The punt first appeared on the River Thames in London in the 1800s and was designed to assist fishermen getting their catch ashore. It was later between 1860 and 1880 that the punts started to become popular as leisure craft on the Thames and later still they became leisure craft throughout the UK. The punt’s history, however, was a fairly short one, especially as a working craft. It was long before the punt, as a cargo carrying vessel became redundant but as a leisure craft it lasted longer and is still being used today for that purpose in places like Oxford, Stratford, Canterbury but nowhere more so than Cambridge.
Today, Cambridge punting has become a tourist attraction for many and also a relaxing escape for many of the University students in the world famous University City. Although it is possible to rent a punt and pole yourself slowly down the shallow River Cam, many tourists opt to hire a punt for a guided tour. On a guided tour, the punter is the guide, giving descriptions of the history of many of the buildings on the river banks and often, those guides may be university students earning some extra cash for their exams.
Although the uninitiated may consider the punt to be the same as the famous gondolas of Venice, their only similarities are that they are both powered by someone with a pole, in the case of the punts at Cambridge, a 16’ pole. The punt differs from the gondola as it is oblong in shape having square corners whereas the gondola is oval with pointed ends. The punt also has a flat bottom which is what allowed it to get close to the river banks shallower waters to discharge fish and other freight from the larger vessels.
Although today punting in Cambridge may not be as world famous as gondolas in Venice, it is still well-known in Britain at least and does also attract a number of foreign tourists to the city. It is certainly enjoyed at least by those tourists that come to the city to visit or perhaps even study at one of the world famous universities. Just as the visitors to Venice experience the pleasures of a slow float down a quiet waterway, so do visitors to Cambridge enjoy the same.