Virtual Punt Tour

Punting, without the price-tag: KATIE MAIR leads you down The Backs on a virtual tour of Cambridge’s historic waterway.

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We begin our tour at the dock by Magdalene Bridge, home to a fleet of Scudamore punts and a new Prezzo. Although it was only built in 1823, the bridge is a monument to the oldest crossing point on The Cam. Fun fact.

As we wind our way down the river, keep an eye out for the unique architecture of St John’s Cripps Building on your right hand side. Although dismissed by many as supremely ugly, the accommodation is a prime example of the humane modernist movement answering the call for quotidian provision while still honouring the college’s historical heritage during the 1960s. The building was Grade II listed in 2009, despite the optical offence caused to the general public over the last 40 years.

Breathe easy, expectant passengers! We’ve reached the Bridge of Sighs. Rumours sniff around this bridge like a pack of Bassett Hounds with especially intense hay-fever. Queen Victoria is said to have loved it more than any other spot in the city.

“Why ‘sighs’?” you my ponder. Let me tell you. It forms part of the route from student accommodation to the site of their examinations, and they sigh as they walk.

“Because they are doomed and gloomy?” Possibly. But, like all good punt guides, I will err on the side of ambiguity without making any commitment to fact.

We continue through John’s extensive and expensive grounds: the second richest college in Oxbridge sure has a lot of them. There are geese, and ducks. If there are mute swans, and you are a fellow, then why not reach overboard and grab some munch? You are the only people beyond the royal family to have the privilege of eating these majestic birds, so dig in.

Here is an amusing story about the intelligent-idiotic paradox, vis-a-vis John’s. This is apt at this juncture in the tour, because that is where we are. At John’s. Stay with me.

I once knew a boy (by ‘knew’ I naturally mean ‘didn’t know at all’) whose heating got stuck at a very high temperature during his first year at St John’s. He was a meek little fresher, and was too afraid to tell anyone, and he couldn’t open his windows, no matter how hard he tried. He suffered from sweating, for it was awfully hot. Eventually, maintenance came. The first thing the radiator man did was open the windows. They open inwards, at John’s, and the boy who got a first from Cambridge had failed to deduce this for one full year. Food for thought.

But, I digress. Take a look to your left, and behold the Jerwood Library. Tit Hall’s modern gem was opened in 1999. It has five floors, it is air-conditioned, and it is home to many, many books. Steven Hawking, massive lad and highly esteemed science man, is one of Tit Hall’s most famous alumni.

Apparently his grades were a bit dodgy in his first couple of years because he spent most of his time reading science fiction instead of doing actual science work. If J-wood was open in his day, he probably would have spent quite a lot of time in there.

Stop imagining naked punting Rachael Weisz (another notable Trinity Hall alumnus) and look to Clare Bridge. We are getting to a really, really nice bit of the river now. Focus.

Clare Bridge is the oldest one; it survived the civil war because Cromwell needed to use it to access his garrison in the College. It has 14 famous balls on it, and a nice rumour to go with them.

One ball is missing a section. It might be because the builder of the bridge refused to finish it off because he wasn’t paid in full. It might also be because a wedge of the sphere got loose and fell into the river. No one knows for sure, and it remains one of Clare’s most curious mysteries.

Look to your left and regard one of the most iconic sights in Cambridge. Isn’t it just absurdly good-looking? This inspiring view of King’s Chapel and the large lawn leading up to the river helped Roger Waters to write the Pink Floyd song ‘Brain Damage’.

Moreover, the Chapel is the site of one of the most benignly humorous hoaxes in building-banter history: some young prankster put a traffic cone atop one of the spires, waited until the college set up scaffolding to get it removed, and immediately transferred the offending item to the other side of the roof.

Back to the river now. The Mathematical Bridge is upon us. Cambridge dads can often be heard poisoning their children’s ears with tales of the nutless and boltless bridge, designed by Isaac Newton, taken apart by students who were unable to put it back together again, resulting in a fudge- job using bolts. It’s a lie, though, ‘cos it was built 22 years after Newton died. It’s mainly really cool maths that holds it up- tangents, arcs. You know.

Are you thirsty? We have reached The Anchor, popular public house and old haunt of Syd Barrett, founding member of Pink Floyd. Those guys sure loved The Cam. It is here that our tour must come to an end.

Continue in the same direction, and you will eventually reach the beautiful meadows of Granchester; perform a highly complex U-turn procedure, head back under Magdalene Bridge, and you will encounter an alarming weir arrangement at Jesus Green. Negotiate that, and I’ll eat my boater.

Photographs by Katie Kibbler