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Punting in the river (Cambridge)

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  • or lose the pole... but you won't!
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    6 Reviews
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      05.08.2009 16:53

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      Pick the weather for punting

      I have been recently punting first time in my life in Cambridge. First, well, it is rediculously expensive from my opinion regarding what you get. I had to show Cambridge to my mother and I thought punting would be great idea. So I paid 22 pounds for two of us for a little under 40 minutes or... half torture...
      I know it is England with unexpectable rains, and expectable as well. So it was not the sunniest day, I agree, rather cloudy. But we were assured that if it rains there are big umbrellas to be given during punting which will keep everyone dry.
      So we went for it. "Surprisingly" it started raining. There were umbrellas on the boat, but ours was broken. Fortunately we had our own one with us, but it did not save us really. There was water coming from the side as it was raining, from umbrellas of others.. So pretty much every one got soaked. And if that does not sound unpleasant still - there is truth - once every one has their umbrellas open - you cannot see a thing! but umbrellas.
      Therefore we could see surroundings only on a way back when rain stopped but saw umbrellas only during the first half of 22 pounds worth trip.
      Pick the weather!

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      09.01.2008 20:30
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      One of life's pleasures

      Punting has to be one of life's most serene pleasures. Being punted is a good convivial experience but for me, the pleasure lies in the punting itself. Has she finally flipped I hear you cry! Well, no, but, in advance of finer weather I thought I'd share a little about one of England's finest pastimes.

      A punt is a flat-bottomed boat designed for navigating inland waterways. Imagine a thick plank of wood, hollowed out in the middle and slightly curved up on the underside at each end and you have a punt - all you need now is a pole and you're ready for the off. Originally designed as cargo boats and fishing platforms the punt, at least in England, is now confined to a few places, most notably the University towns of Oxford and Cambridge along with the lesser-known Bath (Avon) and Sunbury (Thames).

      I've punted in both Oxford and Cambridge but as a student of the latter know it rather better - it also the easier and more interesting place to punt. Since most people's experience is likely to be at one of the two I'll concentrate solely on these venues (but forgive me if one receives more coverage than the other!).

      If you're lucky enough to be a student at one of the two universities, chances are your college will have a punt or six for you to use and you'll know all there is to know about punting so you might as well stop reading now. If you're a tourist to one of these cities then, unless you know a student who can get their hands on a punt you'll have to go to one of the many commercial hire outlets along the rivers. Like all commercial ventures the prices of these outlets varies and it often pays to seek out the lesser known hirers since all punts are about the same.

      An excellent way to see Cambridge and to learn a little about its history is to hire a chauffeured punt. Oxford doesn't fare so well here as it's route is a lot more countrified but nonetheless you'll have a good time. Here an experienced punter (might be student, might be townie) will punt a group of up to 12 in Cambridge or 6 in Oxford (the wider river in Cambridge allows for some larger punts) and will regale you with tales both fact and fiction as you travel down the river. I have done a couple of these tours and it's safe to say that they're fun and informative at the same time. Puntsmen are normally more than happy to answer questions and, if they don't know, they'll probably make something up. Chauffeured punts will stick to a set route and offer little flexibility to explore. This is not really an issue if you just want the river equivalent of an open-bus tour but for those who like to "ski off-piste" there's no substitute for doing it yourself. Naturally they're more expensive than simple punt hire but both are often negotiable!

      Contrary to popular opinion, punting's not that hard. It is hard to do it and look good. It is hard to do it and stay dry, but I think Jerome K Jerome summed it up when he said:

      "Punting is not as easy as it looks. As in rowing you soon learn how to get along and handle the craft, but it takes long practice before you can do this with dignity and without getting the water all up your sleeve."

      A punt has two slightly different ends, whilst both are flat there is a larger shelf at one end and it's a shelf that causes much controversy. Cantabrians will have you believe that you punt standing on the shelf with the boat in-front of you. Oxonians will tell you that that's all wrong and that you punt from inside the boat, standing at the opposite end to the shelf and punt with the shelf facing forwards. Either way works but as a Cantabrian I'd swear that the only way was standing on the back, naturally! The punter normally stands still when punting although you can "run the punt" where you start at one end of the boat and use the pole to push the boat along whilst walking or running backwards in the punt. This is really only possible in punts with no seats and only for those sure of foot!

      To punt you simply plant the pole on the ground and push. If you're not good at keeping in a straight line then the pole can also be used like a rudder to steer the boat. You will get wet as the water runs down the pole but this improves with practice to a point where you'll get off as dry as you got on as your technique improves.

