Updated: Sep 6, 2021
After living 20 minutes away from Cambridge for the past 19 years, and working in the city for some 15 years, I FINALLY went on a shared punt ride along the river Cams over the weekend.
What is punting?
A punt boat (or simply, punt) is a square-ended boat with a flat bottom and no keel.
The typical method of propulsion is to use a 5m long pole which is used to push against the river bed. The pole is also used as a rudder and directing the boat.
Be warned, if you've never been punting before, it can be quite the challenge first time out!
I have seen many a folk fall into the river when attempting self-hire.
I opted for the chauffeured option on this occasion as I wanted to focus on taking pictures on this my first outing on a punt.
A brief history of punting
Punts have been around since medieval times. They were created to provide a stable boat that could be used on areas of water that were too shallow to support conventional rowing boats of the time.
Commonly used on marshlands, for example, the Fens, north of Cambridge where punts were crucial to local trades until their use came to an end in the late 19th century.
Traditionally, the first punts are associated with the River Thames (England) and were used as small cargo boats or platforms for fisherman.
Punts for purely recreational purposes became popular on the River Thames between 1860 and 1880.
A brief history of punting in Cambridge
The introduction of punts as recreational craft in Cambridge, was at the start of the 20th century (C.1900) as the commercial river traffic dwindled punting became safer and more popular.
On all my visits to the river Cams, it has always been busy with punts and has become very popular for both tourists and locals. The punts are in operation in all weather conditions, providing safety isn't compromised.
My recent first ride took place on a rather busy Bank Holiday weekend which meant a LOT of traffic on the river.
There were a few minor collisions (always be alert if you are holding onto the sides of the punt for any possible collisions!) and a good couple of chuckle moments as I observed people clearly inexperienced in the art of steering these vehicles. Regrettably, I didn't see anyone fall in the river, however, this is a very common occurrence.
Cambridge Punting options
There are a few options (that I'm aware of anyway) with regards to punting on the river Cams.
Self-driven hire. You hire the punt and take ownership of navigating it, and your passengers safely along the river and back. It's one of those things that probably look far easier than it is. I witness enough collisions, and boats being steered into the river bank to know it's no walk in the park.
Private chauffeured rental. You rent the boat with a chauffeur to navigate you along the river providing historical information of the buildings seen.
Shared chauffeured rental. Due to COVID restrictions in place during my trip, a row of 3 seats had to be purchased at £45 for the row. So if you have 3 people, that is £15 per person. I went with a mate and subsequently cost us slightly more, but we both agreed it was well worth it just for the experience.
'The backs' tour
There are a few punting locations and tours around Cambridge on different sections of the River Cams. The one that I was always interested in was The Backs tour. Named suchly due to the fact that this section of river passes the 'backs' many of Cambridge Universities buildings and under some famous bridges.
Buildings and bridges on the backs tour include (I don't want to give all the details away as part of the purpose of the punting trip is to hear the stories as told by your punter)
Founded as Magdalene college (previously Buckingham College founded in 1428) in 1542 by Lord Thomas Audley
See more on the college website
St Johns College
Founded 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort.
See more on the college website
The Bridge of Sighs
First completed in 1831
More information on St John's College website
Founded 1546 by King Henry VIII
More information on the college website
Founded 1350 by Bishop William Bateman of Norwich.
Learn more on the website
Founded 1326 by the Chancellor of the University and refounded in 1338 by French princess, Lady Elizabeth De Clare.
Learn more on Clare College website
Founded 1441 by King Henry VI
Learn more on the King's College website
Construction took almost 100 years and spanned the reign of 5 Kings.
Founded 1447 by the wife of Henry VI
Learn more on the Queen's College website
Built in 1904. Designed by William Etheridge, a student of Sir Isaac Newton.
Learn more about the Queen's College mathematical bridge here
If like me, you are interested in history and/or architecture, then I would highly recommend that you experience the backs tour during your visit to Cambridge.
Even if you are not particularly interested in the history of Cambridge, it is still a very unique experience at a fairly reasonable price tag.