Not for the Punters

Panta rhei, “All things flow.”


So said Heracleitus, the Weeping Philosopher.  “You will never step twice into the same river.”  There is no permanence.

One thing that has changed is the punting on the River Cam.  When I was a student, we used to spend long idle afternoons, punting from Cambridge up perhaps as far as the village of Grantchester, resting by or on the grassy banks to drink burgundy and philosophize.

That would now cost several hundred pounds.  The firm that owns the punts has realized that, with the swelling of tourism, money can be made to flow faster.  It has touts who hand out glossy leaflets.  Forty pounds for ninety minutes, so you’d better share the boat with five other people.  This is the “self-hire punt,” which is mentioned as an afterthought to what you’re now really expected to go for, which is a “Chauffeured Punt Tour” at sixteen pounds a head.  And so punting is now mainly on the shorter stretch of river past the ancient colleges, and the river is filled mainly with East Asian parties, being poled along by professionals who lecture them about the passing sights.


A minor grumble: I noticed that, though I opted for a metal pole because lighter than a wooden one, the professionals had metal poles that were obviously lighter still.

Not that that was the reason why my punting wasn’t as assured as it was back when I and three other students owned a punt.


Navigating through an overhanging willow didn’t matter (I was probably avoiding someone stuck sideways across the river); what does surprise me is that I hadn’t taken my shoes and shirt off or even rolled up my sleeves.  This is more like the way I used to look.

Roland punting

It’s actually my son Roland a few years ago.

Punt, the word for this kind of flat-bottomed square-ended boat, descends, like pontoon, from Latin pons, “bridge.”  As with almost all words, there are several other meanings, some of them obsolete.  You can call a person who poles a punt a “punter,” but punter in the sense of a customer or client, earlier a card-player who plays against the bank, goes back, uncertainly, to winning points.  Of course there is no connection with the Land of Punt (known to the ancient Egyptians, and maybe somewhere near the present informal nation of Puntland in Somalia).  Nor does anyone know the origin of the verb that means to drop a ball so as to let your foot whack it aloft, usually when someone is charging down on you to take it from you.  Perhaps it was merely the sound.  Punt.  And by metaphorical extension there is the delightful advice I’ve been given once or twice, in America, when I was in some sticky situation.  “What the hell d’you think I should do?”  “Punt.”

Which brings us back to river punting.  It’s feasible only because the river is fairly shallow, and with a hard bed.  If you feel your pole stuck in some mud, give it a twist before continuing to pull on it.  And if it’s still stuck, punt – that is, let go.



11 thoughts on “Not for the Punters”

  1. In Cambridge, the punter stands on the flat platform at what is then the stern of the boat; in Oxford at the other end. (What is the convention elsewhere?) It seems to me that the Cambridge method is mechanically better calculated to transfer the punter’s thrust to the boat (s/he would do even better if the platform were tilted slightly to slope down towards the water).

    Perhaps early pictures of punters show if the Oxford/Cambridge distinction is long-established.

    1. Geoffrey was one of my co-owners of a Cambridge punt. I’m astonished: I’ve punted twice at Oxford and don’t remember standing at the bow, which would certainly seem less efficient. (Except that if your pole gets stuck, you’d be pulled into the boat instead of into the water.) It will be nice to know if I was making a laughingstock of myself by standing at the wrong end. I hope he or someone finds a photo of Oxford punters. And perhaps regales us with information about the nudist meadow that used to be just upstream on the Cherwell.

  2. Hello Guy,
    At least in a punt you get to see where you’re going!
    No so for we oarsmen(women) who only see where we’ve been.
    You may have encountered many scullers further down the River Cam.
    In sculling, the rowers use sculls (the oars), one in each hand, to propel their scull (the boat).
    It is often done solo – a single scull.
    Sweep rowers (in pairs, fours or eights) use both hands on one sweep oar (not a “paddle”!) to propel their shell (the boat).
    The origin of the word “scull” is obscure.

    1. Yes, we’ve seen the scullers (and rowers) on the lower Cam and very many scullers on the Rhone. Kayaks more on the coast. There’s the Venetian (and Maltese) gondolier method which looks like poling but is a sort of waggling.
      I became very interested in ancient Greek rowing and sailing methods when writing my “Troy Town Tale”. Some scientific articles had appeared about them.

  3. Such a lovely, open-ended post, as always!
    Thankfully, in Oxford the situation is not quite so bad. The Cherwell Boathouse rents punts for 16 pounds an hour. We had a lovely outing up to the Victoria Arms restaurant just 2 months ago.

  4. I enjoyed this post sooooo very much! AND seeing you ‘punting’ on the river–what a delight!

  5. Oh, punters,,, I thought you said punsters for which I was getting more than ready. I think punting in the USofA means something quite different than it does in the UK. Punting is how a football, and that’s American football, not world-wide futbol, or what we call soccer, is kicked. It looks like what you call punting is what we might call poling, not to be confused with polling which is another verb entirely. In 1978 there was going to be a vote for a new Pope, but instead they just decided to take a poll (Pole), Hence Pope St John Paul…. ta-da-dum!

    1. Thanks to Jack for adding to the word-play.
      Both American football and the British game that resembles it, Rugby footfall or rugger, have punting in the sense I mentioned, “drop[ping] a ball so as to let your foot whack it aloft”; rugger has a second kind of kicking, the drop-kick. in which you let the ball bounce off the ground just before you kick it, and that was the kind I was quite good at. The art depends on the angle between the ellipsoidal ball and the ground.

  6. I’ve just read that pilots (bound volumes instructing human ship pilots how to get from one port to another) from centuries ago would often be oriented largely to the depth of the water and the consistency of the sea bottom. E.g., when the water is 2 fathoms and the bottom turns silty, bear toward the north-northeast. Sailors were constantly poking the bottom with poles or dropping weighted lines, and pulling up samples of the bottom in scoops or buckets.

    Regarding the crowding and commercialization of the Cam, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the fact that when I was born in 1960, there were three billion (or 3 thousand million, if you prefer) humans on the planet. Now there are seven and a half billion of us. It reminds me of bacteria happily reproducing in a jug of sugar water. In our species, some of the bacteria have figured out how to profit from the increased density of our fellow bacteria, by charging for things like punts and poles in particularly scenic spots.

    It may be time to punt.

    1. Sorry dude,, but in my line of humor… if you took all the humans on this planet and lined ’em all up head to toe, wrapped ’em around this globe, probably more than half of them would drown in the oceans… Can’t help it… if you can’t find the humor in everything, how can you find the humor in anything…

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