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  • Writer's pictureRuss Hewer

Punting as part of a Tour

Updated: Mar 20, 2019

There are only two main places to punt in the UK and that’s Oxford and Cambridge. Punting was traditionally a Victorian pastime for academia and the social classes. A punt is a flat bottom boat which is manually powered by pushing a pole into the river bed and retrieving the pole, once the punt starts to move.

I teach punting, it’s a fun event especially in summer with the sun shining. It’s not as easy you might think. Oxford traditionally punts from the back and Cambridge from the front. The back of the punt is the sloping end whilst the front is the raised level platform.

There is a finesse in getting the punt going. The skill is to learn how to manoeuvre it with the pole, maintaining a graceful and effortless progress at the same time. The stance, supporting the pole, and the angle, all help to give this appearance which was originally performed in a stripy college blazer, white trousers and straw boater. The punt can seat 4 people and one more standing punting. There is ample room for a picnic hamper and a cool box in the punt. In 15 years of punting, I have never capsized but I have come close on a number of occasions. Only when we have attempted to change punters mid-river has this become a risk, so for safety reason, we only change punters when moored to the bank.

Whilst on this river, Lewis Carroll took his niece Alice out on a punt and when they stopped and rested on the river bank, he spoke to her about a magic kingdom called Wonderland. His real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and he was a mathematical don at Christ Church College. He then wrote his famous book Alice in Wonderland. If you come on my tour, I will explain who the characters are in the book, were and how it relates to the Great Hall in Christ Church.

My first themed punt was a 1950's picnic. I provided an authentic 1950's picnic hamper with traditional food of the era. The salt and pepper pots, the tea in tea cups and the cool box add a sense of nostalgia to the event. It was this event that inspired me to offer themed tours in addition to my standard tours and this became the birth of Tailored Tours UK.

My favourite route to punt is upstream from Magdalen Bridge Boathouse which is slightly harder as it's against the current and can be deeper than the length of the pole. This route gives the best views of the hidden aspect of various colleges and has a quiet and tranquil nature in contrast to the busy and often noisy streets of Oxford. Within 10 minutes of punting upstream, you can be in your own Wonderland engaging with the many shades of greenery and mesmerised by the sun rays reflecting off the water.

Russ Top Tips for Successful Punting

1. Take a stance with your left foot facing the front of the punt and the right foot at near right angles. This is for right handed people with the pole on the right-hand side of the body.

2. Bend knees slightly and bring the pole as close to the body as possible.

3. Pull the pole up using the left hand as a guide whilst grabbing the pole with your right hand and pushing the right hand up. Bring the pole up in three goes so that the pole clears the water.

4. Before starting the downward movement, alter the angle of the pole so that’s it is closer to the front of the punt and release the pole in one go so that it touches the river bed, remembering to keep both hands on the pole. Push off with both hands towards the end of the pole remembering to keep the pole close to your body at the same time to gain maximum control.

5. Once the punt is on the move, steer it using the pole as a rudder and at a very low angle using your right leg as a pivot.

Two places to hire punts in Oxford are The Cherwell Boathouse and Magdalen Bridge Boathouse

They both offer different experiences. Magdalen Bridge Boathouse can easily be included in a walking tour of Oxford. The Cherwell Boathouse is located in north Oxford away from the University but has the advantage of it's own restaurant with outside eating area in view of the river. Please be aware that at both of these locations, there is limited or no parking.

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