Punting became a fun leisure activity on the River Thames in London, but many tourists enjoy Punting in Cambridge because it gives them a chance to see the colleges at Cambridge and Oxford in style while being chauffeured by tour groups or students looking to earn some money outside class. Here is our list of the best places in England to go punting if you can’t get enough of the quintessential English pastime.

Cambridge

Punting in Cambridge is unanimously the number one hotspot that most people think of as it offers a visit to the world-famous Cambridge University that narrates the historic civilization. The River Cam glides through the city of Cambridge and passes the “Backs,” which is a mile-long stretch through the rear side of some of the prestigious colleges of the University that exhibit architectural excellence. Many famous personalities and Oscar award winners have studied in the various colleges of Cambridge University. Stephen Hawking studied in the Trinity College that can be seen while gliding through the serene river. Tourists can also row past St. Johns College, attended by William Wordsworth. 

Many chauffeurs are students who share stories and historical facts about Cambridge that are fun to hear while rowing through the weeping willows over the river in the most tranquil setting.

The greatest privilege of punting in Cambridge is that you can witness the Cambridge Bridges that are exhibits of architectural mastery. Each of the bridges is unique in its construction, and they serve a vital role in the city’s popularity. Punting offers a close view of the Bridge of Sighs, which offers pedestal access only to the students of St Johns College. While gliding through the river, you can see every minute detail of the bridge and get fascinated by its mysteries.

The Backs have heavy traffic during the summers. But it is still a jovial place to hang out. Punting in Cambridge during the springs offers an eye-catching aesthetic with the daffodil and cherry blossoms that line up the river. In winter, it is an adventurous trip with the blankets on and never forgets to click the pictures of the silent and snow-filled river, which is a boon for the photographers.

Oxford

Tourists can go punting on the River Cherwell which flows through the city of Oxford. It passes through Oxford University’s many historically famous colleges such as St. Hilda’s College, where Theresa May attended. If you are a fan of Oscar Wilde, you might enjoy rowing past Magdalen College which is where he studied. The beautiful Oxford Botanical Gardens can also be seen from the river, and people can spot the perfect spots to have a picnic. Towards the west of Oxford, there is more incredible scenery and many local pubs that tourists can visit after their punting tour.

Stratford-Upon-Avon

If you enjoy watching swans and want some ducks paddling next to your punt, the River Avon is one of the most picturesque waterways, and you can spot the Royal Shakespeare Theatre along the riverbank. Tourists can also see the Holy Trinity Church where William Shakespeare was baptized and then later buried after his death. Punting on River Avon is the best way to experience Warwickshire, which was where Shakespeare lived, and you might feel a lot of literary inspiration in the air from all the breathtaking scenery.

Canterbury

A punting tour on The Great Stout River takes you through the historical city centre of Canterbury. You will get to see a lot of medieval churches and secret gardens. Tourists can also float along with the Blackfriars Dominican Priory which dates back to 1237. There is plenty of wildlife to complement the rural scenery, and the most daring people can go on a haunted punting tour to learn about all the scary and exciting ghost stories at night.

East London

Unlike punting in Cambridge and Oxford which has a historic story to narrate, punting in East London is a recent phenomenon. Dated back to 2019, punting in East London was introduced to enjoy the sights of London through a glide in the waters.

If you long for a thrilling and unique waterway excursion through England, punt along Regent Canal in East London for an adventurous experience. You can punt in rental boats between Mile End Lock and Old Ford Lock. The sights and sounds experienced are more of urban grits than the countryside. The river banks are live with activities. Runners, walkers and cyclists escape from the bustling streets to the tranquil riverside to rejuvenate their souls and acquire a healthy build. 

Graffiti took over the positions of grass and trees. But punting through Regent’s canal is still entertaining for its numerous garden pubs. To make the punting trip more entertaining, we can collaborate it with a trip to the cultural melting pot of Brick Lane and the hangout destination of Jack the Ripper, the Spitalfields.

Magdalene Bridge Cambridge

Compared to other River Cam bridges, Magdalene Bridge in Cambridge isn’t a popular bridge. But, the bridge plays a vital role in the history of Cambridge city. The explicit architecture hidden underneath the eminent bridge is worth a watch.

