The punting station beside the Cherwell Boathouse has a very different personality from its two bigger siblings downstream – at Magdalen and Folly Bridge. It’s altogether harder to locate for a start ­– tucked away since 1904 at the end of a quiet residential road in North Oxford.

Refreshments take their cue from the location. Whereas the Head of the River pub on the old wharf under Folly Bridge is sprawling and raucous, the Cherwell Boathouse is contained and restrained. No keg beers or plasma screens here. Not a Nacho in sight.

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You can hire a vessel and take it downstream, along the banks of the University Parks, beside the places known as Mesopotamia and Parson’s Pleasure (where university dons of yesteryear were wont to do a spot of nude bathing), past the Angel and Greyhound meadow, beyond Magdalen College deerpark and the Botanic Garden, then alongside Christ Church meadow to where the Cherwell – which has its source beneath the cellar of a farmhouse in Northamptonshire – finally empties into the Isis.

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Or you can voyage upstream, via shimmering willows fringing untroubled meadlands, to the place where, for at least seven centuries, a ferryman crossed to the village of Marston. The site is now marked by the Victoria Arms (a pub beloved of Inspector Morse) with wooden tables stretching picturesquely down to the water’s edge …

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Who else but the Victorians could have designated punting a competitive sport? And who nowadays is aware that Oxford boasts its greatest ever exponent? The legendary Abel Beesley (1851–1921) was undefeated in any competition for thirteen successive years before he was persuaded to retire in 1890 so as to give his rivals a chance. A blue plaque heralding him as ‘Waterman’ and ‘Invincible Punting Champion of England’ was recently unveiled at his house in Upper Fisher Row. The accompanying online encomium records that ‘he continued to demonstrate his prowess in other challenges, on one occasion beating a steam launch in a race from Medley to Godstow, and another time punting seated and using a billiard cue as pole against the competition of a regular punter’.

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Punting these days is more of a leisure activity – some might even say an art form. A good sense of balance is important, plus a firm grip of the sixteen foot pole. Not too firm, however: knowing when to let go is highly recommended if you don’t want to find yourself marooned in the mud while your vessel glides into the distance to loud cheers from riverside onlookers.

Sobriety helps – sometimes but not always. The London Magazine of 1828 recommended taking on board ‘a sufficient basket of bottled ale and porter, port, sherry, moselle, claret, brandy, and cigars’ not to mention ‘ham, tongue, veal pie and stilton-cheese’. A winsome companion trailing fingers through the gentle water, a slim volume of poetry, and some dappled sunlight, are seductive accompaniments. Or, if you prefer not to drink and drive, you may be able to hire a willing gondolier …

Daily Info publishes a useful guide to the Do’s and Dont’s, delights and dangers of punting, including the excellent advice to ‘watch out for low bridges and branches. They can come upon you very suddenly and with horrible inexorability.’

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Don’ts include: drinking the river water, diving in off the side, feeding the ducks, going down rollers with people still in the punt, and ‘assuming that anyone in any other vessel knows what on earth they are doing’.

As it says on the Cherwell Boathouse’s home page, punting is a ‘truly timeless, slightly eccentric, idyllic pleasure’ … ‘Quintessentially Oxford’ in fact.

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Daisy Dunn’s Not Far From Brideshead: Oxford between the Wars contains a dramatic punting moment (p.10) which was to foreshadow her own experience many decades later.

Punting has always been a perilous activity for novices – and occasionally for experienced pole-twizzlers, too. At the end of my first year at Oxford, our Classical Greek tutor treated us to an afternoon of sandwiches and champagne on the Cherwell. There were eleven of us altogether, spread across two punts, and all was going swimmingly until a pole got stuck just as our tutor was steering round a bend. She clung on, fell in, and we just froze in disbelief until finally one of the boys resolved to paddle to her rescue. I was reminded of this incident when I was writing about another Oxford classicist, (the future Regius Professor of Greek no less) E.R. Dodds, and the time he collided punts with the man who would become King Edward VIII, then a student at Magdalen, in 1912. Edward’s craft almost capsized, but Dodds wasn’t too troubled about that, being no royalist. Classicists could perhaps do with a firmer hand on the proverbial tiller.

Daisy Dunn punting - Cherwell Boathouse
Eleanor Blyth (middle hat) recounts this punting episode, which also features in her recent book, Swimming Through Oxford: a summer exploring the byways of Oxford’s rivers.

As a river swimmer, I have to say that punts (unlike rowing boats) are easy to swim amongst. They are nice and slow and the people in them friendly, often having a chat with me as they glide by. I have even managed to rescue the odd group who have got stuck into the bank down at Aston’s Eyot, by pushing them off again. But best of all was when I was trying to cross the river at the Cherwell Boathouse. I wanted to get to the footpath on the other side so I could walk up to the Victoria Arms and swim back to the restaurant in time for lunch. The nearest bridge being some way downstream, I asked a punter if they could give me a lift across the water. ‘But I can’t punt,’ said the lady. ‘That’s okay,’ I said, ‘I can,’ and proceeded to punt us all across the river before handing back the pole and getting out onto the far bank. Do you think that the word ‘Punt’ is linked in some way to ‘Pont’? At any rate, it made for a fine bridge that hot summer’s day. – EB

Eleanor Blyth Swimming - Cherwell Boathouse
Our webmeister, Merlin Matthews, now happily moored on the Isis, originates from a certain place in the Fens. We asked him, as an experienced boater, to pronounce on the Oxbridge punt-end debate. WARNING! His response may make uncomfortable reading:

As a teenager I spent two summer seasons as a chauffeur punter in C********. I now live on a narrowboat in Oxford and pass most of my time on (and, in the summer, in) the water. So I feel qualified to clear up this matter once and for all.

