“Punting is a uniquely pleasant experience, so long as you remain in the boat” – Magdalen College Punting Guide, 2015
The start of Trinity term in Oxford marks the unveiling of the punts. For Magdalen, this means the dusting off of a cheerful fleet of 17 rainbow-coloured boats.
As the guide suggests, theres is something distinctively lovely about drifting down the Cherwell, past weeping willows (and occasionally weeping tourists; more than a few iPhones meeting a watery death); water lapping at the hull, and dappled light playing across your face. You see people picnicking, and even serenading their sweetheart with sweet sweet ukelele strains.
The actual punting is a lot harder than I expected. I’d only seen it done by cartoon frogs using reeds to propel oversized leaves, and they make it look so easy. I also have a newfound respect for gondoliers, who simultaneously steer and sing (apparently, I can do neither).
The trick is to confidently drop (or even hurl) the pole straight down into the water, driving with the legs to push off, and then letting the end trail behind the punt to act as a rudder. I was too scared of dropping the pole completely, or miring it so firmly in the mud as to be left to make a split-second decision about whether to leave it, or lose the punt and be left clinging to the pole like a koala or stage-frightened stripper…then have my muscles give way and slide down to splashy humiliation.
“Watch out for branches that trap your pole and feel for muddy stretches of riverbed when you drop your pole: both can leave you in jeopardy. If faced with choosing between holding on to the pole and staying in the boat, always choose the boat.”
Prodding the water like an unenthusiastic lunch-lady prods a vat of custard, I no doubt betrayed my first-timer status.
“Most punters, especially tourists and other novices, adopt a somewhat erratic approach to steering: zig-zagging and bouncing from bank to bank is the norm in the vicinity of Magdalen Bridge. While it is, accordingly, unlikely that you will be arrested for failing to comply with the Rules of the River, you should nevertheless endeavour to do so wherever possible.”
Luckily I went with some friends who are adept punters, and were happy to indulge my attempts. They hardly even complained when I drove them repeatedly into bankside thickets.
“Do not assume that anyone in any other vessel knows what he or she is doing, let alone what you are doing.“