What Does Punting Mean?

Confusingly, the word ‘punt’ has a few distinct and non-related meanings. It can mean to kick a ball, place a bet on a sporting event, and also refer to the term used for the national currency in Ireland before the euro was introduced. Fortunately, however, when in Cambridge, it would be safe to assume that the word punt will almost certainly be used in reference Cambridge’’s number one activity, punting!

Various definitions of the word punt

The Cambridge dictionary – much more reputable than the Oxford dictionary – defines punt as ‘a long, narrow boat with a flat bottom and square ends, moved by a person standing at one end and pushing on the bottom of a river with a pole’.

The act of punting – another term you will no doubt hear whilst walking along the river – involves pushing a flat-bottom boat along a river with a metal (traditionally wooden) pole. The person pushing the boat is known as the ‘punter’, while the boat itself is called a punt.

Where does the word punting come from?

The word punt comes from Latin – pontonem, which refers to a boat with a flat bottom. The latin term can also be found in German and Dutch from around the 16th century.

What is a punt?

If punting means to ‘push a punt’, then what is the punt? Punts in Cambridge are long flat–bottomed boats, originally used throughout the middle ages as transport throughout the marshlands of the East Anglian Fens. 

Punts were the boats of choice to maneuver around The Fens as their flat bottom’s allowed the boat to float effortlessly on very shallow water, whereas a regular boat with a hull would need a minimum depth to avoid being caught on the river bed below.

Another advantage of the punt is its ability to maneuver between obstacles such as trees and rocks by pushing the pole at sharp angles to quickly move the punt from one direction to another, a technique mastered by most professional punters during the busy summer days on the River Cam. 

The silence and quick maneuverability of punts made them excellent boats for hunting. Traditionally used for hunting water birds such as ducks and geese, one person would push from the back, whilst the shooter would rest their shotgun on the front deck to take aim.

Row of self hire punts on river
Self Hire Punts

How did punts arrive in Cambridge?

Punts have been used within the flat shallow marshlands of the Fens for hundreds of years. In fact, punt-like boats can be found all over the world – most famously in Guilin China. 

Punts first arrived on the river cam just over 100 years ago. The idea of a University student to punt along the Cambridge Backs as a leisure activity. The activity has grown immensely in popularity over the last 30 years and is now a must do activity for anyone visiting Cambridge. 

During this time, punts found along the River Cam have gradually evolved from long narrow boats with capacity for one or two people, to wide ferry boats, designed to comfortably seat 12 passengers as it meanders along the river cam.

Cambridge Vs Oxford Punting

Punting also occurs in the lesser known, less scenic university known as Oxford. However, like many things, there is some level of dispute between Cambridge & Oxford as to the correct way to push a punt.

After arriving in Cambridge, the front deck, traditionally used for resting a shotgun, was placed on the back and used as a platform for the punter to stand on. Oxford locals, perhaps embarrassed that they never discovered the correct way to punt, still push the boat as if there is an invisible hunter aiming from the front. Whilst on the river, if you ever see a punt being pushed backwards, it would be safe to take a punt (bet) that they’re an Oxford local.

Want to give punting a go?

We offer shared and private punting tours throughout the year, 7 days a week. Tours can be booked online at a discounted rate or purchased on the day by visiting us at our station on Quayside.

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