BY LINDA MONDOUX
The curtain on spring officially rises on April 1 in Stratford, as the city’s famous swans take centre stage for a weekend celebration designed for the whole family. If you’ve never travelled to the home of the award-winning Stratford Shakespeare Festival during the annual Swan Parade weekend, you’ve been missing out on one of the most enjoyable — and quirky — rites of spring anywhere.
It’s indeed a sight to behold as a parade of 28 frisky white swans, black swan and assorted geese friends step to the sounds of the Stratford Police Pipes and Drums band. The regal fowl, released from their winter quarters behind the William Allman Arena, happily waddle their way a short block down Lakeside Drive before crossing the road to the scenic Avon River, where they will live until November, when the water freezes over again.
Hundreds of spectators, including those perched on tree branches for the perfect vantage point, gather from as far away as Ottawa and Ohio, cameras at the ready and watches synchronized for a parade that begins promptly at 2 p.m. There are no speeches from politicians. No floats or clowns. Just a parade dedicated to Stratford’s most majestic citizens.
As Ted Blowes puts it: “The parade is all about the swans.”
Blowes, former mayor of the city of 30,886, is chairman of the parade, which has been organized by the volunteer Civic Beautification and Environmental Awareness Committee for the past 20 years. “We want to keep it simple and dignified,” he says of the parade, which is expected to attract up to 3,000 spectators this year if the weather co-operates.
The committee, in conjunction with the Stratford Tourism Alliance, tried something new last year, when bleachers were set up in the middle of the road for spectators, who were treated to live entertainment before the parade. The bleachers have been banished, however, because they created too much of a traffic jam, with the swans fighting the crowd for space on Lakeside Drive. “Out of respect for Bob Miller and the swans, we decided to go back to what we were doing before,” Blowes tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com.
Swans celebrated in Stratford since 1918
Robert J. Miller, who died in 2007, was known as the “keeper of the swans” for almost 50 years. Several times a day, the volunteer would go to the river to keep an eye on things: breaking up battles between breeding males, known as cobs, monitoring nests to ensure the cygnets were safe from floods and predators, and taking care of sick and injured swans. Miller’s work inspired the production of the 1999 documentary film Swans on the Avon
and his book, The Swans of Stratford
. The 80-minute film, narrated by Colm Feore and featuring music by Loreena McKennitt, will be screened on March 31 at the Stratford Public Library free of charge beginning at 1:30 p.m.
“People identify the swans with Stratford,” Blowes says. “And the parade is seen as the official sign of spring in Canada.”
Swans and Stratford have been a perfect fit since 1918, when railway worker J.C. Garden gifted a pair of Mute swans to the city. Over the years, swans from other bloodlines have been introduced, with descendants of the Queen’s royal herd now gracing the Avon River today.
While the swans’ winter quarters provide lots of room to swim and frolick, the fowl are ready to go by the end of March. “With their hormones raging, they are ready to mate,” Blowes says.
Don’t expect the white swans — they are the ones called Mute — to live up their name, especially when mating season calls. They will be honking and hissing and barking their way to the river. The black swan, a tad more aggressive, will be keeping the beat with a melodious high-pitched honk. You might even get to see a bit of flirting before the dating dance officially gets underway on the river.
Watching the cobs battle it out for territory during breeding season on the river has become a spectator sport in Stratford from April to June. There’s more bad boy behaviour when the cygnets hatch in early June, as the males try to expand their territory to provide a buffer for the young. So heated can these battles be that they have proven deadly in the past. Twelve years ago, a cob named Clyde, who became embroiled in a love triangle, was drowned after battling it out with a competitor. Clyde’s gravestone is located next to the river in Meadowrue Gardens.
The Swans on the Avon
feature film, which tells the tale of a year in the life of the swans, provides a unique insight into these majestic birds. The film’s screening is just one of the free family events lined up by the Stratford Tourism Alliance in conjunction with the swan parade.