      The punt pole is traditionally made of wood and is around 16 foot long. More recently, aluminium poles have started to appear. These are lighter in weight but, to my mind, more slippery in use and far more noisy. The end of the punt pole normally has a metal end, in some cases with a couple of prongs rather like a swallow's tail. This helps with grip on the river bed. The pole is prone to getting stuck in the muddy beds of the rivers but a swift twist on removal should get most poles out cleanly - this does take a bit of practice though and it's not uncommon to see tourist laden punts minus their pole. If this does happen, chances are, another punt will retrieve your pole for you! The Isis and Thames are muddy, as is the Cam beyond the Backs. However, if you're a novice punter then the Cambridge "Backs" provide the ultimate place to try out punting as the river floor is shallow and gravelly. The "Backs" is the area of river which flows at the back of many of the colleges with a river frontage. It's where all the chauffeured punts are and you'll see both colleges and bridges including the Bridge of Sighs and the Mathematical Bridge.

      If it's a rural jaunt you're after then most of the rivers at Oxford and Cambridge off the Backs provide excellent areas although I wouldn't venture out as a novice in either of these areas as the river bed tends to be very muddy and the rivers deeper. The risk of losing a pole is much greater and there'll be less passing traffic to help you out. If you do decide to venture these ways then ask the boat yard for an oar just in case.

      One of my favourite trips by punt is to head out of Cambridge (over the rollers to the upper river) and towards Granchester, the home of many literary greats (and Jeffrey Archer!). Once there, tea at the Orchard tearooms is a must before a leisurly punt back. The distance should not be underestimated and it's probably not something you'd do as a tourist unless you've hired the punt for the day. The only way this trip is beaten is to do it at night. Commercial hirers won't hire out at night but colleges do to their students. One of the societies that I was a member of used to do a moonlight punt to Granchester after their annual dinner in the summer. Punts would set out laden with alcohol, candles and blankets (in that order) and general merriment would be had. Rarely was Granchester reached and regularly the question was raised "what's the penalty for being drunk in charge of a punt?" but I only ever recall one casualty of these night-time trips (and that's not counting the couple who got engaged as a result of one!).

      If there's a downside to punting then it has to be the fact that, in the easiest and most interesting areas, punt traffic in the summer is appalling! You can end up stuck behind people who haven't got a clue what they're doing trying to navigate one of the trickier bridges. It can also be spoilled by young tourists intent on ruining the peace with a raucous water fight. Avoiding weekends and May Week (which for both Universities is normaly in June!) is your best bet but expect it to be very busy on any summers day. Yards are generally open April to October (although some remain open all year).

      So, whether you decide to walk round Parson's Pleasure (one for the Ladies in Oxford) or wince as you pass under the concrete balls that adorn Clare Bridge (Cambridge) put on your rubber-soled shoes (or go barefoot), pack your bubbly, strawberries and suncream (yes, you will burn if the sun is out), hire your punt and take to the river. It's an experience you'll never forget.

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        08.01.2008 12:26
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        An enjoyable experience

        In the summer of 2006 I was offered a place at a summer school in Cambridge. Before being accepted to the summer school I had no idea what Punting was. When I saw it was on the timetable for one of the sessions during the week I decided I should find out!

        A punt is a square-ended boat, which has a flat bottom and is usually propelled using a long pole. Punts were introduced to provide stable craft, which could be used in areas of water too shallow for rowing conventional craft.

        Punting has now become one of the most popular ways to see the famous bridges and colleges along the River Cam.

        There are two routes that you can take along the river in a punt. One of these is the Upper River, towards Granchester (a small village) and the other is along the Middle River, which passes the famous college Backs. We took the latter of these routes and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

        ~ A little bit of information about The Backs ~

        Some of the first colleges to be founded at Cambridge were built right on the banks of the river. These buildings are now known as the "Backs". This is a one-mile stretch of river that has some of the finest examples of architecture in England. Altogether there are 8 colleges and 9 bridges.

        King Henry VI founded King's College in 1441. He did not live to see it finished as it took nearly 100 years (and the contributions are five kings) to complete.

        The Bridge of Sighs is found at St Johns College and is probably the best known bridge on the Backs. The only real similarity between the Bridge of Sighs and its Venetian namesake is that both of them are covered bridges. It is part of the main thoroughfare through the College and is used by those who live and work there every day. We went to an outdoor theatre at St John's College and we crossed this bridge to get there. I appreciated the beauty of it much more when I was on the river though.

        Some of the other buildings on the 'backs' include: St Johns College, Trinity Hall, Clare College, Queens College, Magdalene Bridge, Kitchen Bridge and Clare Bridge.

