Messing about in Boats (3rd Week, TT)

Punting is not as easy as it looks. As in rowing, you soon learn how to get along and handle the craft, but it takes long practice before you can do this with dignity and without getting the water all up your sleeve.

— Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (1889)
Oxford’s own Dorothy Sayers claims in Gaudy Night that it is more fun to punt than to be punted. I am loathe to contradict Lord Peter’s estimable creatrix, but fresh from my first experience on the river, I fear my preference lies decidedly on the side of being the punted. Who wouldn’t want to lounge semi-horizontally in the sunshine an inch or two above the water line, nibbling on strawberries and feeding the ducks, while someone else huff and puffs with the heavy pole behind you, fighting the mud and current to propel your craft in a rather zig-zagged line down the river?

A day on the river can be a pricey proposition—fortunately, many of the Oxford colleges make arrangements  for their students to have access to the hired punts during Trinity Term for a minimal subscription fee. So, with an unwarranted confidence in the BBC weather forecast promising an afternoon of sunshine, despite a morning of thick cloud cover, I arranged to meet two fellow medievalists at Magdalen Bridge to enjoy the afternoon in true Oxford style.

Mother & duckling

The first half-hour or so was relatively uneventful, the more so as I was pleading inexperience and enjoying the view as a passenger while others did the work. The clouds parted to reveal large patches of blue and shafts of sunlight as we drifted slowly through the curves of the Cherwell going past the University Botanical Gardens and Christ Church Meadow, enjoying the occasional collision with boats of tourists and the precocious cuteness of the ducklings.

When we eventually came up to where the Cherwell meets the Isis, however, instead of observing the swiftly-flowing current and sensibly turning back to quieter waters, we hesitated a moment too long, and (as in the proverb) were lost.

When punting and paddling proved unable to even keep us stationary against the onslaught, we attempted to claw our way back to safety along the river bank,  literally hauling ourselves back upriver by the bushes and branches. On our first try, we made it nearly back to the fork before the current caught us and sent us right back downstream again. Short of allowing ourselves to be carried off to Iffley, however, there was no other option, so we doggedly repeated the attempt. (In a particularly fine moment, I threw myself forward in a great leap across the till to make a desperate grab at some reeds, narrowly escaping seizing heartily upon a stand of nettles.)

We did, in the end, reach the safety of the Cherwell once more, making our way back upriver very slowly and with aching arms. I myself gave the punting a go and did eventually manage to make it go in a mostly forward direction, although we did still resort to some very ungraceful clawing along the bank to make headway against the breeze.

We handed the punt back at the boathouse with gratitude and relief, but as all’s well that end’s well, I find I’m quite looking forward to my next outing on the river. If only things like dissertation research weren’t getting in the way.


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