Cambridge is an old city – over 800 years old. As such it has plenty of ancient and peculiar traditions found in few other places. Many of these are based upon the University or its various Colleges. But there is one tradition supported by us at the Varsity Hotel Cambridge that is universal, iconic and popular: punting.
Humans have settled on the coast or rivers since humans began settling down. It’s not particularly surprising. Rivers and lakes provide a source of clean water for drinking, irrigation and sanitation. That’s on top of the direct food supply from fish and shellfish and the transport options also provided by the sea.
This is why and how Cambridge was founded in the first place. The river Cam is short and pretty minor as rivers go. But it still represents an ideal way to deliver men and goods in bulk into the heart of East Anglia. And when the river becomes too shallow for sea-going vessels to continue, that’s the perfect place to build a big, permanent bridge. And in turn, the perfect place to found a settlement. So Cam Bridge was founded, and the rest is history.
That original bridge has been rebuilt many times over the centuries, but is now called Magdalene Bridge. That places the Varsity Hotel just downstream of the bridge, right where there used to be docks and warehouses to store goods. In fact our Glassworks Spa & Gym is so named because the building housing it and the River Bar used to be a glassworks. Which was able to directly ship its produce out to the wider world.
However, many a city has repurposed old docks. And in far greater size and scope than Cambridge. But Cambridge boasts a pair of watery traditions which are (almost) unique: Punting and the Bumps.
Strangely enough, both are made possible and/or practical by the narrow, shallow nature of the Cam. The Bumps is a solution to the impossibility of rowing regatta-style races on the Cam. The river simply isn’t wide enough. Instead the Bumps sees a division of 17 boats line up 1 ½ boat’s lengths apart and then try to hit (bump) the boat in front before being hit by the boat behind. Which is certainly a…different form of racing.
However, the semi-controlled madness that is Bumps only happens a couple of times a year, and downstream of the bridge, making it easy to miss. Plus it hasn’t happened at all for a couple of years now. But punting is ubiquitous in Cambridge. At any given moment there are dozens of punts roaming the river in the centre of town. And a similar number of touts roaming the streets offering punt tours.
At the Varsity Hotel we tend to feel that those punt tours are well worth it. Propelling a flat, heavy piece of wood down a river using only a pole is a lot harder than it looks. And by putting all your effort and attention into simply not crashing, you miss out on the beauty there is to be seen. And tracing a course through the centre of town, through the middle of many old Colleges, there is a lot to be seen.
Best of all, September is an ideal time to go punting: after the chaotic rush of the summer; before the even more chaotic arrival of the students; and just as the leaves are starting to turn. And the punt station is just around the corner from the Varsity Hotel.