Punting on the River CamWhat to do in Cambridge
The Fresher’s Don’t
There was a time when students were discouraged from travelling to London for a “good time”
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.
A tongue-in-cheek guide for Newbies was written by St John’s student, Arthur John Story
The guide includes advice on the opposite sex, including “not to get too familiar” with the landlady’s daughter – and a reminder not to “speak to girls without introduction”.
Another was to avoid keeping different brands of alcohol in your room, “as most Undergrads cannot distinguish Bordeaux from Burgundy”
That was a hundred years ago.
Today, Cambridge boasts of a hundred and ten pubs, not surprising, considering Cambridge is primarily a University town. Debauchery, if any, is not apparent though.
The oldest pub in Cambridge is “The Eagle” dating from the 14th century. This is where Watson and Crick announced the discovery of the DNA thus immortalising the Pub forever!
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 travelled around the world and has now come back to Cambridge “which is her favourite 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 ten 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 seventy 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 honour 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 go punting on the river Cam – rather, be taken on a glide.
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.
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 whilst punting on the River 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.
“Photo of Cambridge by Chris Boland “
Gliding through the famous College Backs
A punt takes from two to ten people and can be hired for self-punting or with a “chauffeur”.
On a punt glide, 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.
Henry Dickens?? I added, hopefully to her list.
My young punter Rosie looked very doubtful – the name was clearly not in her list – but another tourist in my punt supported me, “yes, Henry Dickens, the famous London lawyer, son of Charles”
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.
I cannot think of a better way of enjoying a late summer afternoon in England 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 English summer day which comes by so rarely.
While punting on the River Cam 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.
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.
Other Things to do
Ideally, spend 2-3 days in 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.
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 artefacts from around the world.
Cambridge also has an excellent botanical 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 !!!!
Essential Travel Guides
the River Cam
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