The Swan Parade Weekend party kicks off on March 31 with Swan Quest, presented by city centre businesses. The whole family can get involved in this quest to seek out the many distinctive topiary swans decorated and displayed in front of downtown businesses. Once you’ve found all 12 wire swans, you can nominate your favourite for the People’s Choice Award for a chance to win a $50 gift certificate. Ballots are available at each shop with a decorated swan, and at the Stratford Tourism Alliance, where completed ballots will be received until 5 p.m.
Create your own swan art
Inspired to create your own topiary? Cozyn’s Garden Gallery presents a free spring outdoor planter workshop at 11 a.m. Later, at 2 p.m., Grows presents a swan watering can planter workshop using grasses and bulbs for spring.
While you’re out enjoying the spring air, take the family on one of the free guided swan walks that will get you up close with the swans in their winter quarters, then take you along the riverbank to learn about their breeding habits.
If you’re looking to get off your feet for a spell, take in the free Swans on the Avon screening at the library at 1:30 p.m., or treat yourself to a free horse-drawn carriage ride. The rides will be offered by the businesses of downtown Stratford from noon to 4 p.m.
In the evening, buy tickets for Children Sing, featuring the St. Marys Children’s Choir and Festival Singers, along with seven choirs from across Ontario performing at Knox Church at 7 p.m., or for the Fred Eaglesmith concert at 8 p.m.
Special events continue on parade day from noon to 4 p.m. both inside and outside at the Kiwanis Community Centre on Lakeside Drive, just a hop, skip and jump from the parade route. Enjoy a unique puppet show presented by The Other Hand Puppet Troupe, children’s entertainer Madame Buskerfly on stilts, street performers, storytellers, face painting, bouncy castle and crafts for children. It’s all free, along with swan hats you’ll want to pick up for the parade at 2 p.m. There’s also a charity barbecue, and free popcorn and cotton candy.
Also not to be missed is a swan photography exhibit, featuring the work of Erin Shipley, also at the Kiwanis Community Centre. You can and pose for photos with BJ, the official swan mascot, and create your very own hand-feathered swan mural at Gallery Stratford.
“The events are geared to families,” says Cathy Rehberg, marketing manager at the Stratford Tourism Alliance. “Except for the charity barbecue, where there is a small fee, it’s all free, which is a nice change.”
There’s free parking in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival parking lot at Lakeside Drive and Queen Street, and along Lakeside Drive east of Front Street. But people are encouraged to walk or ride their bicycles to the event. And if you want to see the swans walk in the parade, Blowes advises visitors to stake out their spot near the arena at Lakeside and Morenz by 1:30 p.m. The good folks at Tim Hortons, which picks up the parade’s cost — the pipe band, posters etc. — will be on hand with free coffee and Timbits.
Blowes for one can’t wait for the big day. “When they release them, the swans waddle down there so proudly,” he says. And that’s a sight you don’t want to miss!
Take a walk with Bieber, too!
While visiting Stratford, you might also want to follow in the footsteps of former Stratford resident Justin Bieber, before he became a mega pop star. Download Justin’s Stratford
, compiled by the Stratford Tourism Alliance, for a self-guided walk that will take you to the places where Bieber hung out. There’s City Hall, where the youngster performed his first recorded song; Rotary Arena, where he played house league hockey; the Pour House, where he and his friends played pool; a favourite music store and more.
According to Rehberg, Bieber Fever is still alive and well. “There’s still lots of people wanting to take the tour,” she tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “Just this March Break, a group of girls wearing Bieber T-shirts came in all excited wanting to know where he hung out in Stratford.”
Since Justin’s Statford tour was created, Bieber has had his bronze star added to the streets of Stratford, joining the likes of theatre, literary and music greats Sir Alec Guinness, Kate Reid, Richard Monette, Timothy Findlay, Glenn Gould, Loreena McKennitt and Cynthia Dale.
You’ll find Bieber’s bronze star, added in 2011, in front of the Avon Theatre at 99 Downie St. That’s where a young Bieber showed off his busking skills, earning up to $200 a day during tourist season. He raised enough money to treat his mother to a trip to Disneyworld.
You can check out the locations of Stratford’s other bronze stars by downloading the online map
, which will soon be updated with Bieber’s star status. Who knows, you might even find him among the crowd at the swan parade — he is known to come back to visit friends and relatives.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — March 2011