During our recent visit to Cambridge, Scudamore’s, the city’s oldest and largest punting operator very kindly invited us to three hours of self-punting (£90). Punts are little gondolas steered and propelled with a stick (a so-called punting pole). Initially they were used to transport goods like food from A to B on the river Cam. Nowadays it’s one of the best outdoor activities in Cambridge and hugely popular with visitors to this small university town (125,000 residents).
I had been doing some punting in Oxford 7 years ago and felt relatively confident I could pull it off again. Little did I know how busy it was going to be on the tiny stream.
We were joined by two friends from London on our six-seater (the self-hire punts are half the size of the twelve-seater chauffeured ones). While I had already taken my position as chauffeur and the rest of my team was just about to board, a tourist and his family made attempts to jump the queue and have me chauffeur them around. It felt great to be mistaken as a professional but I gently declined and asked my guys to jump into the boat.
The area around Mill Lane punting station was so crowded, it took me a while to figure everything out and not crash into any other boats, but after a few minutes we were on our way down the ‘backs’ of the colleges.
All the beautiful buildings and gardens of these centuries-old world-famous colleges pass by you, you feel the cool breeze above the water, people-watch all the other punters around you, it’s great fun.
After about 20 minutes or so I got back to my previous level, after realising that the time when you use the stick to push your boat forward doesn’t necessarily require you to pinpoint your punt’s direction precisely, it’s easy to steer it after you’ve done the pushing by just using the stick as if it were a rudder.
We made a u-turn just after we passed by the last one of the historic colleges and went back towards Mill Lane punting station. By then the river had gotten so crowded there were punts everywhere. Boats regularly touch each other, and you feel lucky if it’s ones going into the same direction. I started to relax. Especially at the heat, 31 degrees on one of the hottest days Cambridge has ever had, it takes quite some energy to punt, but it’s all worth it.
We passed by the station again and made our way to Mill Pond, just a 5mins ride from the station, where we tied our punt to a tree and put out our picnic gear, food, and a bottle of sparkling wine which we had lowered into the cool river in a plastic bag for the past twenty minutes. The fields around Mill Pond are lovely, with cows grazing and lots of shade from the trees. There were only a few other picnickers in our area, despite the fact that the river was so busy.
We took our time eating the food we bought, enjoying our drinks, letting the old times roll and just lazing about in the shade. It was by pure accident (someone’s phone ringing) that we realised how much time had passed and that it was time to head back to the station.
One of our friends took over the captain’s role on the way back. I love punting, but boy was I glad that someone else was doing the work for me on the last few metres in this heat. We helped another group of self-hire punters to recover their stick, which, by then, was more than 100 metres away from their vessel.
We’ll be back soon as paying customers. 5 out of 5 in our book.