Punting Cambridge

Ah, Cambridge.  Two weeks ago, I was there.  This week, I wish I was still there.

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A few days ago, my corner of Germany was a mess. Rain/snow/hail falling in scissor patterns (like the wind was blowing two directions at once), followed by a more languid thunder storm (minus the storm, because at that point the precipitation mostly left and only the thunder came swaggering through).  It was absolutely infuriating weather to have at the end of April. . . and with the pollen full out and everyone’s eyes swollen to the size of grapefruits.  Mother Nature is beating us senseless here!

So I’m meditating this week to keep my wits about me.  I’m closing my itchy eyes and thinking back to the bright evening we spent punting on the Cam in Cambridge, when the world was beautiful and spring was a given.

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A book in the window of G. David Bookseller, St. Edward’s Passage, Cambridge

If “punting on the Cam” is a phrase that leaves you scratching your head, not to worry.  It has that effect on many people.  The Cam is the river that runs through Cambridge, and punt boats are traditional flat bottomed (square and stodgy looking) boats.  The “punter” is the unlucky bloke who stands at the back of the boat and both steers and propels the small vessel with a long pole.

It looks easy enough, but I’m told it’s a little tricky and tiring for beginners.  Conventional wisdom in Cambridge: if you live there, take the time to learn to punt and then enjoy self-hire boats at your liesure; if you’re a tourist, pay the boatman and enjoy the ride.  Most of the punting guides will offer their “puntees” a bit of history and Cambridge trivia along with the beautiful ride.

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Punting under the Bridge of Sighs at St. Johns College, Cambridge U
Church spires, red phone booths, and tartan blankets– very British.

We did our punting in the early evening.  It was still bright,  but it was a weeknight  and campus was mostly quiet along the backs by the river.  The air was growing crisp, to the point that our punter had to lend my son a blanket while we strolled around the block and waited for him to prepare our boat.


Pretty soon, we were afloat and learning about the many colleges that make up Cambridge University, ohhhing and ahhhing at the fabulous architecture, and occasionally being heckled by beer swilling students on the banks–which, as long as it’s done in lovely British accents, still sounds pretty posh to Americans.  (It’s embarassing, but true–it hardly matters whether a Brit is performing a Shakespearean sonnet, reading from the phone book, or berating us, we Americans will swoon regardless.)

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Under another bridge we go. (Still looking at St. John’s College, I think.)

Cambridge University is made up of 31 colleges, many of which have backs along the River Cam.  Each college has its own architectural character, and even modern buildings (usually dormatories) occasionally pop up next to Tudor arches and ruddy red brick.

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Our punt ride lasted just under an hour, and that was perfect– no time to get fidgety, plenty of time to be lulled into a serene trance on the tranquil river, to soak up a little history,  to nibble at the edges of tales of Kings, Queens, scholars, actors, and socialites.  As the sun began to fall over Cambridge and a sliver of moon showed itself in the sky, our punt, having come to the halfway point of our journey, turned itself around and we retraced our steps. This slow boat ride home offered us the chance to see the backs once again, from another angle, in another light. . . it seemed fitting in a place like this, where so much history has turned and turned again, and the water keeps dreamily floating its passengers on by.

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11 thoughts on “Punting Cambridge

  1. lovely photos! I tried punting myself, totally difficult!:) I understand all too well the bit about the British accent:) swoon:)

  2. What a surprise for me to read about the horrible weather in Germany and your escape to England to find sunny and warm weather there, where it is normally dreary and rainy this time of the year. An enjoyable read and wonderful illustrations. It seems to me you discovered the Venice of the UK. Thanks for sharing!

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