Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Once Upon A River

I spent much of my teenage years, ("too much", my schoolteachers might have said), messing about in a punt on the River Cam. I always had at least one pair of shoes drying out and my jeans permanently had the smell of the river hanging about them.



We found an old punt that was riddled with holes skulking forlornly in the river and decided to drag it out of the water and renovate it. We effected our repairs with metal plates, bits of plywood, baler twine and copious quantities of black, sticky pitch. (Add the smell of pitch to my fragrant old jeans).



But somehow it held the water out....well most of it anyway. Just in case you ever need to know, the ideal implement for bailing out a leaky punt is the humble plastic dustpan. Works a treat! 



Then of, course, we had to learn the techniques and tricks of propelling a long, awkward boat with a long, awkward pole. Our early efforts were not pretty to behold, but we improved with practice, to the point where we felt we'd earned the right to mock, ridicule and generally insult all those who were less skilful than us. And, certainly at the beginning of the punting season, that included most of the students who'd newly arrived at the University. Every year a new intake of intellectuals learned one of life's important lessons...



....it's harder than it looks. For those who want to know, the beginner's way to do it is thus:
stand on the back of the boat; put the pole into the water alongside the punt, push the boat forward, leave the pole dragging in the water and use it as a rudder to straighten your course. Easy, isn't it? The steering bit obviously loses you momentum so when you get good you can keep on course by subtly altering the way you push on the pole - it's called "pulling and pinching". Honest.



The inexperienced boatman, though,  would end up bouncing along from one bank to the other, while the object of their affections was forced to use the paddle to push the boat out of overhanging bushes or off from the muddy banks. Furthermore they might well have been entertained by one of my witty friends putting on a "posh boy" voice and bellowing "Oh, how quaint, Cyril, someone is operating a ferry service!"



It is no surprise to learn that a society exists within the University which is known as The Dampers' Club and is open to all those who have unintentionally entered the River Cam fully-clothed.



Anyone visiting Cambridge and anxious not to become immersed in the limpid waters of the Cam might be interested to hear that chauffeured punts are available for hire which will transport you safely and effortlessly past the historic buildings and even provide a commentary on the journey. Don't be a cheapskate: do it in style!



Most printed sources claim that punts originated on the Thames, however most of the old men in our village told us that punts came from the Fens where they were used for wildfowling, fishing and setting eel-traps. I also heard that they made their first appearance in my home village of Grantchester transporting churns of milk downriver to Cambridge. 



One summer's evening my friend Salty and I decided to see how quickly we could get down the river to Cambridge. To do this we equipped ourselves with two punt poles and punted in tandem. In my memory we did it in thirty-five minutes, though our time may have improved with frequent retelling. We then moored up and had a few beers in The Mill pub before returning rather more slowly and erratically back up the river in total darkness.



However most of our expeditions were more leisurely; fishing in the millpond, slopping along gently to a soundtrack of guitar and harmonica music, mooring up under an old willow tree and drinking cider or drifting downstream on a Sunday morning watching the wildlife. And usually we remembered to.....

take care!    

  

17 comments:

  1. Ha, lovely memories there. I've never tried punting; rowing boats are tricky enough!

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  2. i think i would hire someone. but what a great way to see the sights.

    great series.

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  3. You've certainly lived down there in Cambridge John!

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  4. Interesting post! I'd love to ride in one of these boats, but doubt I'd be very good at propelling it! :)

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  5. The tip about using a dustpan to bail a flat-bottomed boat is genius!

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  6. I always thought those punts looked rather awkward! Seem to be unique to Cambridge.

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  7. Poling a punt isn't on my current bucket list. How could I have missed it? It looks like a Brit's version of Venice.

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  8. Wow what a lovely river. I saw eat uring my stayiing in Cambridge

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  9. Great memories of messing about on the river, it all sounds so idyllic and wonderful:)

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  10. Bridge of Sighs at St John's in an early pic? I went to an open day there, but ended up with an offer at St Catharine's to do Nat Sciences. Missed the grades by a thousand miles.

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  11. Truly looks like a tradition of your area to go punting. And seems to be very popular from your photos. We don't have anything like this is the states at least that I am aware of. Your boyhood tale sounds like a modern day Mark Twain story. -- barbara

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  12. Great photos! I love it and I've only ever been punting once with my family when I was about 10 but it was so much fun - I really need to go again! - Tasha

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  13. This sounds like fun! The leisurely version.

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  14. So THAT'S what a punt looks like! I think it does look a bit tricky to maneuver and I'm sure it wouldn't take me long to become a member of The Dampers Club.

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  15. There's a lot of pulling and pinching going on in photo number five John :) There's a very Toady Wind in the Willows feel to these images :)

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  16. Another very entertaining and interesting post. This looks like great fun, but I'll take your suggestion and rent a chauffeured punt. Personally I prefer rowing.

    Re you comment: I have five of them, all about the same age :-)

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  17. Oh dear - I'll bet your mother was worried stiff. Sorry, but I can't help thinking this way after raising four sons!

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