Punting on the River Cherwell is an occupational hazard, if you live in Oxford. Visitors always want to have a go. What they really mean is: over to you.
I have a unique punting style. Crashing from one bank to the other in an erratic zig zag.
I perfected it at Cambridge, where I grew up. Photographers lining up the perfect shot of Kings College Chapel would have to wait until I vacated the area, or fell in, and out of the frame.
It was an aquatic existence – more below the Cam than above it. From there you could see the abandoned shopping trolleys, bikes, plastic bags and horrible, soft brown mud which thinly covered the river’s gravel bottom between the College-lined banks.
Beyond, among the willows and open fields of Granchester Meadows, the mud was thicker. It had a sickening squelch underfoot which once touched with a toe, was forever avoided.
Power-packed Percherons and other sturdy barge horses would pull supplies along the water, to supply the Colleges.
Now it’s Tesco Direct for the student body and Ocado for the Senior Common Room.
Language school students, here in Oxford for a matter of weeks, days – even hours – are avid punters. They’ll all give it a go.
Walking beside the river, the purple giant willow herb – and even more gigantic nettles – may obscure the water, but the sound of laughter and shouts of encouragement resound between opposite banks, along with the quacking of displaced ducks. Sometimes, even a splash.
I met a fisherman with a serious load of kit. Pike rod and floaters, catapult and disgorgers at the ready.
What had it been like, before the egalitarian days of public access to parks and meadows in Oxford?
“Bloody brilliant,” he replied, and turned his back to face the water.
Punting can now be done the easy way – like so many things in modern life. Just hand over the cash, and an agreeable student, eeking out their summer sleeping on friends’ floors, or taking over a handy sub-let, will take up the challenge.
He – not you – will grasp the pole, bending his knees and gripping that slippery platform with his red Converses. You lie back and look at the clouds – particularly that big, lowering black one which has snuck up from nowhere, is it hovering or what?
Perhaps you trail your fingers languidly in the water as you glide. Be sure to wash them afterwards, before accepting a sculpted ninety-nine from the waiting ice cream van, eager to deliver a well-earned sugar rush.
You survived the Cherwell challenge. Or was it the Isis? Who cares. Now tell your friends, globally.
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