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Cambridge Punting

An Insight Into Life in the Punting Industry

We’re not sure who the author of this Facebook page is but it’s clear that they have some insight into and experience of the punting industry in Cambridge:

For most visitors to Cambridge, their experience of punting is fleeting, perhaps they have booked in advance, perhaps they get touted in the street. They spend a bit of time on the river, they might spend more time waiting (if they decided to go on a busy day, like most people do). Then, they’re done, that’s punting ticked off their bucket list and on to the next thing.

For Cambridge residents, who potentially have to put up with being touted on a regular basis, despite walking past the same touts on a daily basis/clearly being on their lunch break/carrying shopping bags/some other fairly obvious signal that they are not interested in going punting, the experience is less joyful and altogether more painful.

However, spare a thought for the plight of those same touts plying their trade in the depths of winter (yes, it happens):

There’s a lot more on the Facebook page and it looks like the author might be writing a book (yes, an actual, real book with words and stuff). We look forward to reading it. Whoever you are sir (or madam), we salute you!

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Cambridge Punting

Cambridge Punting; All You Need to Know

There are more punts on the river Cam than on all of the other rivers of England combined.

Punting is massively popular in Cambridge, both with locals and visitors alike and is a multi-million pound industry.

The punt touts (the street sellers encouraging people to go punting) are far less popular but that’s another story. You can get a bit more insight into their lives on one of our more recent posts here.

The calm and shallow river cuts through the medieval heart of the city, making it ideal for punting, especially as it wends its way past numerous beautiful old and historic college buildings.

Punting is a more-than-a-century-old tradition in Cambridge and there are lots of minute details that can make or break your punting experience, especially if you are visiting during the peak tourist season. It pays to be prepared before you plan your excursion as there is a whole sub-culture surrounding this favourite of Cambridge pastimes.

The history of punting in Cambridge

Traditional Victorian “pleasure” punts came to Cambridge from Thames in late 19th century and instantly became the most popular means of transportation on the river Cam. From the introduction of the punt until the 1990’s, a legendary undergraduate social club called Dampers Club promoted punting and made it into a culture. At its inception, the club was aimed at “all those who have unwillingly entered the Cam fully clothed”. Eventually, the Dampers Club grew to become the Cambridge University Punting Society.

You can read a more detailed guide to the history of punting in Cambridge here.

Cambridge punting routes

The relatively short length of the river Cam that runs through Cambridge, known as the Backs, offers numerous sights and experiences for punters and is the most popular stretch for visitors to the city, keen to see and photograph the colleges that stand majestically on either bank . As a consequence, this stretch that runs through the old riparian (on the river bank) colleges makes for a busy punting experience (often times you can encounter punt traffic congestion along this stretch during the high season) whilst the river above the weir at the Mill Pond, is calmer.

Punting on the river Cam in Cambridge

For the least congested and most tranquil punting experience people often opt to punt up to the village of Grantchester, along the stretch of the river still known by the old name of Granta, although this is further, deeper and siltier than the Backs, which makes it more challenging.

The Cambridge towpath

The most popular punting path in Cambridge has become synonymous with punting all across England. Experienced punters gather where the river Cam flows through the old town in Cambridge and beginners follow the path of gravel ridge that makes for easy punting. The Cambridge towpath was used for towing commercial goods via the river Cam and back then, punters were a major nuisance. Today, the river belongs to punters who displaced the tradesmen more than half a century ago.

The weir and slipway

Near the university centre, the river path is split in two levels by a weir. Punters can utilise “punt rollers” to move their punts from one level to the other. Typically, punt rollers are slipways on which a punt can be dragged with some effort. The river above the weir is less busy while the part of the river that lies below the weir, known as the middle river, or the backs, attracts most tourists and student punters.

The village of Grantchester

Students and tourists who wish to escape the busy streets and waterways of Cambridge to find some tranquillity, often board a punt and travel to picnic in Grantchester’s lush meadows or have tea at the legendary Grantchester Orchard. There are two pubs not far from the river in Grantchester, attracting punters who wish to rest and enjoy the countryside, whilst quenching their thirst – punting can be thirsty work, after all!

