Punting has been a much loved feature of Oxford life since Victorian times, popular both with students and with visitors. For centuries, flat-bottomed boats had been used either for carrying cargo or for fishing, but it was not until the 1860s that the first ‘pleasure punts’ appeared.
Its popularity grew quickly, not least because the Cherwell – shallow, slow-moving and largely free of other river traffic – proved an ideal setting. What’s more, punting was considered especially suitable as a gentle entertainment for young ladies: the oldest of the women’s colleges, Lady Margaret Hall, still keeps its own punts on the river.
The design of the standard ‘saloon punt’, built largely from teak and mahogany with back rest and fitted cushions, has barely changed since it was first developed in the 19th century. Remarkably durable, some of the boats are now more than 100 years old. However in recent decades, some new punts have been built from fibre glass.
Today a few colleges maintain their own punts, and Wolfson College, built beside the Cherwell in the 1970s, has its own punt harbour, but most are owned by the city’s two large punt stations.
Punts have been available for hire since 1904 at the Cherwell Boathouse – now a restaurant as well as a boathouse – when it was opened by the University Waterman Thomas Tims. Another punting station was added beside Magdalen Bridge in 1911 on an old slipway once used for watering horses.
Punting is now largely confined to Cambridge, Oxford and a few other stretches of the Thames. Elsewhere punts have been driven off the river after a steep increase in the number of motor boats whose wash can make punting impossible.