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What is punting?

Trinity College, Cambridge puntsA punt boat, more commonly known simply as a punt, is a square-ended boat that has a flat bottom with no keel. The normal method of propulsion is by using a 5m (16ft) long pole and pushing against the river bed. The pole is also used to steer, either as a tiller or rudder for gentle changes of direction, or by pushing off at an angle to the punt for more advanced manoeuvring. This method of propulsion is known as "punting".

History of punting

Punts were developed in medieval times to provide stable craft that could be used in areas of water too shallow for rowing conventional craft. One such area was the Fens, the marshy flatlands north of Cambridge, where punts were integral to local trades such as eel fishing, reed-cutting, fowling and for transporting cargo until they died out in the late nineteenth century. The first punts are traditionally associated with the River Thames in England and were built as small cargo boats or platforms for fishermen. Pleasure punts - specifically built for recreation - became popular on the Thames between 1860 and 1880.

Since a punt has no keel, it draws only a few inches even when fully laden; this makes it very manoeuvrable and suitable for shallow water. A punt can be punted equally successfully in either direction; this comes in handy in narrow streams where turning around may be difficult or even impossible. The square-cut bow gives greater carrying capacity for a given length than a boat of the same beam with a narrow or pointed bow; it also makes the boat very stable, and suitable for passengers.

pleasure punting is an extremely popular pastime in Cambridge

The origins of Punting in Cambridge

Punts were introduced to Cambridge as pleasure craft at the start of the 20th century (c.1900). As commercial river traffic died out punting on the Cam became safer and more popular.

Today pleasure punting is an extremely popular pastime in Cambridge both during the Summer and increasingly the Winter months. The resultant traffic sometimes causes congestion at the height of the season and the spectacle of the occasional collision and many first timers attempting to get to grips with the technique whilst trying not to fall in the river is often a source of much amusement as the video below will indicate:

Punts today are usually 6 to 7 metres long and 1 to 2 metres wide. Smaller punts are limited to 5 passengers and the larger to 12 although in the past punts with up to 20 passengers were sometimes seen!

Whilst the rules of UK waterways dictate that you should travel on the right hand side at all times, experienced punt chauffeurs know that along the Cam the best route is up the middle of the river. To this day there are still the remnants of a stone causeway that was placed there by the Conservators of the river Cam to allow horses drawing barges to wade up the middle of the river and avoid paying tolls to the Cambridge colleges for crossing their land. The stone makes punting much easier and reduces the chances of the pole getting stuck in the silt.


Cambridge punt toutsThe recent history of punting in Cambridge is often more associated with touting and so called 'punt wars'. Over the last decade the number of punt touts has increased and few visitors to the river Cam, especially during the summer months, can have failed to notice their presence.

With one operator occupying all of the prime mooring locations on the river other operators have no choice but to tout in order to bring in business. Sadly, whilst most touts are well behaved, polite and courteous some are aggressive, rude, pushy and belligerent. Generally touts engaged in this kind of behaviour are new and inexperienced.

We believe that touting is something of a lost art in the UK and should be preserved with proper regulation. A good tout leaves tourists and locals smiling, and is both helpful and polite.

It may be of interest to note that Cambridge has a bye-law in place that bans touting in a manner that could cause obstruction or annoyance. Only one prosecution has ever been brought, for obstruction. If you are touted in a way that you find unpleasant you should get the name of the person concerned and make a complaint to their employer or to the Cambridge City Council.