Punting in Cambridge

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The Date: 20th May 2001

The Place: Cambridge

The Occasion: Masses of free time post-exams and post-May Ball


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In the days after exams and the May Ball, students in Cambridge magically transform into something new, something incredible and unforeseen - real students. That is, students who get up late, don't worry about work and laze about all day - just like students at any other university in the UK. And since all of us have dates from near and far places, we all have to switch from one lifestyle (hard revision) to another (hard outdoorsy-type). It's not an easy transition, but we manage.

It being Cambridge, the one outdoors activity that requires little money and little effort - and that is also unique to Cambridge - is punting down the river. It's a very nice few hours out if it's good weather (which isn't guaranteed) and you can take drinks and food and whatever with you. If you're a student at a college with its own punts, then you can save a significant amount of money. For example, normally it would cost something like £6 per hour or more hire out a punt if you didn't have any discounts, but if you're at Trinity (as I am) then it only costs £1 per hour, per punt. A bargain.

I know that Kings College allows its students to go on its punts for free, but then they don't tell you that they've only got something like three punts, which effectively reduces your chances of getting one down to zero on a nice day. Trinity has quite a few punts, maybe a dozen.

So anyway, on this day we all decided to go out and on my punt are myself (of course), Alex, Jeremy and Alex's date for the ball, Isabella (from the Netherlands). Pictured here are Jeremy and Isabella who seem to be rooting for a bag for prime cherries to eat and then spit at tourists and rival punters.
Punting is a skill that is easy to pick up, and slightly less easy to master. A few basic tips would be to use the punt as a rudder to steer, and another would be to make sure that if it gets stuck, don't hold on but let it go. If you don't let it go, then you'll fall in. It's not a pleasant experience, whatever certain people who have fallen in might say. For the record, I have not fallen in.

You tend to use your shoulder muscles quite a lot while punting, and generally most of your difficulties will be involved in trying to keep going in a straight line down the river, which is something I have not yet completely mastered. This problem tends to be exacerbated when tourists insist on blocking the river at every available opportunity. If you go to Cambridge, make sure you don't do this.

This is of course Alex punting here with a rather pained expression. We haven't gone far. To the right is the edge of King's College backs ('backs' because its the bit of the college that backs on the river).
And here is King's College itself. Quite nice.
"So here we are at Queen's College. This is the Mathematical Bridge - it was built by Isaac Newton hundreds of years ago and in fact it was built without any screws, nails, nuts or bolts. It's all interlocking, you see, and that's why they call it the Mathematical Bridge. Of course, you can see that it's got screws now, that's because they once took it apart to see how it worked and then they couldn't figure out how to put it back together properly, so they had to use screws."

At least, that's what a punt tour guide would say. And it's completely rubbish. I quote from the Queen's College webpage on the issue:
"The Mathematical Bridge has been there for 250 years. It was built in 1749 by James Essex the Younger (1722-1784) to the design of William Etheridge (1707-1776). It has subsequently been rebuilt to the same design in 1866 and 1905. For those who have fallen prey to the baseless stories told by unscrupulous guides to gullible tourists, it is necessary to point out that Isaac Newton died in 1727 and therefore cannot possibly have had anything to do with this Bridge. Anyone who believes that students or Fellows could have disassembled the Bridge (and then failed to re-assemble it, as the myth runs) cannot have a serious grasp on reality, given the size and weight of the wooden members of the Bridge. The joints of the present Bridge are fastened by nuts and bolts."
The tour guides who take tourists down the river in punts tend to be experts at lying - perhaps its so they can give their brains something to do. Common things heard said by guides include, 'Ah yes, Trinity College. Over there you can see a gardener, Lord Johnson. He started as a gardener at the age of six and he's been here for about fifty years - a few years ago he was given his title by the Queen. You might have heard about it on the news.'
One of the things that you really have to watch for if you're going punting in Cambridge is the reflections off the water onto the bridges as you pass under them. They look ethereal. You can see part of them in this photo. Jeremy and Isabella are oblivious to this as they are busy perfecting their cherry-stone spitting technique.
This is the Bridge of Sighs at St. John's College, connecting two parts of the college. Its windows are barred to prevent adventurous (or drink) students from attempting an amphibious invasion.