Reprinted from Newsletter 120, dated 2006 September

Sunday outing for the swan family

Jim Nagel

Two white and four grey swans swim in a small body of water running between areas of grass.

A family of swans was feeding in the rhyne beside the Baltonsborough road, near Cowbridge, on Sunday afternoon as I cycled back from a Somerset Art opening. In a car I would not have noticed them — nor the hedgerows’ bumper crop of blackberries and blue sloes.

The mute swan (Cygnus olor) is Britain’s largest bird, and, at 50 pounds, it’s the heaviest flying bird. The male (cob) and female (pen) look alike, and mate for life. The four grey-brown juveniles in the photo will gain white feathers and a brighter bill in their first winter.

St Hugh and his swan

One of Jan Willis’s ceramic sculptures (see below) at that Arts Week venue depicts St Hugh’s swan keeping his adoring fans at bay when he was exhausted. He was prior of Witham, a Carthusian house near Frome, until becoming Bishop of Lincoln on 21 September 1181; he died in 1200.

[Added 2018:] At the time of the Reformation, Hugh was the best-known English saint after Thomas Becket, according to a Wikipedia writer. He is also known as Hugh of Avalon; he was born at Avalon in France. He joined as a novice and rose to become leader of the Grande Chartreuse order, known for its austerity and earnest piety.

A white ceramic sculpture. A person with arms outstretched stands behind a swan with wings outstretched. The person’s head is directly above the swan’s, and the person’s arms follow the the bird’s wings. Fingertips and wingtips are right next to each other. Below are some swirls reminiscent of waves.

St Hugh and his swan, a ceramic sculpture by Jan Willis.

By special request of King Henry II in penance for the murder of Thomas Becket, Hugh was sent to become prior of the first Carthusian house in England, Witham Charterhouse in Somerset. As prior and then as bishop, he was adept in treating successive kings with firmness, charm and wit. The people loved him.