Punting in Cambridge, England

The summer after I graduated from college, I fulfilled a lifelong dream and backpacked around England and Scotland. It was my first time as a solo traveler and it helped instill a lifelong love of experiential travel. One of my experiences though proved the maxim that sometimes the best memories come from the worst experiences.

I took a strange, circuitous route around England. I don’t remember exactly why I visited some of the towns and villages I did, but I enjoyed every moment of my trip. One of my early stops was in Cambridge, home of the eponymous university.

The college was lovely and the town charming. Cambridge is the movie version of a cute, English town. I guess I got caught up in the romance of the city and having just finished yet another E.M. Forster novel, decided to try my hand at a classic Cambridgean (Cambridgite?) activity – punting.

For the uninitiated, a punt is a small boat which is propelled by pushing a long pole against the river bed. That’s right, no oars or paddles, just you and a giant pole. I thought it sounded like fun, but what did I know.

I went to one of the several companies renting the river boats and hired one for an hour. I thought that would be more than enough time – while the River Cam is pretty, I thought I’d get bored after a while. The liveryman gave me an odd look, no doubt wondering why this young guy wanted to go punting by himself.

Streets of Cambridge
Streets of Cambridge

After getting situated in the boat and going through a brief tutorial, I was off. The first part of the boating adventure is quite easy. You are floating with the current and just need a nudge of the pole every now and then to steer. Getting back to the boat house is where the real challenge begins. No matter what I did to punt back up the river, the water took control sending me backwards to who knows where. I rowed crew for two years in college and thought punting would be a breeze. You just plant the pole in the river bed and push. Turns out that’s not quite right and it’s actually hard. Really hard.

As I was being carried away, I tried with every ounce of strength to move the boat forward, the way I was supposed to go. I don’t know whether or not I just couldn’t get the angle right, but no matter what I did, nothing happened. Well that’s not quite true, I was still going backwards at an alarming rate.

Sweat pouring like I was in a marathon, I somehow managed to beach myself against the shoreline so I could reevaluate my situation. Cue the rain.

It rains a lot in England, I get that and was fully prepared. What I was not prepared for was the mini-monsoon which unleashed its wrath on the town of Cambridge that day. Had I been expecting it, I imagine that I wouldn’t have gone boating and I definitely wouldn’t have left my raincoat at the hostel.

So there I was, beached in a punt, huffing and puffing from exhaustion and drenched in a combination of sweat and rain. A quick glance at my watch told me that I didn’t have much time left on my leisurely afternoon boat ride. Not wanting to incur the wrath of the boatman and part with even more coin, I decided that something had to be done.

The Backs, River Cam

I pushed off from the banks, and rather than punt my way up the middle of the river as intended, I used the pole to slowly work my way back up along the banks of the Cam. At long last, the boat house was in sight; a few more pushes would get me there. That’s when the pole got stuck.

I didn’t realize that veritable tar pits of mud existed in the Backs of the River Cam, but no matter what I did I could not release the pole. There I was, holding on for dear life to the pole, while the boat was threatening to continue its way back downriver.

Like Arthur and the sword in the stone, I called upon all of my dwindling strength, released the pole and made it the last few hundred yards to the launch ramp. I handed the owner a few notes, and made my way for the nearest pub to warm up from my wet afternoon.

Have you had any funny travel mishaps? Something that seemed like a good idea, until you did it?

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By: Mike

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on , and

4 Responses

  1. Sarah

    You need photos to really show what it is. We went punting last summer in Oxford.. Great fun (I’m originally from the US, hubby from Barbados, which is where we live). Stayed with friends in Oxford and went punting.. OMG!!!.. what a hoot.

    Reply
  2. Melissa Stanford

    The funniest thing I think I ever did while on a trip was “evacuate” an entire city. I was 13 years old in Corpus Christi Texas, and my dad took me to the aquarium. Since Corpus is on the Gulf of Mexico coast, it is prone to hurricanes, and the aquarium had a hurricane disaster simulation machine. When I told the machine the hurricane was too close for comfort and to evacuate the city, the machine shut off. I don’t know what I did, but they couldn’t fix it. Remind me not go punting, I might lose the pole! 😀

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  3. Mike

    LOL Melissa, I bet they wondered about that for a while. I nearly lost the pole punting. No clue what would have happened then. 🙂

    Reply
  4. Esme

    Hah hah! Oh dear! As someone from Cambridge, I must say that we do relish the sight of a tourist stuck on the end of their punt pole as the punt drifts away! Poor you, though! I am pleased you enjoyed Cambridge, it is a great place to visit and I think people are blown away by the 800 year old Colleges.

    Reply

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