’t trust me on that) to the new one, the library encouraged people to borrow as many books as they wanted from the old library, then return them to the new one.

“The shelves in the old library were soon empty,” the letter says. Except for the one that held the complete works of Proust.


This doesn’t really fit with our topic, but most of you know me well enough not to expect any better. A second Guardian letter writer mentioned the title of a commentary on modern church songs (or maybe that’s only one category of modern church songs—I wouldn’t know). The point is that the commentary was titled, “O God, let me be the putty round thy window pane.”

I expect it’s even funnier if you’ve been subjected to whatever category of church songs that is. I haven’t, for which I count myself lucky because if I’d laughed any harder I’d have rearranged my internal organs.

As far as I understand the definition of organs, all of mine are internal, but never mind. It sounds better with “internal” left in, and if you have a syntax swatch yourself, allow me to remind you that rhythm does matter.

Some of the Guardian letter writers are frighteningly funny, and the paper, to its credit, encourages the worst in them.


The Conservative Party held its conference in early October, and since the party’s somewhere between disarray and meltdown it badly needed to come out of it with a burst of energy, a bit of unity, and some good press. Instead, it organized a satirist’s dream. The best part came when the prime minister, Theresa May, coughed and choked her way through her big speech while standing in front of a sign that at the beginning of the speech said, “Building a country that works for everyone.” As she spoke, letters started dropping off until eventually it read, “Bui ding a c  ntry tha   orks for    ryon .”

Truer words have never peeled off a sign.


And finally, a note about something that didn’t happen: the annual World Bolving Contest Championships. For the second year in a row, there weren’t any. How they get to be annual under those conditions I don’t know, but the paper called them annual and who am I to argue?

Mind you, I can’t find a link to the article. Ever since the Western Morning News started pouring its content into Cornish Stuff instead of its own website, I haven’t been able to find its print articles online, although I happen to know they’re there. Somewhere. So let’s settle for a link to a video from the World Bolving Contest Championships back when they did happen. Just to prove they’re real.

How could you have doubted me? Don’t you feel kind of silly about it now?

So what’s bolving? The bolve is the red deer’s mating call. So bolving? That’s when the stag’s calling. Or when a human’s imitating a hormonally overamped red stag calling his love—whoever she might turn out to be. I have a hunch they’re not particular about that.

If you want a completely irrelevant meaning of the word and its astro-numerological significance, you’ll find it here. I haven’t read it and can’t think of a reason why I’d want to, but far be it from me to stop you from improving your mind.

If the human’s bolve works at all and if a stag’s in the neighborhood, the stag will answer. Maybe because they’re not really calling their loves but challenging their rivals. I’m no expert on red deer, but I’ve known some humans who are wired like that.

This isn’t one of those traditional contests Britain specializes in—the kind that are so ancient that no one really understands what they’re about anymore but everyone continues them anyway. Like, say, the Atherstone Ball Game.. Or the Gloucester Cheese Rolling. No, this one dates back only as far as 2003, when a few people were sitting around an Exmoor pub, drank too much, and made a bet. I’m guessing that’s how a lot of traditional contests started. Not necessarily with a bet, but definitely with a pub.

The contest started out small and local, but before anyone knew what had happened it was big and popular, which meant it involved visitors on the roads after dark and, wouldn’t you know it, insurance.

The WMN story ends with the tale of a regional deer expert who “used to bolve so that he could hear which stags were about, but one evening a mighty stag came belting down through the woods to confront him face to face. The beast did a kind of cartoon skid with all four hooves when he saw his opponent was a man, stopping just feet away to issue one final, deafening, defiant, bellow.”

You can tell you’re in the land of tall tales when you find not just a stag but a mighty stag, and when it does a cartoon skid.

That extra comma in the last sentence belongs to WMN. Far be it from me to cheat them out of it. If you’re not sure which one it is, don’t lose any sleep over it. It’s one of those editty, nitpicky things. I wont freeze dry either you or the WMN for it. The headteacher, though? I’ve got my eye on her. She’d better watch it.

63 thoughts on “Stuff that really goes on in Britain

  1. Nothing wrong with a tradition as long as it does no harm; I’ve never been sure about Swan Upping, personally. Of course, some of the business around school uniforms is ridiculous – and the bad practice of trying to force parents to buy more expensive alternatives from the school shop is even older than I am. My old school pulled a nasty little trick; a couple of weeks after mums and dads had forked out for school caps and berets, they made wearing them optional. Yes, yes, of course all the boys and girls swapped… One of the advantages of school uniform, though, is that it doesn’t single anyone out for special attention, rich or poor. There is no competition over fashion, no one is made to feel inadequate because they haven’t got the latest style. And wearing school uniform didn’t stop me thinking, oddly enough.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I love your posts. If I may put in my two-penn’orth (two pennies worth) again? My old school in Wales had a bottle-green uniform and I’ve never been able to wear that colour again. I’m glad they didn’t pick blue or some other colour I like to wear. The levelling of the playing field didn’t really work because low-income kids like me had to wear jumpers that their mum or their nan had knitted. Call me ungrateful but, well, I was not grateful.
    Here in rural Ireland they also insist on school uniforms but they tend to also have school crests on them. In our case, that means we can only get the uniforms from one shop in the same town as the school. Guess what that does to the prices. Fortunately, low-income families are given an annual school uniform allowance. Yay, for the Irish welfare system!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Exactly. And I noticed lately (I think I’m right about this) that the local secondary school has changed the color of its uniform two years ini a row, guaranteeing that hand-me-downs won’t work.

      I also understand that the alleged leveling means that things like shoes and backpacks and jackets become markers for the kids’ parents’ income. What about just leveling income and skipping the school uniforms?