This majestic bridge adjacent to the Magdalene College Cambridge is the only River Cam bridge potential to carry any transports, including the public transport buses. It is the most prominent public bridge.

A rejuvenating punting Cambridge trip allows us to sink into the history of this lofty bridge. Punting through the River Cam rewards us with a unique yet invigorating experience, adding to its popular demand. Moreover, a Magdalene College Punting trip is more convenient as it offers a parking lot too at Quayside. And, in this punting, it is the Magdalene Bridge that you witness both at the start as well as at the end of your punting trip.

A Glance into the Past

During the Roman reign, the Magdalene Bridge, monikered as Cam Bridge, marked the only entrance into the city. Thus, this bridge witnessed the city’s advancement from the very beginning and played a crucial role in the trading and sustainability of the city. A popular myth suggests that the city got its name from the bridge. However, the city’s name was officiated upon the river meandering in the city’s heart, The River Cam.

The bridge is an illustrious link between East Anglia and London, dating back to Roman times, and it is still continued. There was a time when every route converged at this crossing point. However, the irony is the evolution of the bridge for the past centuries. 

The first model of the site was accomplished with wood, up until 1754, when architect James Essex re-constructed the bridge stone for the first time. However, it was rebuilt twice before that with wood.

The first-ever cast iron Magdalene Bridge also called the ‘Great Bridge’, dates back to 1823 when the Norwich architect Arthur Browne designed it. The bridge was a single span of cast iron with iron railing decoration resting on ashler piers. It became a Grade II listed structure in 1969. The current Magdalene Bridge is the structure repaired and strengthened in 1982 by Browne itself.

Interesting Facts about Magdalene Bridge in Cambridge

With the proximities to the foundations of Magdalene College, the bridge was titled Magdalene Bridge. The paradox hidden in the name’s pronunciation is that it is actually pronounced ‘Maudlin Bridge’. The logical naming introduced many historical facts to this bridge. The bridge contributes an inevitable role in the stories of the Magdalene College and Cambridge University.

The Magdalene Bridge stands out among the first sites to cross the River Cam. It serves as a prominent role trading route and enhances the city’s survival. While punting from north to south, the bridge is followed by the Bridge of Sighs, another architectural masterpiece.

Above all, this extensive bridge, notably near the River Cam, is unique in its features. The ingenious ridges underneath the bridge that aid punters to propel themselves along the river impart uniqueness to the structure.

Magdalene College

The college resides on the River Cam banks on an idyllic spot adjacent to the dynamic Quayside. Summer in Magdalene is a popular hangout for students and locals to relish the view while sipping a beer or wine.

The college dates back to 1428, known as Buckingham College; it was originally a Benedictine hostel for student monks. The structure was deliberately located to the north of the river to detach the monks from the sinful temptation of city life.

In 1542, the college was named St. Mary Magdalene after St. Mary, a devoted biblical character. The odd pronunciation of Magdalene is said to be derived from one of the college benefactors, Thomas Audley.

The college set out history by being the first college to admit Jewish and Asian students. However, it is the last all-male college in Oxford or Cambridge as it accepted women students in 1988; it was the final college to admit girl students. Although there was a high objection from the male students in admitting the females, they were proven wrong with the increment in grade average in the following years. In addition, only the female alumni of Magdalene contributed Nobel prizes to the college.

May Morning

The bridge used to be crowded every year on May 1, from dawn, for Oxford’s May Morning celebrations. The recent tradition among the students was to jump off the bridge, despite the injury from low water levels in the Cherwell. When the injury traffic rose in subsequent years, the bridge routinely closed on the later May Morning.

Thus, the majestic Magdalene Bridge plays a vital role in the history and aesthetics of Cambridge city. Although all the 25 bridges(soon to be 26) have a remarkable role in the city’s unique appeal and economy, Magdalene serves both the students and the public equally, thereby adding popularity in function.

