October 4, 2023

A-punting we go on the Cam

Published today in BRUNCH – the Sunday supplement of Hindustan Times, under the title River Town… this is the original piece I had sent then, which was published with a few edits…

River Town

Morality and the University

Do you remember the song ‘yeh hai Bombay meri jaan’ from the film CID…? Johnny Walker on the big bad city that Bombay is, especially to the outsider? That it seems was just what London was to the authorities at Cambridge – a corrupting influence on students who had to be kept away by all means. So there were the bull dogs, as the local rectors used to be known, maintaining strict vigil at the railway station to catch students going to London for a night of drink and debauchery. That was a hundred years ago. Today, Cambridge boasts of a hundred and twenty pubs, not surprising, considering Cambridge is primarily a University town. Debauchery if any, is not apparent though.

The highlight of a visit to Cambridge is of course, a tour of the famous colleges set along the river Cam. On most days, visitors are allowed inside the college buildings at specific times. The best way to see Cambridge is to take a walking tour; I had the pleasure of being the solitary member of an hour long walking tour conducted by Emily, a grandmother of six who was born in Cambridge, has traveled around the world and has now come back to Cambridge “which is my favorite place in the world”. Cambridge also has some fine chapels including the one at King’s College, St. Johns’ College and one of the two round churches of England. There are interesting small bookshops, an open air market in the town square and several eating options.

The King Street Run

For the truly thirsty, there are the hundred and twenty pubs to choose from. And if you are particularly adventurous, there is the King Street Run, a bi-annual event in Cambridge, with a history of over fifty glorious years. In this event, competitors run through each of the eight pubs on King’s Street – and two more on the corner at Hobson Street and Short Street, taking in on the way as much fluid refreshment as is humanly possible. The other condition is to complete the round within an hour, without relieving oneself in any manner; in the coarser words, no peeing or puking. I would imagine there are no winners in this, only survivors, but that is clearly not so, judging by the popularity of the event and the fact that people compete to win – a tie specially designed for the event. The ever-informative wikipedia.com tells me that the current record is 14 min 05 sec, held by John Philips of the Cambridge Hash House Harriers. Though there are only five pubs remaining on King Street (including one called King Street Run in honor of the event), the tradition lives on and has given rise to the term ‘pub crawl’.

Punting on the Cam

However interesting college buildings and chapels were, that was not why I was in Cambridge. I was there to find myself a punt and take a spin on the river Cam – rather, be taken on a spin. In summers, the river Cam is ideal for a sport called punting. A punt is a flat-bottomed boat, propelled by a long pole about ten feet long, slicing through the water. Punting looks deceptively easy but is very difficult and requires a lot of skill and stamina. Often, students take on jobs as punters during the summer months to earn extra pocket money.

Watching the world punt past

As I got off the train, I promised myself that I would complete a walking tour of the town, find some healthy lunch and then get myself on a punt. That, however, was not to be. Five minutes into the town, stop three of the open air bus, opposite the Queen’s College, I found myself off the bus and along the riverside waiting for the punt tour to begin. And in a few minutes, in a punt along with an American family of three and a group of four students, two Japanese and two Italian. On the pole was young Rosie, with amazing energy levels that her slight frame gave no indication of. In fact, what she lacked by way of skill, Rosie made up for with enthusiasm, which as I found out, is sadly not quite enough.

On crowded days on the river, there are traffic jams and accidents on the Cam, just as there are bound to be on the road. Unskilled or negligent punters also face the possibility of getting their poles stuck in the water. While it is possible to get the pole free by twisting it skillfully, most punters do not manage that. They utter a small prayer or a loud oath, according to their preference, and then try to use the paddle provided in the punt to reach the stuck punt. Rosie certainly did not; she alternated between the prayer and the oath, and in the course of half a dozen accidents with assorted walls and punts on the way, managed only thanks to a miracle, not to capsize the punt. The fourth time it happened was also the only time the great patriarch of the American family opened his mouth – to drawl “women drivers!” Almost simultaneously, one of the Italians began his story of an earlier punt ride where his punt turned over and passengers found themselves exercising their swimming skills vigorously in the water. Everyone in the punt laughed heartily at this story, but for the non-swimmers in the group, viz. me, and I guessed by the look on his face, the American dad.

Under the bridge of sighs

The ride along the colleges

A punt takes from two to ten people and can be hired for self-punting or with a “chauffer”. On a punt ride, you pass the grand college buildings of Cambridge on either side of the river as the punter doubles up as tourist guide and rattles off the names of the different college buildings and their famous alumni and the various bridges we pass under. From Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon to Jawaharlal Nehru, Stephen Hawking and Douglas Adams, the list is very impressive. Amartya Sen? I piped up hopefully. My young punter Rosie looked very doubtful – the name was clearly not in her list – but another Japanese tourist in my punt was excited, yes, yes, Amartya Sen, the economist.

