There are more punts on the river Cam than on all of the other rivers of England combined. Punting is massively popular in Cambridge, both with locals and visitors alike and is a multi-million pound industry. The punt touts (the street sellers encouraging people to go punting) are far less popular but that’s another story.
The calm and shallow river cuts through the medieval heart of the city, making it ideal for punting, especially as it wends its way past numerous beautiful old and historic college buildings.
Punting is a more-than-a-century-old tradition in Cambridge and there are lots of minute details that can make or break your punting experience, especially if you are visiting during the peak tourist season. It pays to be prepared before you plan your excursion as there is a whole sub-culture surrounding this favourite of Cambridge pastimes.
The history of punting in Cambridge
Traditional Victorian “pleasure” punts came to Cambridge from Thames in late 19th century and instantly became the most popular means of transportation on the river Cam. From the introduction of the punt until the 1990’s, a legendary undergraduate social club called Dampers Club promoted punting and made it into a culture. At its inception, the club was aimed at “all those who have unwillingly entered the Cam fully clothed”. Eventually, the Dampers Club grew to become the Cambridge University Punting Society.
You can read a more detailed guide to the history of punting in Cambridge here.
Cambridge punting routes
The relatively short length of the river Cam that runs through Cambridge, known as the Backs, offers numerous sights and experiences for punters and is the most popular stretch for visitors to the city, keen to see and photograph the colleges that stand majestically on either bank . As a consequence, this stretch that runs through the old riparian (on the river bank) colleges makes for a busy punting experience (often times you can encounter punt traffic congestion along this stretch during the high season) whilst the river above the weir at the Mill Pond, is calmer.
For the least congested and most tranquil punting experience people often opt to punt up to the village of Grantchester, along the stretch of the river still known by the old name of Granta, although this is further, deeper and siltier than the Backs, which makes it more challenging.
The Cambridge towpath
The most popular punting path in Cambridge has become synonymous with punting all across England. Experienced punters gather where the river Cam flows through the old town in Cambridge and beginners follow the path of gravel ridge that makes for easy punting. The Cambridge towpath was used for towing commercial goods via the river Cam and back then, punters were a major nuisance. Today, the river belongs to punters who displaced the tradesmen more than half a century ago.
The weir and slipway
Near the university centre, the river path is split in two levels by a weir. Punters can utilise “punt rollers” to move their punts from one level to the other. Typically, punt rollers are slipways on which a punt can be dragged with some effort. The river above the weir is less busy while the part of the river that lies below the weir, known as the middle river, or the backs, attracts most tourists and student punters.
The village of Grantchester
Students and tourists who wish to escape the busy streets and waterways of Cambridge to find some tranquillity, often board a punt and travel to picnic in Grantchester’s lush meadows or have tea at the legendary Grantchester Orchard. There are two pubs not far from the river in Grantchester, attracting punters who wish to rest and enjoy the countryside, whilst quenching their thirst – punting can be thirsty work, after all!
Local punting services
Numerous punting company offer tours and offer punts for hire to visitors. Many colleges maintain a fleet of punts that is readily available for their students, even some of those that do not have land situated directly on the river bank. Trinity College has the largest college fleet of boats and also offers punts for hire to the public. There are plenty of punts for anyone wishing to explore Cambridge from the unique point of view of the river, although during the busy summer months they are in high demand and people can be seen queuing waiting for a boat to become available. Prices are quite reasonable for self-hiring a punt.
Traditional Cambridge punting techniques
The back of the punt, locally known as the punt’s deck, is where Cambridge punters traditionally punt from. There are many advantages to punting from the till and this goes to show how experienced local punters are. For example, punters can steer more easily that way and they are less likely to drip water on the punt’s passengers. However, Thames punts were never used this way (no wonder they no longer exist!). Legend has it that the practice of standing at the back end of the punt was started by women from Girton who were anxious to show off their ankles whilst punting. These ladies are to be thanked for modern Cambridge punting!