Conjure a mental image which captures an English summer's day at its prettiest and most genteel, and you might well happen on the pleasant thought of a session of punting in Oxford or Cambridge. Here is a sight to soothe the soul – a happy couple, a family or a group of friends making unhurried passage along the barely rippling waters of a slow-moving river; one of their number standing up at the rear of the long, flat-bottomed boat, propelling it forwards by repeatedly pushing a lengthy pole into the riverbed just beneath.
You could regard this as the English version of a gondola tour of Venice, but for the key exceptions that, if you try punting in Oxford or Cambridge, you pass the colleges of two of the finest educational institutions on the planet, rather than the palaces and canal-side mansions of Italy's great island city – and you are allowed to “captain” the craft yourself.
This latter factor is half the fun. In truth, this is journeying for a journey's sake. Progress is never fast, since driving the punt onwards using a single pole is hard work which requires a good sense of balance - and steering is the vaguest and trickiest of concepts in the absence of a tiller (the pole is also used to provide direction). But to take to the river in Oxford or Cambridge is to follow in the merry afternoons of generations of students. Take a bottle of Champagne with you, and a picnic, and you can mimic their laughter and carefree enjoyment as well.
Of course, you do not need to be a student to go punting in Oxford or Cambridge. And there is almost no difference between the two cities when it comes to the experience. They have been academic rivals for the best part of a millennium – the University of Oxford was founded around 1096, the University of Cambridge in about 1209 – but their colleges of honey-coloured stone and their leafy refinement run along similar lines.
In Oxford, you take to the water on the River Isis (a gentle section of the Thames) or its tributary the River Cherwell, and pass the likes of Magdalen College, as well as green spaces such as Christ Church Meadow.
In Cambridge, you punt along the River Cam for close-up glimpses of Trinity College, Magdalene College, Jesus Green and the city's Bridge of Sighs – a covered structure at St John's College, built in 1831.
This is something of a theme. You can also espy a Bridge of Sighs in Oxford (crafted in 1914, connecting two parts of Hertford College), but it’s not over water. And, of course, in Venice itself, although the version linking the Doge's Palace and the Prigioni Nuove is much older, created in 1600.
So what next? The following operators can provide both punts and brief tuition...
Based at La Mimosa Punting Station on the edge of Jesus Green, Rutherfords (07484 926 492; rutherfordspunting.com) will provide professional pilots and “Pimm's Punt Tours” as well as the basic self-propelled options. Group punting tickets from £11.99 per person.
A Cambridge stalwart which traces its story to 1910, Scudamore's (01223 359 750; scudamores.com) claims to be the city's original punting specialist. It proffers punts for hire from £22 per hour – or from £88 for a whole day's rent, for those who feel energetic.
Don't let the nautical name deceive you. While this Oxford company tackles the Isis in different ways, including jazz cruises to Windsor, it provides punts (capable of holding six people) from £20 an hour – and £100 per day (01865 243 421; salterssteamers.co.uk).
This popular option (01865 515 978; cherwellboathouse.co.uk) on Oxford's “other” river lets out its punts for £16 an hour and £80 a day in the week (£18 per hour and £90 per day at the weekend) – and comes with an excellent restaurant for refreshments at jaunt's end.
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