The more famous bridges are the “Bridge of Sighs” and the “Mathematical Bridge”. The Bridge of Sighs belongs to St. John’s College and is supposed to be named after the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. However, unlike in Venice, this bridge has far less romantic connotations. Local folklore says that the name is derived from the sound of the sighs of students crossing the bridge on their way to and back from their examinations. I cannot say this is hard to believe.

The ‘Mathematical Bridge’, belonging to Queen’s College, also has several stories around it. Made almost entirely of wood, it was built in 1749 and rebuilt in 1867 and 1902. Popular myth has it that the bridge was constructed by Sir Isaac Newton, and held itself together without any bolts or screws. Which is unlikely since the bridge was built 22 years after Isaac Newton passed away.

The bridge for the best and brightest!

I cannot think of a better way of enjoying a late summer afternoon in the UK than sitting back on one of these punts (being punted by a sweating student, of course) and feeling the cool air on your face. All along the banks of the river, you see students who clearly have the same idea, viz. enjoying that fine summer day which comes by so rarely in that country. You pass by open air cook-outs and barbeques, and beer parties in the middle of the day. You also spot the loners, perched on the low walls by the banks, a book in one hand, a beer can in the other.

General Information

Cambridge is located roughly 100 km to the North of London. The best way to reach Cambridge is by train from King’s Cross Station in London. The journey is just more than an hour and day return fares are not so expensive. Inside Cambridge, you have the option of walking tours, cycling around, and the hop-on-hop-off open air bus that stops right in front of the train station. It is also possible to drive from London or take a coach.

Light and color...

Things to do

Ideally, spend 2-3 days at Cambridge, though it is still possible to take in some of the sights in a day, as I did. Be sure to take a punt ride and a walking tour (which comes as part of the bus ticket, if you choose to take the hop-on-hop-off tour). After you have taken in the breath-taking stained glass windows at the St. John’s College Chapel, climb up the few hundred steps for a fine view of Cambridge and surrounding areas. The Fitzwilliam museum, one of the oldest in Britain, and believed by many to be one of the best, has a good collection of art and artifacts from around the world. Cambridge also has an excellent botanic garden within walking distance of the railway station, where you can spend a couple of hours before taking your train back to big bad London. The bull dogs have all retired now.



If you are the types willing to pay good money for bad frights, take the Ghost Tour on Friday nights for a peep into the haunted past of the town. Britain takes it ghosts seriously; the very popular Ghost Club which promises to get you “amazed by Britain’s supernatural heritage!” maintains strict records and even a website [http://www.ghostclub.org.uk/]. Scudmore Punts also offers you a “ghostly punting experience” followed by an hour-long ghost tour. Confirm the timings and days of the ghost tours beforehand, some websites state that these tours are organized on Saturdays as well. Strangely enough, the ghost walks are organized only during the summer months, perhaps in recognition of the fact that ghosts need to hibernate in winters? And do make reservations in advance. These walks are open to all, though the organizers do make it clear that children under twelve must be accompanied by an adult.

Also see : More Cambridge photographs on pbase

10 thoughts on “A-punting we go on the Cam

  1. wow…looks like a day well spent… and congratulations on having this published in HT. from qualitative research to travel writing, you’ve got it going mate!

  2. I used to go punting on the Cam many years ago when I was dating a student of King’s College who, incidentally, was quite good as a ‘chauffeur’, only threatening to capsize us a couple of times! This post brought back some nice memories, every summer seemed to be sunny back then!

  3. piyu, thanks 🙂 yeah, was a great day – just wish I could
    have spent more time there!

    Pallavi, the whole own feels quaint! something about it just so slow and lovely despite the bustle of students. ghosts, me? no ghosts, thank you – and those tours are expensive – imagine paying good money to see wispy elusive things in the dark!!

    andy, good for you! my young Rosie was not quite as skillful but she was very pleasant and enthusiastic – and we got back safe – so I can’t really complain! and I know what you mean about summers being sunny back then…

  4. ye punting. I have been punting a couple of times. The first punt was inside Cambridge city, the usual trip of the backs, and the second time a punt to the idyllic town Grantchester.

    A colleague at my workplace was decent enough to teach me the finer nuances of handling the punt. You are right, skill is not enough, signigicant power is necessary to manuever the boat, though we had hired a smaller boat, I can imagine the difficulty in handling the bigger tourist boat, poor rosie :p.

  5. anoop, yeah, I remember reading about your punting experiences on your blog – and the gorgeous photographs! must be very tough as you said, handling a larger punt with 7-8 people.

  6. Interesting article and congratulations on getting it published. I thought for a moment that I was in one of the photos, as I was still working as a punt chauffeur when they were taken but on closer examination it turned out not to be me.

    Actually, it’s a lot harder than you might think to capsize a punt. Being flat bottomed, on the calm waters of the Cam there is very little chance of them turning over. In fact, it would take a great deal of effort to sink one (believe me, I have seen it done).
    You are correct that the large punts are harder to manouvere but once you get them moving, you have the benefit of momentum on your side and, because they are wider, they are more stable, so balance is less of an issue.

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