Local punting services

Numerous punting company offer tours and offer punts for hire to visitors. Many colleges maintain a fleet of punts that is readily available for their students, even some of those that do not have land situated directly on the river bank. Trinity College has the largest college fleet of boats and also offers punts for hire to the public.

There are plenty of punts for anyone wishing to explore Cambridge from the unique point of view of the river, although during the busy summer months they are in high demand and people can be seen queuing waiting for a boat to become available. Prices are quite reasonable for self-hiring a punt.

Traditional Cambridge punting techniques

The back of the punt, locally known as the punt’s deck, is where Cambridge punters traditionally punt from. There are many advantages to punting from the till and this goes to show how experienced local punters are. For example, punters can steer more easily that way and they are less likely to drip water on the punt’s passengers.

However, Thames punts were never used this way (no wonder they no longer exist!). Legend has it that the practice of standing at the back end of the punt was started by women from Girton College who were anxious to show off their ankles whilst punting. These ladies are to be thanked for modern Cambridge punting!

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Cambridge Punting

Punting Misadventures

There is a rich sub-culture surrounding punting and life on the river Cam that is not without its quirks that make it so unique. Here are a few things to be aware of when punting, especially on sunny days and during the busiest times on the river.

Collisions

Punting is incredibly popular – there are more punts on the river Cam than all of the other rivers in the UK combined, so it should come as no surprise that during the high season there can be real traffic congestion, with boats trying to navigate the narrow stretch of water that runs through the old colleges, in the hands of pilots of varying skill and ability.

On sunny summer days, when punting is at its most appealing for locals and visitors alike, collisions between punts are not at all uncommon, especially between newbie punters. These collisions, while mostly harmless, can cause some distress and they have led to numerous punters falling into the river water throughout the years.

The fact that no prior experience or training is required to captain one of these tricky craft, combined with the sheer volume of traffic on the river and the numerous pinch points along its relatively narrow course, all contribute to the increased chances of crashes occurring. These can happen even during the quieter times of the year, on the widest parts of the river, as the video demonstrates:

Pranks

During the summer months especially, term is over, schools are out and tourists flock to Cambridge in their droves to experience the culture, famed architecture and of course the punting. This provides ample opportunity for local pranksters. One common prank is for students to steal the poles of tourists as they punt below the college bridges, leaving them stranded mid-river. The perpetrators wait until a punt reappears from underneath the bridge that they are waiting on, and as the pole is raised up out of the water, they reach out from the bridge and grab hold of the top. Further encouragement to release the pole can come in the form of a quick dousing of icy cold water, which often shocks the unsuspecting victim to release the pole and float off helplessly down the river. Fortunately, all self-hire punts are equipped with paddles to assist in the event of emergency.

Another prank, that tends to happen only on the warmest of summer days, on the stretch of the river known as the Granta, that wends its way upstream to Grantchester, is the practice of ‘bombing’ punts as they pass. This involves jumping from bridges into the water as close as possible to the passing boats, in the hope of splashing the passengers. A risky prank at the best of times that requires a good aim and the help of lookouts.

Some other legendary pranks that are often recounted by seasoned punt guides include the dangling of cars (that have actually been punted down the river) under bridges.

Races

Punt races

During the summer, students may occasionally organise unofficial punting races. In addition to these, more formally organised charity punt races have become more commonplace of late. Visitors who happen to be punting along the river at the same time may unwittingly find themselves amongst a flotilla of frantically punting youngsters.

Cardboard boat races

However an even greater spectacle is the now legendary, Cambridge University cardboard boat race, that takes places at the end of the summer term. The course itself is quite short and makes use of the wide section of the river near Jesus lock that is rarely frequented by many punters. It draws huge crowds to watch intrepid teams of and individual students take to the water in their home made contraptions, some of which are marvels of engineering. The biggest challenge for many appears to be simply maintaining the structural integrity of their boat, rather than any serious attempt to complete the short length of the course at any real speed.

For all of these reasons, if you’re hoping for a relaxing trip on the river, it is advisable for beginners to avoid self-hiring punts during the busiest times of the tourist season.