Messing about in boats

A punt is a boat designed to take goods such as cabbages and chickens to market, pushed with long poles along the shallow bottoms. In the Oxford area, one punts from the end that is not built up, standing on the boards that line the bottom of the boat (which one can lift to bail out), a position that is both more secure and several inches closer to the bottom than the built-up end, where a Cambridge punter stands. Cambridge, you see, has improved its rivers and has tidy gravelled bottoms (the river, not the citizens) unlike the natural surroundings and occasionally mucky bottom of the Isis (the Thames where it passes through Oxford) or the Cherwell (pronounced Charwell, called a river but in fact a large stream.)

Techniques vary, but the idea is to let the pole slide freely through the hand until it plants itself in the river bottom directly below one’s feet, after which the standing punter angles the pole and leans down hard. Equal and opposite reaction being as it is, the boat then movesforward, and when the punter reaches the end of the pole, she or he snaps this weighty length of wood or metal back into the air, seizing it the moment its bottom clears the water, and allows it to drop again.

Theory is tidy. The truth is, most people end up soaked from the wrist to the waist, with the nearby passengers splattered. Poles are dropped (occasionally onto the heads of the passengers) and poles stick in the bottom. When this happens, the rule is, let go, although any Sunday will find one or two rubes clinging to the pole as the punt briskly shoots away, leaving the punter to slide slowly down into the water like a reluctant fireman. This is why punts are also equipped with paddles.

When we went out Sunday, the river was moving so fast it actually pulled a stuck pole under, and we ended up with one of our party jumping in to find it beneath the muddy water and retrieve it. He then swam back to the boathouse, cold and muddy but quite sober.

And in case you’re wondering, no, this time I did not punt. That’s what vigorous young step-sons and step-grandsons are for.

punting.JPG

Comments

  1. LaideeMarjorie says:

    “…Cambridge, you see, has improved its rivers and has tidy gravelled bottoms (the river, not the citizens…”

    Laurie,

    Thanks for the wondeful punting update and photo. I am glad that you did not fall in, had to jump in or were pulled into the water at any point in the proceedings.

    (And all the tidy gravel-bottomed Cambridgians that I know are of the Massachusetts variety. The citizens, NOT the river!)

    –Marjorie

  2. Strawberry Curls says:

    A few years ago, I did some research into punting back for a story, and found The Golden Rule of Punting “Stay with the punt…not the pole.” You described it so well. The mental image of people hanging onto stuck poles and slowing sliding into the water is quite amusing. I’m afraid if I tried that might be me, though I might well try if I ever have the opportunity. Who could pass up punting the Cherwell?

    I like to think Holmes would be an excellent punter, and would some day share a lovely afternoon on the river with Russell. OK, it’s my fantasy and I’m sticking to it.

    Thanks for sharing your experience through narrative and pictures.

    Alice

  3. “I like to think Holmes would be an excellent punter, and would some day share a lovely afternoon on the river with Russell.”

    I was thinking the same thing during the Lord Peter/Harriet punting scene in Gaudy Night! 🙂

    “The mental image of people hanging onto stuck poles and slowing sliding into the water is quite amusing.”

    There’s a funny scene where this happens in one of my favorite movies, Hope and Glory, set in WWII England.

  4. Meredith T says:

    Great picture. The title and text bring back the visions of Rat and Mole, “simply messing about in boats.” I’ve always had the theory that those distinguished English gentlemen, er.. animals … prepared me to fall madly later for Holmes and Watson, with Ratty standing in as a slightly less acerbic Holmes. Younger friends and relations to do the punting, now that’s the thing.

    And I also have lived in Cambridge, Mass, Marjorie. And I concur, tidy and gravel.

  5. Reminds me of that poem by Rupert Brooke, ”Grandchester” …’Cambridge people rarely smile, being urban, squat and full of guile…’

    Thanks for the photo!

  6. Once again Laurie shows her innate good sense, this time by not attempting to punt. Whoever thought that propelling a long thin vessel with a 12ft piece of tubing was an ideal method of transport? The pole does everything it can to trip you up, get stuck between the bottom of the river and a low bridge, dribbling as much of the river as possible upon everyone in the vacinity. And then there’s the steering!

    Those who can punt do so effortlessly. The rest of us mortals can only accept our position as figures of fun for the duration. (And yes, although my pole and I had several arguments about who was in charge, I did stay on the punt at all times)

  7. Carlina says:

    I’ve always wondered how punting worked….well now I know! I think I agree with Alice. Holmes would indeed have been an excellent punter. One still wonders about that punt and those fingerprints…alas another story….

    I do love your sense of conveying it to us complete with humour! Wait…you mean Oxford folks don’t have tidied gravel bottoms?

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