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Punting on the Cherwell

Punting on the Cherwell

Tony Kelly - 2009-10-12

It was only when I saw my friend Peter hanging over a branch, clinging desperately to his pole as the punt drifted away, that I realised we should have learnt a few simple rules before setting out. Rule one of punting - always stay with the boat rather than the pole. If the pole gets stuck in the mud at the bottom of the river you can always go back for it with a paddle.

Punting on Oxford's rivers, in a flat-bottomed boat propelled by a 4-metre pole, is a favourite summer pastime, conjuring up images of Edwardian students in boaters and stripy blazers ferrying pretty girls in floral dresses and picnic baskets overflowing with strawberries and champagne. It has also memorably been described as an expensive way of getting wet.
 
As Peter and I found out it’s not as easy as it looks. You stand on a sloping platform at the back of the punt, facing forwards. You lower your pole onto the riverbed and give it a gentle twist to prevent it from getting stuck. Then, rather than yank it out of the river in one go, you slowly drag the pole through the water to steer the boat left or right, taking care to dodge any overhanging branches as you go. All it takes is a little practice...
 
There are two rivers in Oxford, the Thames (confusingly called the Isis) and the Cherwell. The Thames is great for rowing but first-time punters should stick to the Cherwell which is both narrower and calmer.
 
Most people head straight for the boathouse at Magdalen Bridge in the city centre. This is in the heart of tourist, dreaming-spires Oxford and you don't have to go far for splendid views of Magdalen deer park (to the north) and the Botanical Garden and Christ Church Meadow (to the south).
 
Those in the know, however, make the short trek out to Cherwell Boathouse, just north of the city and reached off Banbury Road. The handcrafted punts here are built on the premises and chauffeured punting trips are available on request.
 
You could punt downstream towards Oxford for a picnic in the University Parks, but why not try working up a thirst by heading upstream into open countryside, passing Parsons Pleasure, a peaceful riverside picnic area where the dons still sunbathe, on your way to the Victoria Arms pub at Old Marston?
 
What to take? A picnic is an essential part of the experience and the more decadent the better (Pimm's is a popular choice). The boathouse should provide lifejackets for children and inexperienced swimmers. Apart from that all you need is a sense of adventure - and remember those golden rules.
 
PRACTICAL INFORMATION
 
Cherwell Boathouse (Tel: 01865 515978; www.cherwellboathouse.co.uk). Punts can be hired from 10am – dusk between mid-March and mid- October from. 'Chauffeur' punters are available on request, with a minimum 2 weeks notice. Lifejackets are available if required. Maximum 6 people per punt. Costs : Week days: £12 per hour / £60 all day, Weekend: £14 per hour / £70 all day, Deposit of 1 day’s hire.
 
Magdalen Bridge Boathouse (Tel: 01865 202643). Open 7 days a week from March to October (9.30am – 9.00pm or 1 hour before sunset). Punting boats take up to 5 people and cost £14 per hour.

It was only when I saw my friend Peter hanging over a branch, clinging desperately to his pole as the punt drifted away, that I realised we should have learnt a few simple rules before setting out. Rule one of punting - always stay with the boat rather than the pole. If the pole gets stuck in the mud at the bottom of the river you can always go back for it with a paddle.

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