Messing about in boats
A punt is a boat designed to take goods such as cabbages and chickens to market, pushed with long poles along the shallow bottoms. In the Oxford area, one punts from the end that is not built up, standing on the boards that line the bottom of the boat (which one can lift to bail out), a position that is both more secure and several inches closer to the bottom than the built-up end, where a Cambridge punter stands. Cambridge, you see, has improved its rivers and has tidy gravelled bottoms (the river, not the citizens) unlike the natural surroundings and occasionally mucky bottom of the Isis (the Thames where it passes through Oxford) or the Cherwell (pronounced Charwell, called a river but in fact a large stream.)
Techniques vary, but the idea is to let the pole slide freely through the hand until it plants itself in the river bottom directly below one’s feet, after which the standing punter angles the pole and leans down hard. Equal and opposite reaction being as it is, the boat then movesforward, and when the punter reaches the end of the pole, she or he snaps this weighty length of wood or metal back into the air, seizing it the moment its bottom clears the water, and allows it to drop again.
Theory is tidy. The truth is, most people end up soaked from the wrist to the waist, with the nearby passengers splattered. Poles are dropped (occasionally onto the heads of the passengers) and poles stick in the bottom. When this happens, the rule is, let go, although any Sunday will find one or two rubes clinging to the pole as the punt briskly shoots away, leaving the punter to slide slowly down into the water like a reluctant fireman. This is why punts are also equipped with paddles.
When we went out Sunday, the river was moving so fast it actually pulled a stuck pole under, and we ended up with one of our party jumping in to find it beneath the muddy water and retrieve it. He then swam back to the boathouse, cold and muddy but quite sober.
And in case you’re wondering, no, this time I did not punt. That’s what vigorous young step-sons and step-grandsons are for.