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If you have a choice... hang onto the punt!
Punting in the river (Cambridge)
Member Name: cmh4135
Punting in the river (Cambridge)
Date: 09/01/08, updated on 10/01/08 (250 review reads)
Advantages: Great fun and a good way to see the sights
Disadvantages: You may get wet and it can be quite expensive
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.
Summary: One of life's pleasures
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