Black Swans Return to Chartwell

Black Swans Return to Chartwell


“All the black swans are mat­ing, not only the father and moth­er, but both broth­ers and both sis­ters have paired off. The Ptole­mys always did this and Cleopa­tra was the result. At any rate I have not thought it my duty to inter­fere.”  —Churchill to his wife, Chartwell, 21 Jan­u­ary 1935

Giles Palmer and Friends (National Trust)
Giles Palmer and Friends (Nation­al Trust)

Sev­en­ty-five years ago Lady Diana Coop­er observed that Chartwell’s birds “con­sist of five fool­ish geese, five furi­ous black swans, two rud­dy shel­drakes, two white swans—Mr. Juno and Mrs. Jupiter, so called because they got the sex­es wrong to begin with, two Cana­di­an geese (‘Lord and Lady Beaver­brook’) and some mis­cel­la­neous ducks.”

Chartwell’s black swans have been looked after as zeal­ous­ly as the apes on Gibral­tar, but over the years maraud­ing fox­es and mink had reduced the pop­u­la­tion, which reached zero last year. Hap­pi­ly last win­ter, Chartwell head gar­den­er Giles Palmer installed a new float­ing “swan island” to pro­vide nat­ur­al pro­tec­tion, and two new black swans (Cygnus atratus) are now cruis­ing the ponds designed by WSC himself.

 Mr. Palmer told Kent News: “I have seen the swans on their island once or twice but am con­fi­dent that they will see just what they are miss­ing out on as soon as the foliage on the island grows up. For now, I’m sim­ply thrilled that the swans are set­tling on so well and get­ting to know the gar­dens. They’re get­ting so brave now that they ven­ture all the way to the kitchen gar­den recent­ly.” The float­ing island has allowed Palmer to remove ugly mesh screen­ing set up against preda­tors, return­ing the lakes to their appear­ance in Churchill’s own time. (I hope they’re right about this.)

The first black swans were a gift to Churchill from Sir Phillip Sas­soon in 1927. The pop­u­la­tion was fre­quent­ly topped up by gifts from the gov­ern­ment of West­ern Aus­tralia, where the black swan is a state sym­bol. C. atra­tus is native also to Tas­ma­nia and has been intro­duced to New Zealand. It is the world’s only black swan, though its flight feath­ers, invis­i­ble at rest, are white. Palmer hopes the pair will soon breed and begin a new generation.

Churchill was devot­ed to his swans and reg­u­lar­ly engaged them in “swan-talk,” in which he claimed pro­fi­cien­cy. But a post­war body­guard, Ronald Gold­ing, told me that this was one of WSC’s lit­tle myths, because the swans would cry out to any­one who approached with­in a cer­tain distance:

It was some time after this dis­cov­ery that I was walk­ing down to the lake with Mr. Churchill. I was a lit­tle in front, and watched care­ful­ly for the crit­i­cal spot. I then called out in “swan-talk” and the birds duti­ful­ly replied. Mr. Churchill stopped dead. I turned round and he looked me full in the eye for a moment or two. Then the faintest sus­pi­cion of a smile appeared and he walked on in silence. No com­ment was ever made that this secret was shared.


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