Punting from Cambridge to Ely

Every now and then it’s fun to do something utterly ridiculous just for the sake of it.

In was in this spirit that myself and three friends (Rufus Evison, David Sinclair and Katherine Webster) set out to punt from Cambridge to Ely.

As anyone who has ever visited Cambridge will know, a punt is a boat which is propelled by pushing against the bottom of the river with a long pole. It’s a prodigiously slow means of transport but ideal for gracefully navigating the few hundred yards of beautiful scenery along the central Cambridge colleges (the backs). The very ambitious can punt to Grantchester (a place within Cambridge) which can be done there and back fairly easily in an afternoon.

Ely, however, is a completely different city, in a different part of Cambridgeshire and travelling there is a moderately serious trip by motorcar. The idea of travelling there by punt was so insane that it had to be done.

The idea was Rufus Evison’s. It was one of his entries on 43things.com – a social website where you list things you want to do before you die. He’d heard it was last done in 1907, thought it ought to be done 100 years later and as he was about to leave Cambridge for London after many years living here, the window of opportunity was short.

David Sinclair owned a punt (and importantly a trailer to avoid having to make the return trip by river) so one Saturday morning we loaded his punt up high with expensive picnic food, champagne and beer and set off, determined to make it to Ely by the end of the weekend.

We set off from the Green Dragon pub in Chesterton – well within Cambridge but saving us having to navigate one fewer locks.

In essence the trip was in three sections: the "boatie" bit of the river familiar to every undergraduate who has rowed for their college, arriving eventually at Baits Bite Lock (the point where the boaties turn around). After that there’s another long stretch of the river to Bottisham lock and after that there is miles upon miles upon miles (hours upon hours upon hours) of flat Fenland at which point Ely Cathedral is just in view followed by hours upon hours upon hours more where it grows ever so slightly bigger.

However, we made it; very late on Saturday night having travelled non stop, but we got there.

The trip was notable for the weather. We managed to pick the most spectacular summer day of the year for it. It was also great for the banter between us and the surprised occupants of every leisure boat that motored past us. Some way out of Cambridge we tried the line "can you tell us which one is King’s College Chapel?" which reliably got a laugh as it was just conceivable that we were a group of tourists who had got spectacularly lost. However, once many hours had gone by and Cambridge became a dot on the horizon this possibility became so extreme that the joke no longer worked. Towards the end of the trip we were meeting leisure boats that had never been to Cambridge.

So how practical is the trip? I was surprised that we were able to make it. I had imagined that the river would be too deep in places but this turned out not to be the case. We took a six foot punt extension with us but didn’t use it once. Having said that some parts of the river bottom (particularly nearer Ely) were particularly unsuitable (soft) and we were forced to punt very close to the reeds at one side in order to get decent traction. We were also lucky to have two really excellent punters (Rufus and David) in the boat who did more than their fair share of the work.

Could it also be the case that we were the first to do it in a hundred years? Quite possibly. The trip was sufficiently insane that few in their right mind would choose to do it. However, it wasn’t so insane (like climbing Everest) that people would want to do it for the challenge and prestige. The trip also required a trailer as having got there I can’t imagine anyone turning round and punting back again upstream.

Another highlight for me was that it opened my eyes to the whole English waterway scene. The UK has hundreds of miles of interlinked rivers which are navigatable by boat, and there’s an entire leisure sub-culture of which I was previously unaware, involving navigating down them, going through locks and stopping off at riverside pubs. On days when the weather was this good I can truly understand the appeal.

Photos from the trip are here

2 Comments

  1. Michele Coles

    May 31, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    Hi don’t want to dissapoint you but we did this in an antique punt maintained by scudamores in 1990. We packed the punt with camping kit and set out to punt from cambridge to Ely , we took it slow but did it there and back in 3 or 4 days camping on the river bank.
    Somewhere we have the pictures to prove it.
    Michele and Nigel Coles

  2. Hi Michele – not disappointed at all! Thanks for the update.

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