        ~ My Experience ~
        There were 72 students at the summer school, plus staff. We went in chauffeured boats, which sat 12 people (plus the punter who stood on the back of the punt.) I liked being in a larger punt as most of the people I was with were in my geography group, so it was an extra opportunity to socialise with them! Punts also come in a smaller size, which seat 6 people.

        There were blankets on the punt to make it more comfortable if it was cold, we just sat on them though as it was a glorious summers day! There were also umbrellas in case of rain but many people had them up as a sunshade!

        About 5 minutes into the trip our punter lost his pole! I was slightly worried as we started to drift towards the banks of the river but one of the other punters quickly retrieved our pole and we were back on course! I thought this might be something that would happen a lot but fortunately it was the only time during our trip!

        The people who punted were mainly students in straw boaters and traditional dress. I thought this added a nice feel to the trip along the Cam. Our punter was a young man who was very enthusiastic. He told us lots of stories about the buildings that we were passing. He asked us questions about what we were looking at and he offered to answer any questions that we had. He showed a little bit of interest in us by asking us where we were from and what brought us to Cambridge. When he found out we were from a summer school at the University he was interested to know what subjects we were doing. He was very friendly and he seemed to know The Backs very well.

        Where I was positioned on the punt, the punter was behind me. It was easy to forget that there was actually a person standing talking to us rather than just a tape playing. He fitted nicely in the background when we wanted to talk (or point at things and take photos!) between ourselves but the information was still there being offered. I did listen to most of what he was saying as I was taking my pictures.

        Towards the end of the trip the punter was going to let us have a turn at punting but the summer school representatives wouldn't let us! (For health and safety) He thought they were just being spoilsports and even threatened to get off the punt so we would have to do it ourselves! (in a humorous not serious sort of way!)

        The river was very busy when we were there as it was a glorious summer day. We occasionally bumped into another punt but he did warn us just before we collided so that we could move elbows etc out of the way. He was a bit late once though and a punt did bump one of the student's elbows!

        Our punting trip was paid for by the summer school but 50minutes/I hour costs around £10 per person (children are cheaper)

        I thoroughly enjoyed my time punting and would definitely do it again if I ever get the opportunity. It was a pleasant, relaxing experience, which was extremely enjoyable.

        Should you be a more adventurous person you may like to have a go at punting yourself! You are only allowed to punt the 6 seat punts on your own. I don't think I would like to punt myself, as I'd be scared I'd fall in! We did witness a man who was punting and he fell into the river. (The river water is between 1m and 2m deep where we went punting along the 'backs')

        If you are ever in Cambridge - go punting!

        Thanks for reading! bluejules xx

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          08.08.2002 05:06
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          • "or lose the pole... but you won't!"

          Well, with Big Brother's Spencer giving punting some unexpected publicity, the time is nigh for more of us to discover it's delights... (And just to claify, punting is done in Cambridge, East Anglia, GREAT BRITAIN. Apparently that can be confusing.) 'Punting' is an art descended from the fishermen of the middle ages, who devised it in response to the shallow waters of the fens. Normal boats got stuck in the mud, so they created flat-bottomed boats without rudders. (That last part may sound alarming, but don't worry; read on.) When the fens were drained the punt lived on, after people discovered its enormous potential for amusement. The passengers sit in the punt, apparently perilously close to the water (but the flatness of the punt in fact ensures they won't fall in), while the chauffeur stands on the stern with a long pole. The boat moves by the chauffeur pushing it along with the pole - very simple, eh? But actually going in a straight line takes some skill. It gets a bit easier once you've understood that the pole also acts as a rudder, although not in the way most people expect. If you swing the pole out to your right (once you've pushed off the bottom of the river) the boat turns to the right, and vice versa. So it's not like a steering wheel, more like a rowing boat, or even a horse! (Visualise pulling the reins and the horse's head moving... you see?) When in Cambridge you can pick up a punt from various places. If you're lucky enough to be a member or employee of a college you can use their punts (enquire at the college). If you're a normal person you'll have to use one of three punting companies: Scudamore's, Tyrell's or Trinity Punts. Scudamore's is by far the largest, with two punt stations by the Mill pond (head for Silver Street or Mill Lane) and two on the Quayside (head for Magdalene College). They offer punts for 'the Backs' (the area of the river
          past the colleges) or Grantchester (a long stretch past fields). The famous Spencer started his punt career with them. Tyrell's has one punt station on Silver Street and one at the Quayside, and they sell punts for the Backs only. Trinity punts is slightly difficult to find, but is slightly cheaper than the others. Head for Trinity Hall College, and just before the bridge over the river turn right into Trinity College(the door is unmarked). Follow the path round to the river, turn left and Trinity punts is before you. They sell punts for the Backs only, and if you look closely you'll see that all their punts are named after famous trios (e.g. the Three Graces) - a play on their name, Trinity. Here are details of all the punt services available: PUNT CHAUFFEURS. Both Tyrell's and Scudamore's offer specialist chauffeurs who will give you a running commentary as they punt you down the Backs. The tour takes one hour, and will cost roughly £10 per adult and £5 per child (subject to a minimum charge of £60 during busy periods). Scudamore's chauffeurs wear waistcoats and boater hats, and are usually Cambridge students or graduates. Tyrell's are slightly less smart. Both will acoost you in the street, be warned! SELF-HIRE. All companies offer this, where you punt yourself for as long as you like. The deposits range from £40 (Trinity Punts) to £60 (Scudamore's) and the hourly rate from £8 to £10 (although students and residents get reduced rates at Scudamore's). You can also get all-day punts for a flat fee, usually £60. SPECIAL. Look out for the illuminated punts and all-night punts to Grantchester, both offered by Scudamore's (book in advance at www.scudamores.co.uk). They also offer wedding punts and can organise party punts with food and drink. So there we are... hope you're inspired. It really is an excellent way to spend an afternoon - drifting along the river with a glass of wine and some strawberr
          ies, looking at the beautiful buildings and your friend trying desperately to avoid steering into that wall... During summer it is rather tourist-infested, so I'd recommend early evening as a good time to go. And with four or six in a punt it's extremely good value. The only thing that would make it even better would be if Spencer returned...

