DORSET -- Abbotsbury, on England's southern coast, was once a den of iniquity. In the 1700s the Journal of London pronounced "all the people of Abbotsbury -- including the vicar -- thieves, smugglers, and plunderers of wrecks."
Over the centuries much has changed. Abbotsbury is now a respectable village, its showpiece, the 14th-century Abbotsbury Swannery , home to a huge colony of swans that have lived and procreated on Dorset's Jurassic coast for hundreds of years.
Once serving as a source of culinary delicacies for the monks of the Abbey of St. Peter in the village, the swans now provide the feathers that decorate the helmets of the Gentlemen at Arms, the queen's traditional corps of bodyguards. Loath to give way to modernity, Lloyd's of London, the world's most renowned insurance underwriter, uses swan quills from Abbotsbury to record in its "Doom Book " the dark days when the company settles insurance claims.
Today in a quaint setting of herb gardens, meandering streams, and stone-walled cottages with climbing roses and golden reed beds, breeding swans sit in stately splendor on huge nests dappled with soft snowy feathers. In the Fleet lagoon nearby, a large bevy of bachelors and spinsters of the species mingle and flirt.
Protected from the choppy waters of Lyme Bay by the 6-mile-long Chesil Beach, the Fleet lagoon is a vast, lush water meadow of eel grass that provides sustenance for the swans.
Provisioned with an ingenious way of dealing with the salinity of the lagoon while they feed, the swans, whose natural habitat is fresh water, filter the saltwater through a gland situated above their eyes, then excrete the salty deposit from their nostrils. Algae, shellfish, and cockles, together with hand-fed wheat three times a day, add variety to their diet.
As noon approaches, hundreds of birds jostle for position as deputy swanherd Steve Groves trundles his wheat-filled wheelbarrow to the water's edge. Children are invited to help feed the birds, tossing scoops of grain in all directions.
Later, Groves approaches cautiously along the water's edge with a sinister-looking hook. He's intent on catching a nonbreeding bird for ringing. After a couple of attempts he succeeds. Lifting a plump, squirming body with neck stretched out like a weaving snake, he expertly places an identifying ring around the swan's leg. That's one for the crown: The queen is traditionally the owner of most of England's swans and this one is now officially hers.
Swans have throughout time been featured in myth and folklore. Druidic bards of the Celtic tradition believed them sacred. Ceremonial cloaks worn by the priests were made of swan skin and feathers. As good luck symbols, boat builders of the past carved and placed swan figureheads on boats' prows. The Greeks believed that swans represented eroticism, and Socrates coined the phrase "swan song," saying that the song of a dying swan was unforgettable.
Dave Wheeler, chief swanherd to the Abbotsbury flock and the most recent in a line of swanherds that stretches back to the 1400s, has cared for this colony for more than 22 years. Living together in tolerant harmony, about 600 mute swans feed, mate, and nest with surprisingly little conflict.
Wheeler calls the swans "pussycats," and says they are mostly nonaggressive because of their close interaction with the public.
There is, of course, the occasional melee. It is not uncommon for two females to share a nest, and when a jealous mother finds her confused cygnet cozying up to the neighboring female, things can become a trifle tense.
Although generally monogamous, "divorce" is not unknown in the swan world. Groves told us of a 19-year-old cob (elderly by swan standards) who upon losing his mate of many years decided to install another that had taken his fancy. The fact that the chosen female already had a mate was not a deterrent. Prior to going off with his new sweetheart, "the 19-year-old beat up his rival so badly that we had to put him down," Groves said.
Swans are fiercely protective of their young. Venture too close and you may provoke a display of ire that could be painful. I have seen a male swan try to drown a large dog by holding him under the water after the excited canine swam after the cob's fleeing cygnets. Only his master's intervention -- a hasty dive into the pond -- saved the dog. Powerful males have been known to severely injure a man, breaking an arm with a swipe from a flailing wing.
Anyone who has spent a day watching these incredible birds would agree that swan life closely resembles an avian soap opera. In this tranquil setting they are graceful as they glide with stately elegance across the lagoon, aggressive as the male lifts his wings and surges forward like a battleship in pursuit of a reluctant female, fierce in defense of their young, and exquisitely beautiful in a courtship dance that is tender, whimsical, and magical.
They also can be devious. "Egg dumping" is not unknown in this colony. Like the notorious cuckoo bird, some females travel from nest to nest laying eggs, leaving the tedious business of incubating the eggs to another.
Like a coterie of clowns the birds bob on the water, bottoms up, in a communal feeding frenzy as they skim a bed of juicy aquatic weed. Then, like corks, they pop right side up with strands of algae and eel grass trailing from their dripping beaks.
When they take flight it is comical but magnificent. They need a long watery runway to get going, but once up, their feet slap the water as they move heavily across the surface. Then suddenly they are away. Their great wings set up a rhythmic hum as they rise to impossible heights. Immensely powerful, during migration these birds have been known to reach flight speeds of 50 miles per hour while flying nonstop for 2,000 miles. Their cruising altitude is often close to that of jets.
The swannery is a must for visitors to England's southern coast. From late May through October nature lovers flock to this place where every season hundreds of awkward cygnets hatch and grow into majestic swans.
Anne Gordon, a freelance writer based in Guelph, Ontario, can be reached at annegordon@yahoo .com.