Punting in Cambridge


We went to visit Emm’s new house in Cambridge, and spent the afternoon on the River Cam in a punt. I like Cambridge, it’s one of the few cities I think I could live in—perhaps because it has cows. I’m not sure why it has cows, I assume it’s a hangover from old laws about grazing rights on common land, but they are there, in the centre of the city, wandering over footpaths and pooping on the grass as they mingle with students and tourists.

cows in Cambridge
Cows in Cambridge

Emm suggested punting before we arrived, so I put a spare pair of trousers and knickers in my bag. I remember punting. When I was a teenager, we lived in Letchworth, and regularly went to Cambridge with our church youth group. We would hire a few punts (it was a big youth group) and set off. The person punting always fell in (sometimes they were pushed). We always had water fights with the other punts, so our boats were returned full of water and the owner refused to return the deposit.

There was one time when one of the car drivers was pushed into the river, and lost his glasses. I remember people diving under the murky water, searching the mud for the lost glasses, but they were never found. The driver was unable to drive home, so someone with a provisional licence had to drive his car for him. That must have been terrifying! Having taught my children to drive, I now realise how scary it would be to have someone else’s teenager drive my car for me.

Once, I remember there were foreign girls with us (my sister says they were from Norwich, which they may have been—I wasn’t very good at accents in those days) and they got completely soaked and were rather upset, so we took them to a launderette and told them to strip, then we tumble-dried their clothes while they sat huddled under someone’s coat. I have no idea what the other people in the launderette thought. In fact, as I reflect on these memories as an adult, I have no idea why the youth group leaders were so willing to take us punting every year—it must have been a nightmare for them!

Anyway, last weekend we arrived at the punt hire place, and I was fully prepared with dry clothes, just in case. They were well prepared, with people wiping the boats and poles with disinfectant between each hire, spaced queueing, no cash payments. Such a lot of fuss Covid has created, but business has adapted.

Emm decided that Jay would punt, even though he was the only person who had never previously been on a punt before. He listened attentively to the very brief instructions, and we set off with him muttering that the physics didn’t work, and the extremely narrow pole was not going to be sufficient. But it was, and he actually did very well.

Punting is a skill (which I don’t have). In case you have never visited Cambridge (put it on your list for when Covid ends) I will explain. A ‘punt’ is a very shallow boat, which seats about 8 people in a sort of lounging position—good for beautiful blonde girls who want to trail their fingers in the water while sipping champagne. The person punting stands on the back, on a slippery-looking platform, and pushes a long thin pole into the mud below, then pushes forwards, hence propelling the boat. If the pole is placed on the left, the punt turns left; when placed on the right, the punt turns right. It turns quite sharply, and we passed several boats that were basically just turning in circles on the river. Sometimes the pole gets stuck in the mud, and tugging it out unbalances the punter. It’s easy to fall in, and you really do not want to fall in to the Cam—it’s not the cleanest river in the world.

The exercise is made more exciting by the bridges across the river. Some of these are quite low, and require the punter (not sure if that’s the correct term) to push hard before crouching in the boat to avoid being decapitated by the bridge. When you are a mother and your son is punting, this makes the activity less relaxing than when you are a carefree teenager.

Emm and Aitch also took turns punting, and no one fell in, and no one was decapitated, which was a good result. We had bought some of those little cans of cocktails from Tesco, so we stopped next to a quiet bank, and drank cocktails, and watched the branches trailing in the river and the ducks swimming past, and it was all rather lovely. Then we made out way back, under the low bridges, past the Chinese tourists who were still turning in circles, and returned our punt to the people waiting to disinfect it ready for the next party.

I hope you have a fun day today.

Thanks for reading.

Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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