I am sitting here in cushy comfort: in front of me a stately dance of courtship is in progress. No, I am not at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. The elegant bowing of heads completing a romantic heart shape of curving necks is all part of the ritual of love between two swans. I am in Dorset at the Swannery, Abbotsbury, feeling a little bit like a voyeur in a bird hide on the edge of the sheltered lagoon behind the spectacular bank of pebbles which is Chesil Bank.
The two swans lost in courtship are surrounded by many others – feeding, preening and sailing in state with wings held aloft wide and proud. Occasionally there is a heart-stopping rhythmic sound of outsize wings beating in unison as a group flies low overhead. This is what being out and in amongst wildlife is all about. A splatting of great webbed feet and a track of spray herald more birds running to accelerate along a long runway of water, beating wings, to get up enough speed to take off and transform to smooth poetry in flight. It is just like a line of jumbo jets. The weight of these birds is close to the limits for flight.
The bird hide is a good one, with a nice low viewing window for children… and for wheelchairs. Access to it is a doddle for my Formula One Chariot. For me, its great advantage here is the independence to follow the enticing distances amongst tall reed beds and to stop for ages watching, without needing a push and intruding on my husband’s activity of photography. I am lingering at the high domed nests where swan mothers are perched, cosy on eggs. They do a bit of housework at the same time… multi-tasking females like me… shifting bits of reed stem and pushing soft down feathers around the large eggs.
Manual wheelchairs are available here for visitors at the entrance. My Chariot comes into its own at an outlying nest where the first cygnets of the season have hatched earlier this morning. There are glimpses of gorgeous grey fluff and little black eyes. The proud dad is almost hidden in the reeds just by the nest, until he rears up hissing at a hint of an intruder.
On the way back, I am faced with a protective male blocking the path. I am nervous about upsetting this swan and provoking aggression as his mate is sitting on their nest a few feet away behind a rail and I must go between them. After some consideration and a strategic approach, the quiet wheel motors and manoeuvrability of my Chariot allow me to go round him. A few pedestrians are taking photos of the nest; the swan seems unphased by them but his eyes are following me. I take it gingerly – at snail pace and alert to let go the joystick for an abrupt stop. I talk to him gently as I move. I am having to circle within inches of him. But this Chariot can go slow motion and ‘turn on a sixpence’ (pre decimalisation talk!)… my exit is nearly as stately as those two swans.