Punting is an absolute must if you’re passing through Oxford. Especially on a sunny day, there’s nothing quite like idling along the Cherwell, glass of Pimms in one hand, emergency oar in the other, while your beau (or belle) propels you along the waters in the sunshine.
Yet whilst we Oxonians can’t wait to indulge in this leisurely pursuit the moment the sun pops out, there are a few things about punting that may have passed us by. Here are just a few:
1 What is punting anyway?
A punt is a wooden, flat-bottomed boat with a square-cut bow, designed to navigate shallow waters such as the Cherwell or Isis in Oxford. Punting is therefore the action of driving such a vessel, using a pole.
Although punts had been used for centuries for fishing and carrying cargo, it wasn’t until the 1860s that they became “pleasure punts”, used recreationally by men and particularly women, and especially students in Oxford, and shortly after in Cambridge.
It’s not clear from where the word “punt” derives, although it’s thought to have come from the Dutch verb “to push”. Makes sense, as punting works by pushing a pole off the river bed to propel the boat forward.
2 Literary inspiration
Punting has lurked behind many works of the famous Oxford literati. From Alice in Wonderland which was dreamed up by Lewis Carroll as he loafed about on the backwaters of University Parks; to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited where the long suffering Lord Sebastian finds solace on the city’s waters, the tranquillity of punting has inspired the best of them.
3 Parson’s Pleasure
If you happen to be punting your way along the River Cherwell, you’re likely to pass Parson’s Pleasure, a small patch of grass where Oxford dons would, at one time, indulge in a spot of naked bathing. Although women were forbidden from partaking, one day a punt of ladies drifted past, much to the embarrassment of the bare-bottomed academics.
In a rush to re-robe, one don (reportedly from Keble College) managed to cover only his face, remarking: ” I cannot answer for the rest of you, but I felt it important to cover that part of me by which I am most easily recognised.”
4 Which end?
If you’ve ever been punting in Oxford, then you’ll no doubt have heard of the age-old Oxbridge dispute over which is the “correct end” on which the punter should stand. But how can Cambridge possibly be punting from the “wrong end”, you might ask, since it’d be impossible to propel the boat forward from the front.
But in fact, Cambridge and Oxford boats are designed differently, so that whilst both boats are intended to be driven from the back, the Oxford boater stands in the slatted decking within the boat, while Cambridge punters stand on a raised wooden platform.
5 A punter’s picnic
Today a typical punter would equip themselves and their group with a picnic suitable for a couple of hours of river frolicking. A classic hamper might include a bottle of fizz, some crisps and cake, perhaps some sandwiches. But punting life hasn’t always been so modest… just check out this snippet from London Magazine in 1828:
“That it will give a particular relish to success, if you be successful, and wonderfully dull the edge of disappointment, if the contrary be your fate, (which all good spirits avert,) if you never take punt (for we recommend that as the easiest mode of exercise) without stowing therein a sufficient basket of ham, tongue, veal pie, stilton-cheese, bottled ale and porter, port, sherry, moselle, claret, brandy, and cigars.”
Don’t forget your tongue-and-port combo next time folks – nom nom!
6 It’s not easy… and you might get wet
“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.”
— Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (1889)
He’s not wrong. You may have a heady idea of drifting serenely down the Thames in your floaty linen and sunnies watching the world go by as you sip on your bubbly. But the reality is often quite different.
Once you’ve managed the palaver of fighting your way out of the boatyard (it gets seriously busy on sunny days), then zig-zagged and u-turned a few times as you gain command of the steering, the chances are you’ll at least get splashed or drop your pole. In fact the wet sleeve look is de rigueur if consider yourself among the punting elite.
Worst case scenario is you get your pole stuck in the muddy river bed and toppled into the water. But fear not… we’ve all been there, and it’s genuinely worth it!
Alice in Oxford River Cruise: £50/adults, £30 child aged over 6 (per hour).
Price: £50/adult, £30 child aged over 6 (per hour).
Tel: 01865 243421.
Price: £20/hour for punting or rowing boat hire per hour. They also hire out small motor boats from £35-70/hour.
Tel: 01865 202643
Price: £22/hour weekdays; £24/hour weekends; chauffeur is £30/half-hour. Deposit: £30 (cash only) with identification.
Tel: 01865 515978
Price: £16/hour/£80 whole day weekdays, £18/hour/£90 whole day weekends & public holidays. Deposit: £75 weekdays/£90 weekends. Cheques and cards accepted.