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            09.05.2001 01:57
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            I live in Cambridge, so I think I'm well qualified to extol the virtues of punting. Firstly, punting is ridiculously fun. Especially if you do it in summer, as you invariably get soaking wet - even if you don't fall in! Laughing at those that do is all part of the festivities. There are usually plenty of punts on the river - 'the backs' - and, although this can get a bit annoying if you're an expert punter, it adds to the atmosphere by providing plenty of opportunities to a) knock someone off their punt, and b)get talking to that cute guy in the next punt! Punting is quite tricky at first, and if you're only in Cambridge for a day trip I wouldn't advise trying to master it. You can get someone to punt you around for a few extra quid, which can actually be really nice because they're usually hard-up students in need of a bit of cash, and they're also tremendously knowledgeable about all the colleges - some of the history is fascinating. The views from the river are extraordinarily beautiful, and I can guarantee that no trip to Cambridge is complete without experiencing it. If you're visiting for a bit longer, have a go at doing it yourself though, it provides a great sense of satisfaction. It's also cheaper, and if you go with a few friends, you can punt for an hour for a couple of pounds each. Don't forget that you can also punt to Grantchester - views aren't so nice, but it's much quieter, and there are lots of bridges along the way. Now, bridges might not sound like such a good thing, until you are familiar with the concept of 'bridge-hopping' - climbing onto the bridge from the punt (yes, it can be done!), and then climbing down again in time to drop into the punt as it glides out from under the bridge. Fantastic! There's also handy trees along the way for kids, including one with a swing attached, so on hot days you can swing out and drop yourself ito the water. You can drop t
            he punt off in Grantchester and then treat yourself to a slap-up lunch at a nearby pub. A brilliant day out.

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              30.06.2000 20:02
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              I went to Cambridge 2 years ago during Easter. The town was majestic, pleasant and nice. There are many things (mostly buildings) to see but all in all, if you do visit Cambridge one of these days, do go punting! My punting (pushing a boat along the river by using a long thick bamboo(?) stick)experience in Cambridge definitely tops all my travel experience within the UK. Imagine this, sitting on the 'boat' manouevred by one of your mates (or you standing and punting it) as it glides along the river, being greeted by majestic, serene and picturesque sights. Bring a guitar along if you can. One of the everlasting scenes still vivid in my mind was that of one my friends punting for us, another playing the guitar, while the rest of us, including people from other boats singing along and laughing happily. Healthy activity, perfect scenes, goodwill of friends and fellow punters - what more could one possibly ask? Oh, and yes, there are ducks which follow your boat cheekily as you move along the river, so do being some bread for their treat. This is an experience not unlike a stripped-down version of a gondola ride in Venice, except that it's much cleaner, neater and the river doesn't smell (Having said that,Venice has its own style and atmosphere. Yes, I have been there). Much cheaper too, I must add! All in all, perfect for a weekend break! (Not during winter when there is no punting activity)

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