I met my husband for the first time in a punt on the River Cam. It was a time long ago, when the nearest thing to a selfie-stick was a black wand with silver tips as used by Sooty and a ‘mobile’ was something you hung from your bedroom ceiling. My punt was tied to his punt and there were lots of students and lots of wine involved. I didn’t remember his name afterwards; I just knew he was ‘one of the brothers’ who looked alike as they both wore glasses.
Fast forward to a marriage of many years, a brother-in-law who still wears glasses, two grown up daughters and an anniversary.
What better way to celebrate than back on the river, in a punt? We booked a weekend in Cambridge with our four friends, packed a picnic and headed for the river early. Punting can be expensive, but alumni with Cam cards are afforded the privilege of hiring punts for a lot less. As my husband was at Trinity College which backs on to the river and has its own little fleet of named punts, we were charged £10 an hour. Kaboom! Bargain!
Typically, tourists use their hour to move along ‘the backs’, i.e. the part of the river which flows directly behind college buildings. The architecture is truly stunning, but trying to manoeuvre is a challenge since the river becomes quickly congested. Punts bump into each other, drinks are sloshed and people fall in.
The Bridge of Sighs
The Mathematical Bridge
As we were ‘in the know’, we decided instead to take the punt away from the melee and head to Grantchester. To do this, you have to move from the lower part of the Cam to the Upper. This involves heaving the punt up a slipway of metal rollers, dragging it over a pathway and sending down a smaller set of rollers into the upper waterway.
There is a picture of the slipway on this Wikipedia page (on the right, lower down).
Well, we’re not eighteen any more, and despite six of us pulling and panting, it got a bit stuck. Fortunately, there was many a lithe, beardy, helpful student in the periphery, and we were soon on our way up a tranquil, tree-lined section of the river.
Hours later, we arrived at Grantchester, parked up and had our picnic on a rug.
On the way back, the punting was a dream as we were carried by the current. By now, we had consumed several bottles of champers, some beer, plus a packet of wine gums.
All we had to do to get back to where we started was to do the reverse of what we had done on the way there. We steered the punt so that it was parallel next to the bank and got out, taking all the bags with us, then we dragged it up the small set of rollers, across the path and positioned it at the top of the larger slope of rollers. This was late afternoon, and the crowds had thickened. The banks were lined with people wondering what on earth a bunch of middle-aged couples were doing lifting a big wooden vessel out of the water and lining it up for launch.
At one end of the punt is a metal chain. We had a decision to make. Should we hold the chain and lower the punt down the rollers, or let the chain lead? The former option would, no doubt, yank the chain-holder clean into the river with the force of the punt sliding downhill. Pulling it down from below also seemed quite dangerous. Someone could get flattened!
Then, my hubby had an idea.
This is when amber lights should begin to flash and a siren should begin its plaintive wail…
His idea was to SIT in the empty punt as it slid down the rollers.
We held it back as he got in, looking very much like a garden gnome sitting right in the middle of his boat with his legs crossed before casting his line, hoping for a catch. He didn’t turn around… Poised is the word. I am reminded of a pinball machine at this point of the story.
We let go and, with an almighty roar, the punt shot down the ramp at a speed worthy of the log flume at Thorpe Park. For a moment or two, it seemed to fly over the river, but come down it must, and it seemed to be coming down head first. In slow motion, the front disappeared for a moment under the surface, then a tidal wave rose up, engulfing the gnome who still hadn’t turned around or uttered a sound. Over his head it curled, slapping his entire body with its watery belly.
The punt didn’t stop. It was on a mission and, having been launched with such ferocity, was heading full throttle into the distance, finally floating to a bob just in front of the picnicking crowds and their mobile phones.
Meanwhile, we had the punting pole with us, back at Slipway Headquarters. You need a pole to punt.
It’s very hard to see when your eyes are full of tears and you are bent double laughing hysterically, but my poor hubby had located the emergency oar and was paddling, Hawaii Five-O-style, back to his ‘Cam’-patriots.
It took a while. The crowds were delighted that the show was continuing. Many a phone was recording the event.
When he finally reached us, we realised that the punt had about a foot of water in it. The cushions were heavy with the weight of water so we stood them upright all around us to let some of it return to the depleted river. All we had to bail out with was a disposable champagne flute so two of my friends climbed in and took turns sloshing it back over the side.
We did continue on our mission, and, as expected, got caught up in the punt traffic on the backs. There were collisions galore and the odd splash as the less seasoned punters lost their balance, or their poles, and fell in. We returned our soaked vessel to its station.
Hubby spent the rest of the weekend in damp jeans – his only pair, and managed to leave one shoe behind at the hotel where it remains drying on the window sill. RIP shoe.
Our punt was called Haiku, by the way. Any poetic suggestions? Maybe a bawdy limerick would be better…