There are more punts on the river Cam than on all other rivers of England combined and punting is massively popular in Cambridge. The calm and shallow river cuts through the heart of Cambridge, making it ideal for punting as it passes next to numerous beautiful old buildings.
Punting is a century-old tradition in Cambridge and there are lots of minute details that can make or break your punting experience, especially if you are visiting Cambridge during the peak tourist season. It pays to be prepared before you plan your punting experience as there is a whole culture surrounding this favourite Cambridge pastime.
The history of Cambridge punting
Traditional Victorian “pleasure” punts came to Cambridge from Thames in late 19th century and instantly became the most popular means of transportation on the river Cam. From the introduction of the punt until the 1990’s a legendary undergraduate social club called Dampers Club promoted punting and made it into a culture. At its inception, punting was aimed at “all those who have unwillingly entered the Cam fully clothed”. Eventually, the Dampers Club grew to become the Cambridge University Punting Society.
Cambridge punting paths
Across its span, the river Cam holds numerous sights and experiences for punters. The path next to the old colleges makes for a busy punting experience (sometimes even experiencing punting traffic congestion during high season!) while the river above the weir is calmer. For the least congested and most tranquil punting experience people often opt to punt up to the village of Grantchester. Let’s see what each of these punting paths offers below:
The Cambridge towpath
The most popular punting path in Cambridge has become synonymous with punting all across England. Experienced punters gather where the river Cam flows through the old town in Cambridge and beginners follow the path of gravel ridge that makes for easy punting. The Cambridge towpath was used for towing commercial goods via the river Cam and back then, punters was a major nuisance. Today, the river belongs to punters who displaced the tradesmen more than half a century ago.
The weir and slipway
Near the university centre, the river path is split in two levels by a weir. Punters can utilise “punt rollers” to move their punts from one level to the other. Typically, punt rollers are slipways on which a punt can be dragged with some effort. The river above the weir is less busy while the part of the river that lies below the weir attracts most tourists and student punters.
The village of Grantchester
Students and tourists who wish to escape the busy streets and waterways of Cambridge to find some tranquillity, often board a punt and travel to picnic in Grantchester’s lush meadows or have tea at the legendary Grantchester Orchard. There are numerous pubs along the way to Grantchester, attracting punters who wish to rest and enjoy the countryside.
Local punting services
Numerous punting companies offer tours and offer punts for hire to visitors. Visit www.cambridgerivertour.co.uk to find out about guided tours and www.cambridgerivertour.co.uk/puntingprices.php for pricing information. All colleges maintain a fleet of punts that is readily available for their students, and the Trinity College also offers punts to the public. There are plenty of punts for anyone wishing to explore Cambridge from the unique point of view and prices are quite reasonable for hiring or self-hiring a punt.
Traditional Cambridge punting techniques
The back of the punt, locally known as the punt’s deck, is where Cambridge punters traditionally punt from. There are many advantages to punting from the till and this goes to show how experienced local punters are. For example, punters can steer more easily that way and they are less likely to drip water on the punt’s passengers. However, Thames punts were never used the way (no wonder they no longer exist!). The practice of standing at the back end of the punt was started by women from Girton who were anxious to show off their ankles while punting. These ladies are to be thanked for modern Cambridge punting!