Nothing quite epitomises the joy of an Oxford summer than punting. The punt is defined as a flat bottomed shallow draft, square ended pleasure boat usually propelled by a long pole. Originally designed as a stable gun platform to traverse marshes and from which to shoot waterfowl. It was adopted and developed at Oxford and Cambridge for use on the shallow and winding waters of the Cherwell and the Cam. However, whereas the Cam is an integral part of the town from which to view the Colleges. the Cherwell (and Isis) is considered to be the boundary of the pale, beyond which lie the countryside and tenements of East Oxford.
There are four stations from which you may hire punts, two on the Isis, one up and one downsream of Folly bridge, one at the end of Bardwell Rd (Norham Gardens)and one at the College end of Magdalen bridge, both on the Cherwell. They all charge similar sums (314 per hour at the last count) and retain your credit card as security against the return of the boat in good condition. on a hot summer’s afternoon the tourists and language students will have swooped on the punts, so think about plan B.“` It is not cheap, so make the most of your college punting club,observe and learn from the mistakes of others and watch the clock. The clock is still ticking whether you are actually punting or whether you have scrambled onto the river bank for a picnic.The skill of punting is not dissimilar to that of rowing – remembering your Physics.
When pushing at the pole the thrust will result in motion exactly opposite,so make sure thrust is exactly parallel to the sde of the boat and you are pointing the way you want to go. Let the pole trail in the water behind you at the end of every stroke and use it as a rudder to get the boat straight for the next stroke. If you are not going straight before the pole goes in again, not only will the next stroke be wasted but you will end up in the bank. Be very conscious of the quality of the river bottom. If the bottom is gravel or schale you may push away as hard as you like. If it is mud. beware, anything more than a tentative prod and the end of your pole will get stuck in it. If your pole gets stuck. LEAVE IT. Your punt is equipped with a paddle for just such an eventuality. poles (even metal ones) float and while it is undignified to have to paddle back and retrieve your pole, it is even more undignified to part company with your punt and slide inexorably downwards, still clutching your pole into the river beneath. Muddy bottoms are the main cause of punters falling in and most of this is down to machismo. Exercise your feminine side gents, gently does it. He who lets his punt pole drop, will not into the Cherwell flop. Oh by the way, don’t worry about changing places midstream, it is nigh on impossible to capsize a punt. Just don’t try this in an VIII.
Dress: Gents, leave the dinner suit and boat club blazer for when you are really competent, even if you don’t fall in there will be lots of splashing, wear T shirt and shorts. Take a fleece and a small towel in a plastic bag to leave in the boat should you fall in. Some people punt barefoot. Personally I wear old sneakers as the duckboards hurt my feet.
Ladies: cool print cotton dress and straw hat for elegance, then dress as for boys if you intend punting (and so you should) women are invariably better punters than men early on as they eschew machismo.
There are pubs near the river for food and drink. The Victoria Arms outside Marston, The Isis near Iffley lock and of course The Head of the River at Folly Bridge,however it is a lot cheaper to take your own booze and food. Invest in what the Aussies call an eskie to keep your booze cool NB beer drinkers, rather than having to keep landing for the cover of bushes, a quick dip is not a bad idea. One is told that the Cherwell and the Isis are infested with Weill’s disease (infantile athiritis), carried in the urine of water rats. Take advice better qualified than mine. But I suspect the risk is small unless you swim every day and drink pints of it.
Where to go? For my money the prettiest stretch of the Cherwell is upstream from Magdalen Bridge, past Magdalen’s Addison’Walk and Mesopotamia (in between the waters) and up over the rollers (instead of a lockfor punts) at Parson’s Pleasure(used to be a male nudist area on the SouthWest corner of The Parks- There used to be large notices just outside, advising women to disembark and walk round, averting their eyes, but every now and then a woman would punt through, bold, curious or careless, nevertheless. One day a woman punted through as a distinguished male Don was standing on the bank in his birthday suit and instead of hurrying to wrap a towel round his middle as his friends did theirs, he placed a copy of The Observer over his head with the haughty explanation, “In Oxford, I am known by my face”. That and the stretch upstream from Bardwell Rd to the Vickie Arms. But that’s just my view, go and find out yourselves.
Punts have a flat raised deck at one end (Cambridge end) and low duckboards at the other (Oxford end). It is probably just as easy or hard, to stand at either end and punt, or indeed in the middle. However, much misplaced partisanship is expended in both places on getting it right. Up to you.
Francis King MA OBE, SPC 1st VIII 1966-70