Monday, 23 September 2019

Oxford, England - Punting - The joy of messing about in boats

Ratty had it right when he said, in The Wind in the Willows, "....there is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats".

Cherwell Boat House Landing
And so it was, on a perfect, late summer's day, on my first weekend in England, that my son and his family took me to Oxford to go punting on the River Cherwell.  The Cherwell Boathouse hires out punts at 18 pounds an hour or 90 pounds for the day.  The punts, flat bottomed boats propelled by a pole pushed from the river bed, take five passengers plus a punter and seat cushions are supplied. Generations of Oxford students have spent their summer afternoons punting on the river, and why wouldn't they? Ratty was right. In fact it is an absolute joy to slowly meander up the river under trailing willows, past meadows of wildlife and flowers, spotting the occasional jumping fish and enjoying the entertainment provided by inept but happy punters struggling to control their boats.  

When Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows he did not base it on any river in particular, rather it was a generic river combining his childhood memories of living near the Thames and his time at school in Oxford.  His stories are perfectly encapsulated in the Cherwell and brought back our own memories of the book which we shared as we drifted along in the dappled afternoon sunlight.

Left: The Victoria Arms

Right: Under the expert oarsmanship of my son

A half hour punt upstream brought us to The Victoria Arms, a lovely pub on the river with a large lawn running right to the water's edge and plenty of parking for punts.  It is traditional to stop here for refreshments and so, strictly keeping to tradition you understand, so did we. Long, cool, rum flavoured beers were drunk, lemonade for the children, with entertainment provided by punters either trying to park or going around in hapless circles before getting help from adjoining boats amid a lovely atmosphere of happiness and camaraderie.

All fun and games at the Victoria Arms punt park

A gentle punt back to the boat house, a picnic by the river and then we set off to explore Oxford. My son attended university there for a number of years so took us to revisit his college.  I never cease to be amazed at the beauty and the history of this lovely town. I had stayed at the college on a couple of occasions so it was good to see it again. The vast, peaceful and elegant gardens were a stark contrast to the busy, tourist packed streets outside. 
The Canterbury Quad, dating from 1631, St John's College, Oxford with the rear arch leading to the garden

Nearly all of the 39 colleges in Oxford have beautiful, gardens but this is a part of Oxford most tourists never get to see. Only feet from the busy streets the creamy ancient stone of the college buildings, with their colorfully planted window boxes, make the perfect backdrop for climbing roses and green foliage whilst the "mustn't walk on" striped lawns add an air of formality. They are serene and lovely places for students to study and think.  I count myself very lucky to have spent time there.
The serene and lovely garden at St John's College
I would encourage anybody going to Oxford to hire a punt and spend an afternoon on the river doing something so quintessentially Oxford.  This is the genuine experience and one that most of the bus loads of tourists thronging Oxford never get to do. Indeed "...there is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing...."

Note: Cherwell Boat House is an easy walk from the centre of Oxford.