An Introduction To Punting

by | 6 Dec, 2019 | Blog Articles, Get the Edge

Every student at Oxford Scholastica’s Summer School is given the opportunity to go punting, and it is often the thing students say they are most looking forward to when they receive their summer school timetables. If you haven’t visited Oxford or Cambridge before, chances are you’re wondering what on earth this means, and if you’re a fan of American football or horse racing, you’re probably thinking of a different kind of punt. In this article, we’ll give an overview of what punting is in England.

In Oxford and Cambridge, punting is a relaxing way to travel up or down the river. Punts are the name we give to the flat bottomed wooden boats, which form this quintessentially Oxford (or Cambridge) activity. The boats are moved along the river by someone who stands at one end and pushes off the bed of the shallow river with a pole that is usually about five metres long. Punts look a little bit like the famous gondolas of Venice, but punting enthusiasts get upset by that comparison – so make sure not to mention it!

Take a look at how some of our previous students did, and what they thought of the experience in our Punting experience video!

How did punting start?

All the way back in mediaeval times, punts were developed as a way of transporting things on rivers that were too shallow for regular boats. They were really important for the merchants and tradespeople of Oxford, Cambridge and Canterbury in the centuries before lorries and motorways. Historically, punts have also been used to hunt waterfowl on the rivers and their banks. In the second half of the nineteenth century, pleasure punts allowing passengers to drift up and down the rivers became very popular in Oxford, and they’ve been an iconic part of the city’s culture ever since.

Punting in Oxford vs Cambridge

While punting is popular in both Oxford and Cambridge, they have different styles and, naturally, get fiercely competitive over the “correct” way to do it. You’ll need to make sure you know which way to do it for the city you’re visiting, otherwise you’re sure to get some funny looks while you’re on the river!

A group of teenagers punting in England

Punting from the front or back?

It’s a common misconception that you should punt from the front of the boat if you’re in Oxford and the back if you’re in Cambridge. In reality you should always punt from the back, no matter where you are! If you try to direct the boat from the front, you’ll have a much harder time trying to steer.

Which end is the back?

This is a topic of hot debate between Oxford and Cambridge. In Oxford, punts have an end which slopes gently down and makes an ideal vantage point for directing the vessel. In Cambridge, however, passengers sit in the sloped end of the punt and whoever is in charge of the pole should stand on the flat platform instead.

So, if you find yourself in Oxford, look for the slope but if you’re in Cambridge, make a beeline for the flat platform. And whichever city you’re in, make sure you’re punting from behind your passengers. If in doubt, watch how the commercial punters do it and try not to fall in!

Which river will I be punting on?

In Oxford, you’ll most likely be punting on the River Cherwell, although the more adventurous visitor might make it onto the River Thames. Cambridge punters will get to enjoy the sights of the city while drifting along on the River Cam.

If you’re taking part in one of our Oxford summer courses, you’ll get the opportunity to punt along the beautiful River Cherwell from the Cherwell Boathouse.

Learn more about our experiences and activities for summer students in Oxford.

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