On a mild, autumnal afternoon, there’s nothing quite like messing about on the river, and the Cam is a perfect spot for such idle paddling. Punting is a Cambridge river sport often outshone by the fast and famous rowers, but it proves a far more relaxing way to enjoy the local countryside.
During Edwardian times, punting became a popular Cambridge pastime, and has remained a favourite tradition with tourists, locals and even film stars, with Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig and Steven Fry having taken to the water. Autumn is the best time to enjoy the pretty river wind towards the Grantchester meadows, with fewer boats congesting the water.
Punts were originally used in medieval times for crossing shallow waters, particularly in the nearby marshy fenlands. With a flat bottom and square ends (known as huffs), the punt is propelled by a 5-metre-long pole, which is pushed against the riverbed to move the boat along. The punter stands at the rear of the boat, and also uses the pole to steer. The well-practiced student chauffeurs make it look particularly easy, but grab the pole and try it for yourself and you’ll find it’s far harder than it looks.
Punts can be hired all day for trips to Grantchester village, which was a favourite haunt of the Grantchester Group in the early 1900s. The group included Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolfe (below), Bertrand Russell and EM Forster, and used to head upstream to enjoy freshwater swimming and tea beneath the blossoms.
Brooke dedicated a poem to Grantchester, which is also said to have the highest concentration of Nobel Prize winners in the world. The famous Orchard Tea Garden still serves the favourites of the talented Cambridge bunch, and offers a refreshing break for tired punters.
The route takes about an hour and a half each way, and punts are available from The Mill Pond for adventures to Grantchester. Swans and moorhens are plentiful along the Cam, and further towards the meadows look out for colourful damselflies, kingfishers and woodpeckers. Frogs also hide in the reeds, attracting hungry grass snakes that can often be seen swimming in the river.
The ride itself is both fun and magical: the crooked trees and twisted branches make interesting obstacles to duck beneath, and the leafy canopy sweeps so low that it becomes a tunnel. Keeping a steady platform and avoiding the soft banks can prove pretty tricky, particularly on what the locals call Dead Man’s Corner, when the water is too deep for the pole to find a solid surface. Despite the slow speed, a few close encounters with tight corners and vicious branches can make it an exhilarating experience, especially if you’re in charge of the pole.
HOW TO GET THERE
Cambridge railway station is a 10-minute bus or taxi ride from the punting stations.
FIND OUT MORE
Scudamore’s Punting Co.
Mill Lane, CB2 1RS
Call 01223 359750
The Orchard Tea Garden
45-47 Mill Way, CB3 9ND
Call 01223 551125
Wonderful orchard garden and an elegant pavilion. Morning coffee, lunches and afternoon teas are all served daily.
Whitehouse Lane, CB3 0LX
Set in a grand Victorian building, with mature landscaped gardens and a pretty terrace.
Royal Cambridge Hotel
Trumpington Street, CB2 1PY
Call 01223 351631
Stay in one of the oldest hotels in Cambridge, once part of the famous Addenbrooke’s Hospital.
Once home to Rupert Brooke, who wrote about it, “Ah, Grantchester! There’s peace and holy quiet there.”
The College Backs
The famous colleges and their impressive architecture are best enjoyed in autumn.