Take a punt on Cambridge
There’s no better vantage point to see the Cambridge’s famous colleges, bridges and sights than from the river, and in this city, that means by punt. Reporter Stuart Anderson took one of the iconic vessels for a leisurely outing along the Cam.
“Everything will be just fine - as long as you don’t fall in” - my partner assures me as we push off from the bank and into that quintessential Cambridge experience that is punting.
Hefting the pole in and out of the Cam’s depths came surprisingly easy, and before long we were gliding under the university city’s famous bridges and past college courtyards.
Many visitors take a guided tour where you will get a student chauffeuring you up and down the river whist pointing out some of the highlights.
But you can also rent a punt of your own - if you are brave enough to stand at the back of the punt - known as the deck - and trust your sense of balance.
Punting first came to Cambridge around the start of the 20th century and today the Cam is home to more punts than any other river in England.
Older punts are lined with a metal strip at the back and come with a spruce pole while newer ones have a rubber strip and usually come with an aluminium one. The metal poles are lighter and easier for beginners, while the wooden ones are said to be kinder on your hands.
We started at the Magdalene Street Bridge, north of most of the colleges, and made our way south under the Bridge of Sighs’ covered archway and bast the grand hall of King’s College Chapel.
Then it was on past the Backs - college lawns - meadows where cows graze and finally under the timber Mathematical Bridge to a turning point at the Mill Pool weir.
The river can get quite crowded with fellow punters and exchanging a few words with passing parties is all part of the fun.
When you are passing under some of the wider bridges you may find there is not enough room to lift the pole out of the water without hitting the underside of the bridge - in these cases, the paddle each punt is provided with may get you out of a fix, and ensure you don’t have an excessively wet conclusion to your jaunt down the Cam.
Other Cambridge highlights
Cambridge University has 31 colleges so you might as well visit one. I chose Magdalene, and saw the formal hall that’s lit by candles for dinner each night in a scene that must be straight out of Hogwarts. The college’s second courtyard includes the Pepys Library - home to more than 3,000 volumes collected by the famed diarist and Magdalene alumnus Samuel Pepys. The library has a wonderfully musty smell which you can drink in while perusing the medieval manuscripts, illustrations of the Mary Rose and Pepys’ ‘secret’ diaries written in shorthand.
Take a trip to the ends of the Earth at the Polar Museum, part of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute. It’s dedicated to the likes of Scott, Amundsen and others who pushed themselves to the limit in the world’s harshest environments. There’s a fascinating collection of items brought back after Scott’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole, including sextants, cigars, and even a tin of Norwich’s own Coleman’s Mustard.
Beat the bustle and go for a stroll along the River Cam to Granchester, about two miles from the city centre. If the weather’s friendly you’ll pass picnicking families on Grantchester Meadows and wind up at the Orchid Tea Garden, where Virginia Woolf, Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell were known to pop in for a brew. They also do a mean Sunday roast, which you can devour under the fruit trees. The village itself feels frozen in a bygone era and cosy whodunit fans will recognise its church from the BBC’s eponymous series.
Patrons at the Eagle Cambridge’s most famous watering hole unexpectedly became part of history when Francis Crick burst through the door in 1953 claiming he’d “discovered the secret of life”. Crick and fellow scientist James Watson had actually unravelled the double helix structure of DNA, and they went on to hammer out their ideas over lunches at the pub. That and countless other intriguing scenes have played out over the years in the Eagle’s nooks and snugs, and you can even order a pint of DNA ale at the RAF bar - an airmen’s retreat in the Second World War.
Nothing says Cambridge more than scoffing a smoked salmon salad in the bowels of a 13th century church. The Michaelhouse Centre is one of the city’s more atmospheric eateries and its walls double as a community art gallery. It is also still an operating church, St Michael’s, which is said to be as old as the city itself. Food is simple and hearty and the service is excellent - it’s the kind of place you suspect is so well run you could eat off the kitchen floor. Visit between 3pm and 5pm and you’ll get a hot meal from the counter for half price.
I stayed in Cambridge courtesy of the city’s Holiday inn in Bridge Road, CB24 9PH. This three-star offering was excellent, boasting what I was assured were some of the biggest hotel rooms in the city. Staff are full of smiles and go out of their way to help. Facilities include a gym, indoor pool, sauna and steam room - the perfect place to unwind after a busy day sightseeing.
Dinner at the in-house Junction Restaurant is likewise superb - I went for a prawn and chorizo starter followed by a magnificent chicken curry, all washed down with an Australian red.
Visit www.ihg.com/holidayinn to find out more, call 400 886 2255 for hotel reservations or the front desk on 08719 429015.
I went punting courtesy of Scudmore’s, which has been in operation since 1910. They have self-hire boats which you can take out by the hour or for a whole day if you want, and they also run shared punting tours and even bat-spotting ventures up the Cam at dusk. Visit www.scudamores.com or call 01223 359750 for more.