Nothing says Cambridge like messing about in a punt, and Scudamore's have helped people do just that, writes Siobhan Godwood
Ask most people what they think of when they hear the word ‘Cambridge’, and the chances are they’re envisaging a wooden punt drifting along a picturesque river on a sunny day, past ancient and historic college buildings, with a handsome young man at the helm, possibly wearing a boater… It’s a classic vision, and one that sums up our city more than any other. So it’s not really an enormous surprise to discover that the history of punting as a leisure activity is one that has its very roots in Cambridge, and more precisely in Scudamore’s, probably our city’s most famous punting company.
In 1903, Jack Scudamore, a trained boatbuilder, started building and hiring out rowing boats and motor boats from his Mill Lane boatyard. Punts were already well established in the area as vessels used for trade and commerce. “They were used throughout the Fens for reed cutting, carrying goods and hunting wildfowl,” explains Andrew Kenny, operations manager at Scudamore’s. “Because the Fens are very shallow and very boggy, a punt, with its distinctive flat-bottomed shape, was developed as the perfect vessel. The boatmen used exactly the same method of navigating the boats – from a platform at either end, pushing along with a long pole – that’s used on the Cam to this day, as it’s the ideal way of moving through thick reeds where it’s not always possible to use oars.”
As it turned out, the shape of a punt also lent itself to a more laid-back, leisurely approach to life on the water, and in the early 1920s, pleasure punting began to establish itself as a trend on the River Thames. In Cambridge, Jack Scudamore was quick to spot the opportunity. He switched his attention to punts, hiring them out as a unique way for city residents and tourists alike to navigate the part of the river Cam that goes through the historic colleges: and the city has never looked back. By the late 1920s, pleasure punting had overtaken all other boating activities in Cambridge, and it remains a really popular leisure activity to this day. “We have a great photograph of Scudamore’s that dates back to the 1920s,” says Andrew. “In the background is Mill Pond, where we are based to this day, and you can clearly see canoes, rowboats and punts.”
"You can have your hen party on a punt, or even propose on a punt"
Until recently the focus of the company was mainly self punting. The chauffeured tours, where you have a guide doing the punting and talking about the history of the city and the university, only began as recently as the 90s.
“It’s by far the most popular part of the business now,” says Andrew, “although we do still get people who want to do it themselves, which is great. However, it’s not as easy as it looks, and you have to be prepared to risk getting wet, and not looking completely at ease! People aren’t used to walking on the back of a boat, and the ground is literally shifting under your feet. You also need to remember that just because you’ve stopped moving doesn’t mean the punt will – once it’s got going, it takes some doing to stop it. People often think that punting is all about power, and it’s not: it’s about control and being able to think ahead. When you see someone who’s really good at punting, it looks like it takes absolutely no effort at all.”
Sucadmore’s is well known for its tour guides, who are all thoroughly trained to be able to give an in-depth history of the city and the colleges when required. “Customer expectations have changed over the last few years, and we’ve really beefed up our training in response to that. People come to Cambridge because of its incredible history, and there’s a huge range of things to do here, from visits to the Botanic Garden to a tour of King’s College Chapel. If people have a limited time and a limited budget, we want them to feel that a tour with Scudamore’s is not only going to be a really fun, relaxing way to spend that time, but also a unique way to view the city and the colleges and to find out more about their history.”
And if you’re less about history and more about, well, drinking, then there are punt tours to suit you too, with cocktail, champagne and Pimm’s punting all available: plus you can have your hen party on a punt, or even propose on a punt.
There’s no denying that a trip along the Cam gets you up close and personal with parts of the city that you would never otherwise see. “There’s a view of the Mathematical Bridge from the Silver Street bridge that’s one of the most beautiful in Cambridge,” says Andrew, “and there’s no other way to see it than from a punt.” And of course, the Scudamore’s boatyard is perfectly placed as the starting point for a punt in the other direction, towards picturesque Grantchester, now more popular than ever thanks to the ITV detective series. We can’t promise that you’ll catch a glimpse of James Norton in the river with his shirt off, but it’s certainly worth a punt…
Scudamore’s, Mill Lane Punting Station, Mill Lane, Cambridge, 01223 359750