It is perhaps sad that although once, punting was a popular past time throughout England, it has been reduced to being popular in only about four locations today. Three of those locations are Oxford, Stratford, and Canterbury but the most popular location in England today for punting is the fourth, Cambridge with people from around the country and even some from abroad, visiting the city purely for the opportunity to punt.
A punt is a flat-bottomed vessel with square corners at the front and rear, making it capable of carrying relatively heavy loads for its size over shallow waters. It was due to this capability that the punt was designed to assist boats from unloading on the banks of the River Thames in London where the river can be quite shallow close to the river banks. The punt’s same properties though also made it an ideal vessel for transporting people leisurely along the river and it is that which made the punt popular throughout the country.
Although likened to a gondola in Venice, a punt has many differences as the gondola does not have a flat bottom and has the same shape as a canoe with pointed ends. However, both vessels are moved across the top of the water by use of a pole which pushes the bottom of the waterbed. Although fairly easy to use, many first time punters do not realize that the pole is also used for steering the craft and so is a little more complicated than first appears but is still not too difficult for many tourists to Cambridge to have a go and punt themselves along the river.
Most tourists to Cambridge though opt to take a punt tour and it is these tours which have perhaps helped Cambridge punting to become as popular as it is today. On one of these tours, visitors are afforded the opportunity to relax as someone else does the punting and that same punter will also act as a guide, giving information about the different historic buildings that are passed on the river banks and the history of the bridges as they are passed under. Students of Cambridge’s famous colleges often offer their services as punters during the tourist season in order to earn extra money for tuition fees or exam costs.
As many students from both Cambridge and Oxford have learned, there are few experiences which are as relaxing as a slow and gentle punt down a calm, slow-moving river, such as the River Cam in Cambridge or the River Thames in Oxford. Both of these famous college towns do of course have another link with their relevant rivers and that is the annual University Boat Race. This is a race where rowers from the colleges of both towns race against each other along the River Thames in London, the winner gaining bragging rights for that year. The race which has become one of England’s premier, annual sporting events, watched on TV by millions, gives students a strong bond with the rivers and boating in general.