The Ox and C punt designs are quite different. Whereas the Ox punt has shallow ‘shelves’ at the bow and stern, the C punt has a deep stern deck – a platform if you will – which leaves one in no doubt which way round the damn thing should go. Depending on your allegiance, the Ox punt is either wonderfully flexible or irritatingly ambiguous.

The benefits provided by the elevated position of the C ‘platform’ are threefold: –

1) It is easier to propel and steer as you can drop the pole directly off the back of the punt as opposed to running it down the side.
2) It affords a better angle for leverage and allows for some colourful and flamboyant punting styles – ‘windmilling’ for example.
3) It provides a much better vantage point (important while navigating outside the city where there is bugger all to see until you find yourself approaching Ely cathedral).

It is, however, the matter of appearances that is truly paramount.

I can scarcely conjure a more feeble and spinelessly pigeon-hearted sight than that of a person punting from inside the craft. Do they actually believe that the shallow sides of the punt are going to save them from plunging when the pole slips? In any event, taking an unscheduled dip after fifteen glasses of Frascati is an essential component of many people’s punting experience.

My considered verdict? If you lack the plums to punt from the platform, whichever end it happens to be, hire a canoe instead. – MM

CamPunt - Cherwell Boathouse
Professor Steven Gunn of Merton College heads a major research project exploring Everyday Life and Fatal Hazard in Sixteenth-Century England. He writes:

In the course of studying more than 9,000 accidental fatalities in Tudor England we found that drowning was the biggest single cause. Some of those victims fell from boats. Propelling the boats with poles like a punt was widespread – there are examples on the Sussex Ouse, the Wye and the Wensum – but it seems to have been specially common on the Oxfordshire Thames. William Savage at Iffley in 1530, Richard Body at Mapledurham and Michael Hampton at Nuneham Courtenay in 1547, Anthony Wylder at Goring in 1554 all drowned in this way. Often their pole got stuck in the mud at the bottom and pulled them off the boat, still the classic punting mishap today. For more detail on Anthony Wylder’s accident, see the September 2012 entry at Discovery of the Month – Everyday Life and Fatal Hazard in Sixteenth-Century England ( – SG

Putting down Grig Wheels - Cherwell Boathouse
Professor Robert Evans, Chair of the Oxford Blue Plaques committee, writes:

Abel Beesley’s punting prowess was the stuff of legend; but his contribution to Oxford life went far beyond sport. He was prominent in the Oxford branch of the Humane Society, and made strenuous efforts to render the river safer. In 1886 he was appointed Chief Waterman in charge of a team stationed with life-saving equipment along the Thames from Medley to Godstow. Jackson’s Oxford Journal records the time he rescued a seven-year-old boy who was being carried away by a rapid current, and how, on another occasion, he managed to resuscitate someone who had been dragged out of the Oxford Canal. – RJWE

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Mention of punting past the nude-bathing site known as Parson’s Pleasure excited several responses. Philip Hunt writes:

I remember the social challenge of punting with a mixed crew past Parson’s Pleasure back in the 1970s. It was a well-understood rule that you disembarked any female passengers on each side of the site, which was bordered by high fencing, before punting through on the river. In this way any ladies present could walk round the back of the fence and rejoin the punt at the far side, so sparing themselves (and any naturist Dons) the potential embarrassment of viewing unwanted nudity.

However, the swinging sixties had been and gone already, and many of my female acquaintances were not bothered at all, they said, by floating directly past the site in mid-river while admiring all that the scenery had to offer.

Some of the bolder nature-lovers using Parson’s Pleasure would respond to this offence against the rules by standing up and facing the river as such mixed punts went by, perhaps wearing a Panama hat for protection from the sun.

The result of such a ‘face-off’ was a stalemate. After all, who amongst us could possibly criticize, after the freedoms of the sixties and seventies, anybody for proudly letting it all hang out in the approved manner?

At the same time, nobody really wanted to see the effects of time and a rich diet on the human body. Dons did not, on the whole, have the physique of male models. Cue excruciating embarrassment among the punt passengers – no-one knew what to say.

In the end, the knowledgeable local punter was forced to make an estimate of the prudery-level of his (and it was always a he) passengers on the approach to PP, and act accordingly.

I’m told that the site eventually closed because it was becoming an embarrassment to all. Looking back now, it seems to me to be a short-sighted decision over a minor inconvenience. After all, the sights to be seen were natural and relatively inoffensive, especially when compared to the kind of blatant exhibitionism that can be found in public sites elsewhere in the world (a beer in Munich’s English Garden anybody?) – PG