A day on the river? Always worth a punt

Adrian Mourby and son push the boat out to discover a very English form of transport
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The Independent Travel

Punting is one of those things the British enjoy doing badly. I know this is is the case because I live in Oxford and I hear the shrieks of hilarity, roars of frustration, and the subsequent splashes of punts colliding and people getting wet.

My son has always been keen to punt. It's an activity in which the whole family can participate. Those who don't get to pole can still create havoc with the course-correction paddle, or sample the obligatory picnic, or throw bread at the ducks. John has done all of these extracurricular activities. But last weekend, after he had badgered me a few times about taking the sacred pole into his own hands, I decided it was time that I introduce my 13-year-old to the mysteries of punting.

Mysteries is an appropriate word. There is all manner of arcane lore dreamt up by Oxford and Cambridge universities to make sure that townies reveal their ignorance. Just by standing on a punt you can betray yourself as an oik. In Cambridge you should stand on the punt's polished, raised platform. In Oxford you stand at the opposite end, which is lower and has slats to give you better traction, the reason for this variation being that Cambridge people like falling in more.

I decided to dispense with all the Masonic stuff and just see if I could teach John to move the thing along in a straight line. After all, punting is just about levering your boat across a stretch of water. Gondoliers don't find it too hard. They even manage to sing at the same time.

The first challenge we found on reaching the Cherwell boathouse was that handing over £12, plus deposit, doesn't get you straight on to the water. It is up to you to find your own pole, paddle and cushions and pretty much assemble the boat. Loading and arranging all this equipment took some time off the family's allotted hour and we did rock alarmingly as we squeezed past one another.

We cast off only to drift straight into all the returning punts, a melée of vessels making vague attempts to dock and bumping each other to the soundtrack of yet more shrieks and laughter. After shouting instructions to John about using the paddle to rotate us, I managed to manoeuvre Punt 42 away from the chaos and once we had reached a quiet stretch I took him through the basics.

The first problem we encountered was the length of the pole. This one was 16 feet of aluminium and when I asked John to lift it vertically above him he almost overbalanced. I steadied the thing until it was perpendicular to the water and then told him to push down and backwards. The result was impressive. We moved off at speed but the pole didn't and John almost lost it in the water. Time for lesson two, which is an important one: pulling the pole back up out of the water. It's also important to get it vertical again as soon as you've moved forward. Doing this causes river water to run down the pole and straight into your armpit. This is not the most enjoyable aspect of punting but John, after an initial yell, coped. I found that if I sat behind him I could steady the pole as it came up and together we made good progress.

Under duress, John's sister used the paddle as best she could to correct our course. One of the reasons why punting has never taken off as a means of transport is that one punts from the side which means the damn thing is always in an incipient turning motion.

The next stage was to demonstrate how, if you sweep the pole behind you, it acts like a rudder and counteracts the effect of the sideways thrust. John was less adept at this. Whenever he tried to work the thing behind he almost came off the boat. I tried to remember how I had learned, but everyone does it by trial and error; only practice makes good punters.

We went out again a few days later. I found that John had remembered much of what he'd learned but the course correction still defeated him. He just wasn't strong enough.

On our way back we hit a fresh problem, one which defeats many punters. Mud. The pole went right in and refused to come out, even for me. This was when I was able to teach my son something that is not to be found in the manuals - grabbing on to a branch and pushing the boat along with your feet. I did this while John held on to the boat with one hand and the pole with the other. Suddenly it gurgled free.

"Wow, Dad! Where did you learn that?"

"It's an Oxford technique," I lied.


Where to go punting

Oxford: Cherwell Boathouse, Bardwell Road, Oxford (01865 515978;

www.cherwellboathouse.co.uk); Howard C & Son, The Old Horseford, Magdalen Bridge, Oxford (01865 202643; www.oxfordpunting.com)

Cambridge: Granta Punt Hire, The Granta Inn, Newnham Mill Pond, Newnham Road, Cambridge (01223 301845; email granta.boats@lineone.net); Scudamores Punting Company, Granta Place, Cambridge CB2 1RS (01223 359750; www.scudamores.co.uk)