Punters rowing down the CamRuying Yang for Varsity

Avoided by many Cambridge students, detested by some historians, but doted on by tourists, punters have always had a particular reputation in Cambridge.

When most Cambridge students dashed home for the Easter vacation, the quietness of the city meant the hawking of the punters at Quayside felt all the more loud. I stopped en route to Mainsbury’s to talk to the smiling punt boys by Magdalene Bridge.

Ben Knights, a gap year student who grew up in Cambridge, has only been a punter for a year. When I asked him what it has been like so far, the ‘newbie’ punter surprised me when he said it’s “the best job ever”. He admits that it’s “hard work” on the grim and grey winter days, but no job compares to being a punter in the sunny summer.

That said, the enthusiasm seemed to die down for those who have spent longer punting down the River Cam. “Draining and repetition” is how Ben’s colleague (who wished to remain anonymous) described the job to me, laughing. He’d been a punter for seven years, and while we didn’t get to cover his whole punting career in our short conversation, he told me “falling in was definitely one of the worst [experiences]”. Looking at the uncannily lurid green river beside us, I immediately understood why.

“Hen parties are probably on par with falling into the murky River Cam”

The punter added that Hen parties are probably on par with falling into the murky River Cam. Generous and ecstatic, though at times over zealous, brides and bridesmaids received quite a mixed review from punters. “Hen parties could be quite fun, but only if you’re in the right mood,” Ben says.

Other punters weren’t keen to take hen parties out on the river, and being asked by the party-goers to take their tops off is not uncommon. Worse still, some punters revealed that they have had their legs stroked and have been asked to take their pants off. Punting is ultimately a tipping industry, so punters are often stuck between a punt and a hard place, as they try to navigate the delicate balance between securing themselves, their jobs, and the tip. Despite some unpleasant experiences punters have had, many punting companies still advertise for ‘Hen Night Punting’ because of their popularity.

But hen nights aren’t the only source of peculiar stories for punters. “I’ve gotten a couple of breakups on my punt,” Ben said awkwardly. He recalled an occasion where a couple was arguing over finances before the eventual breakup on a shared tour, which costs around £50 for two people during peak season. Ben adds, “it’s always a bit of a laugh when tourists insist on punting themselves,” which often results in a horizontal punt or them falling into the water.

“Tourists expect punters to both entertain and inform”

With each wall in Cambridge steeped in history, it is unsurprising that tourists expect punters to both entertain and inform. The night climbers at the spires of King’s Chapel and the rooftop of Senate House of the last century are among the most popular historical stories, said the punters.

Zac Cordner, a punter famous on the Chinese social media platform Little Red Book (‘Xiaohongshu’), has a more strategic approach to his storytelling. Even outside of Chinese New Year, “Chinese tourists make up 60-70% of our customers”. With his Chinese fans, Zac never misses pointing out that on the bridge behind King’s College there is a stone etched with the plaintive work of Chinese poet Xu Zhimo, where he bid his farewell to Cambridge in 1928.

It might surprise Cambridge students to learn that punters’ training is largely classroom-based learning. After two weeks of history lectures, they are required to take a written test before they qualify.


Mountain View

Scudamore’s Punter: ‘Always let go of the pole!’

However, this training doesn’t stop some pseudo-historical tales and urban legends flowing around on the tours. For example, some point out that the triangular structure is alleged to be a swan trap to bring living swans to St John’s kitchen. Others mention the anti-gravitational claim that the President’s Lodge of Queens’ College is built from its top downwards. “There’s a bunch of rubbish,” Ben sighed, “but they are more serious about it nowadays”.

Whether you think of them as historians, entertainers or artistes, the punters’ job is one-of-a-kind and manifold. It can be great fun, but with punters having to deal with nasty breakups, frenetic bridesmaids, and at times arrogant tourists, I think it’s safe to say it isn’t always plain sailing.