“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
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.