In praise of punting

Our day begins by opening a book, a local-global guide to language you may have heard of: the Oxford English Dictionary.

One of the meanings of the noun “punt,” according to OED, is “a flat-bottomed shallow boat, broad and square at both ends” that is “propelled by means of a long pole thrust against the bed of a waterway, and used on inland waterways now mainly for pleasure.” A punter, says OED in a briskly alliterative burst, is “a person who propels a punt.”

Let’s go to Rainbow Bridge in University Parks, which crosses the narrow, tree-lined River Cherwell (pronounced Char-well). The Cherwell works its sluggish way through the centre of Oxford and forms a liquid edge for University Parks before joining the Thames (or Isis, as locals call it). On Rainbow Bridge it’s so quiet that the “dreaming spires” of Oxford – and the hordes of tourists they attract – seem miles away, but they’re actually quite close.

Down the river a few yards you can see a punt, punter and puntee headed toward you in a puntish kind of way – meaning ferociously slow. The punt was probably rented at one of the boathouses along the Cherwell.

The punter’s struggling a bit with the poling technique, which should go something like this: Pull the pole nearly out of the water, then let it fall straight down to the bottom of the shallow Cherwell. Once it hits bottom, push off, vigorously if the bottom is gravel, gently if it’s mud. Oh, and you’re doing all this standing up, perilously, at the back of the punt. It takes but a slip o’ the pole to go plunk in the drink.

There’s a difference in technique between Oxford and Cambridge, the other major punting centre in England. In Oxford punters tend to pole from within the boat, but in Cambridge they stand on a platform at the very back called the till, tempting the Fates of Punting to send them over the edge.

But how is this bloody thing steered? By trailing the pole behind you after push off and using it as a rudder and your hip as a pivot. Looks a little like a gondola, but the Venetian boat is propelled by an oar, not a pole. Another difference is that most punters propel themselves, as opposed to getting gondoliered.

So far this punter has stayed upright as he nears Rainbow Bridge. And both he and his friend seem to be having a blast, regardless of – or because of – his beginner’s technique.

Here’s what so historically striking: Except for clothing styles, the scene you’re witnessing could jump back a century and stay the same…the punt, the pole, the river. They’ve been pleasure-punting in Oxford since the 1870s, though originally punts were built for fishing, hunting waterfowl and hauling cargo.

Punting reached its crest of popularity in the 1910s. Can’t you just see the straw hats and white dresses? It declined when motorized river traffic increased, then came back with the increase in the English tourist trade.

Today, you find most of the pleasure-punting in England on the Cherwell and Thames in Oxford and the Cam River in Cambridge. All three rivers are suitably shallow there for punting. Try it in deeper, faster waters, and you’ll see why a pole makes a poor paddle.

Why, after more than a century of poling down the Cherwell, do the English and others continue on with this quixotic craft? Part of the answer comes from a concept defined by OED as “a long established and generally accepted practice or custom,” adding with a felicitous flourish that it also is “immemorial usage.” It is, in a word, tradition.

That’s not an easy concept for Americans to understand, let alone embrace, given the build-and-tear down-and-build-again motif of America. It’s true that Americans have actively preserved a traditional watercraft developed by Native Americans in, appropriately enough, New England: the canoe. Compared to the snub-nosed punt, the canoe seems sleek and blazingly fast. That’s one reason why canoes have become popular even in Old England.

But let us, standing on Rainbow Bridge, speak a good word for punting, a word that offers another reason why you can still punt on the Cherwell. It’s an adjective defined by OED as “taking or requiring a comparatively long time to do something,” or, to use the four-letter word referred to, “slow.” Punting is the slowest of slow, especially on the Cherwell. The glide after pushing off with your pole is as fast as you get, which isn’t very.

And why on earth would you want to go fast on the Cherwell? You’re gliding through a riverine glade. You’re snaking through the heart of an ancient city. You’re connecting, in a way, with people who punted before any world war had erupted. Slowness lets it all seep in.

Punting pairs nicely with another slow enterprise: picnicking. A meander up or down a river fairly cries out for a wicker basket, cloth napkins, crusty bread, olives, wine and (properly capitalized to reflect its origins in an English village) Cheddar cheese.

But enough talk of punting. There’s no sign yet today of Oxford’s rain, so why not punt the day away? Just remember: If your pole gets stuck in the mud, don’t hold on.