Students of the Universities in Cambridge are well acquainted with water activities, certainly the ones on a river. This is not just due to the fact that Cambridge and Oxford Universities battle against each other on the River Thames annually in the university boat race, one of the UK’s most popular sporting events but also because Cambridge is famous for its punts.
Punting in Cambridge is one of the few places where punting now takes place in the country although, at one time, it was a popular activity countrywide. Apart from Cambridge, punts, today can usually only be found in Oxford, Stratford, and Canterbury as well as London where they originated. The first punts were built for use by fishermen returning to London so as to more easily discharge their catch through the shallow waters to the shore. The flat bottom of the punt meant they were ideal for carrying freight through the shallows next to the banks of a river.
As well as being used to discharge freight in the shallow reaches of rivers, punts were also used in other shallow waters such as the Fens north of Cambridge. As more and more quays and wharves were built, the punts became obsolete for their original purpose but instead were used as passenger vessels along the same waterways. Over the years even punting for leisure purposes became less popular but Cambridge has remained a hotspot for punting with people now visiting there from all over the country in order to experience the calming river journey down Cambridge’s Cam River.
Although it is possible to rent a punt and use the pole to move your punt yourself, many visitors o Cambridge will opt for one of the punt tours which provide a punter, often a student looking to earn extra money. If you opt to sit back and relax whilst someone else punts you along, you will also be treated to an oral presentation by the same punter, who will tell you the history behind many of the river bank buildings that you pass.
Some people have liked punts to the gondolas of Venice but there are marked differences between them, mainly in their designs. A punt has a flat bottom and is oblong in shape with square corners. A gondola, on the other hand, has pointed ends and so is shaped more like an oval than an oblong. They do of course have similarities though such as they are today mainly used for leisure purposes and they are both powered by someone using a 15’ pole.
Although to the unenlightened, punting may look easy, due to the fact that the pole is used to steer the craft as well as just move it, it is perhaps more difficult than many people would think. Even so, though, no special training is needed to use one as the technique is quickly picked up by most, meaning anyone can rent a punt and power it themselves with just a brief instruction period being necessary.