      Liked by 1 person

    • I did a half-minute search (that’s all I’m good for right now) and couldn’t find an answer. It’s a good question, though. Especially considering that we’re in a period of artificially induced austerity. Not that the government’s likely to be paying the swan uppers–the queen does that. But who pays the queen?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think school uniforms are the thing schools are proud of if they have nothing else…
    Especially now when the education system is pretty much broken and needs throwing out!

    Worthing is in Sussex :) about 30 mins from where I live 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love learning a new monosyllable in my native language at my advanced age. I mean, you learn new words all the time, even in your native language–but, a monosyllable? Not so often. “To up”–that’s a damn good one. Thanks! (So, yes: I do care, I do!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • As I read your comment, I assumed you were talking about “to bolve”–probably because the comment I read just before yours had to do with that. But “to up”? That’s not only new and monosyllabic, it’s a damned unusual use of a common word.


  5. We lived a stone’s (not a big stone…maybe middle-sized) throw from Richard Park (that’s Surrey Richmond not the other one up north) and BOLVING was BIG….in Richard Park….also dangerous.
    There were no swans therefore no upping ensued. Tippling, yes…since the FROG & SWAN pub was just down the road…but no upping. Tippling whilst bolving? Not so much.
    We should, most likely, be thankful for that…..

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I believe the queen also invented the Dorgis (dachshound corgi mix) And for additional information the Queen also owns any Dolphins, Whales and sturgeons in the UK water. She goes around the UK in a motorboat with her army of swans counting them (I may have made this last bit up)

    Liked by 2 people

  7. We had a gym uniform situation like that when I was in junior high school. Uniforms were skimpy, ugly, badly made, and cost about four times as much as better-quality shorts and shirts. A slightly older cousin became a local folk hero by organizing five other girls to refuse to wear the uniforms on the grounds that the short shorts violated the rule of her parents’ church. As a result my class were allowed to wear full-length jeans or sweatpants for gym, a big improvement in winter.

    I think too many churches have been too hasty to discard such useful rules :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. There is a definite cautionary tale here with the bolving. My wife has lately taken to imitating the owls who prowl our neighborhood at night. She does a pretty fair owl too, but I’d hate for her to suffer the same fate as the regional deer expert. You have provided a public service here. – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

  9. All schools, from infants to grammar and secondary modern, had uniforms in my day. The infants and junior uniforms were standard stuff stocked by the local Co op and Littlewoods, but then parents were stuffed by having to buy at official suppliers for grammar and, in some cases, secondary modern. An absolute con.
    We swore that our skirts kept the Clyde shipyards in work…six panelled serge that would stand up on its own…and regular inspection – whole assembly halls of girls kneeling – ensured that they were of knee length and not a fraction above. The regulation divided skirts for games were allowed to be shorter… to enable your legs to turn blue when playing hockey in hail or gale force winds.
    No jewellery, no distinguishing marks like shoes or satchels, all was regulated. Not that that stopped us from knowing who had money and who did not.
    I am enjoying a mental picture of my Presbyterian headmistress encountering the putty round the window pane hymn. I suspect that organist, minister and congregation would be down for a day pf prayer and humiliation, as would all Bolvers.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s one great thing about getting older: You can bolve, you can put putty around god’s window pane, you can put your non-regulation shoes on your non-regulation couch, and the headmistress can’t do a thing about it. You can even (gasp) wear jeans.

      Maybe the point of adding all those pointless restrictions to the school experience is to teach us to enjoy small things once we graduate.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I wonder if anyone noticed that the letters which fell off the sign behind Theresa May can be rearranged to spell WE LOVE E.U. (okay, there is a leftover T, but it undoubtedly wasn’t paying attention when instructions were issued)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’d be out for that headteacher too. Reminds me of mine many moons ago who got me into her office, pushed (yes!) me onto her green velvet sofa and gave me a huge lecture on having shoes with heels that were 3 millimetres too high. I got my D

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’d have my eye on that headteacher too! Sounds just like mine many moons ago who got me into her office, pushed me (yes!!) onto her green velvet couch and gave me a big lecture about wearing shoes with heels 3 milimetres too high. I didn’t think that kind of thing happened anymore… I wonder who owns the swans on the river I walk past here. Macron?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just found this second version of your comment. I think political figures come and go too quickly to own all the swans–and I doubt swans recognize any private property but their own anyway.


  13. I am so glad to know this. Really. Next week we finish learning about England in my preschool classroom. We just wrote a letter to the queens asking her many questions, and I’m sure the children would have asked her about her swans. So at least there is someone who cares. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Cygnetopenia: A condition in which swan ownership is less than normal. It is considered by many medical professionals to be a precursor to Cygnetporosis. Standard treatment requires a Royal prescription and bolving in proper gray trousers.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I remember when I was living in England with my Godparents, in a little village just outside Oxford, the people in the village went crazy because someone had stolen a Black Swan egg from the big manor pond. It was a huge ordeal. I was puzzled by it. But now, thanks to you, it all makes sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There used to be people in Britain who collected wild birds’ eggs–the rarer the better, which further endangered endangered species. Since black swans are rare, that probably added to the anger. It’s illegal to do that now (and may well have been then), but the problem, of course, is in enforcing the law.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Ah, swan-upping and all the nit-picking, silly, confusion of who owns swans (I wonder what the swans think of it all?). One of those British traditions that is so ridiculous, it is magnificent.

    Unlike the school uniform nonsense.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Pingback: Blog Networking: 11/5/17 | Dream Big, Dream Often

    • Good question. Given the flexibility of the head teacher, I think the whole school would’ve been suspended and the building blown up. Because it’s important to show the proper respect for your school.


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