The architect Henry Hutchinson designed this masterpiece for St John’s College of Cambridge University in 1827. Built across the river Cam in 1831, Bridge of Sighs bridges between original parts and New Court of St John’s College. The bridge becomes unique as it is the only covered bridge over the river Cam and the only college bridge built in the Victorian Gothic style. It is an architectural masterpiece which you can stalk at while punting through the River Cam in Cambridge.

It’s  sibling, the Wren Bridge, or a punt moving  in the river Cam provides the best view of the bridge.

The bridge design goes hand in hand with the romantic Neo-Gothic style, the signature of architectural fashion at the time. It’s one of the most loved and fascinating features in Cambridge. The bridge was Queen Victoria’s favourite spot in the city than any other tourist attractions in Cambridge.

The key feature of the bridge is the tracery opening having stonework elements to support glass. But the bridge doesn’t have any glass. 

Key facts about the Bridge of Sighs

  1. Second bridge built by the St. John’s College
  2. The only covered bridge across river Cam.
  3. The bars in the open gothic fenestration prevents one from climbing in or out.
  4. The name bridge of sighs is so popular that there are a total of 9 bridge of sighs around the world.
  5. The bridge has a posh and plain side. The right side is the best for photography.
  6. The bridge has appeared in blockbuster movies; The theory of everything (2014) is the most recent.

Naming of the Bridge

In October 1843, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert visited Cambridge. A reigning monarch had been to Cambridge for the first time in about 120 years. And hence citizens were greatly excited with the royal visit.

On their trip, the royals visited several colleges, including St John’s. It was about 12 years after the completion of ‘New Bridge’ and the fellows of the college were enthusiastic to show them the ‘New Bridge’.

Reports say that Victoria fell in love with the sight and remarked it as the most “picturesque view in Cambridge”. She stated that this favourite view of her in the city reminded her of the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ in Venice. 

The bridge is popularly known as the “Bridge of Sighs”. Although, the only factor it has in common with the Bridge of Sighs in Venice  is that they are both covered. 

However, another common myth is that the students named the bridge. It was in context of its existence within the college grounds. The function of the bridge supports the belief; it links 2 quadrangles of St John’s College in a covered path. On the contrary, its sister bridge, the Kitchen bridge is an open air bridge. The rumour says that the name of the bridge came from the sighs of the students on proceeding from their quarters back to the tutor’s office in the main college quadrangle.

History

St John’s college(founded in 1511) is 3 centuries older than the New Bridge and the New Court. St Johns was the first College to expand its accommodation westwards into the area known as “Backs of Cambridge”; until then, every college bridge in Cambridge was on the east side of the River Cam.

In 1827, architect Henry Hutchison, a pupil and business partner of Gothic revivalist Thomas Rickman, designed the new buildings and bridge. The expansion was named “New Court”; it was the newest part of the college.  In 1831, they completed the entire project. A few months later, Hutchinson died.

The bridge was first named “New Bridge” as it connected New Court on the West bank with 17th century Third Court on the East Bank. However, soon it was known as the “Bridge of Sighs”. The famous Bridge of Sighs in Venice, Italy, an enclosed bridge that connects the ducal palace to the court and prison was the reference for the name.

Pioneer photographer, William Henry Fox Talbot took the first ever known photograph of the “New Bridge” in 1844.

Student pranks and Blockbuster movies

Since its construction, the Bridge of Sighs, Cambridge has been featured in numerous photographs and artistic projects. Some blockbuster movies, including The Theory of Everything (2014) and Elizabeth : The Golden Age (2007) had the bridge as one of their sets.

The bridge even has a history of cars suspended from its arches twice. The students were the pranksters. On both these occasions the bridge managed to escape from any kind of damages.

On both the occasions, students pulled the prank by dangling a car under the bridge. In 1963, students strapped an Austin 7 with 4 punts and it was punted down the river. And ropes tied hoisted up the car under the bridge. The prank became so infamous. In 1968, students used a Reliant Regal 3-wheeler car to repeat the prank. 

Sister Bridges

St John’s is significant as the only Cambridge College to feature two bridges on its main site; The Bridge of Sighs and it’s sister, the Wren Bridge (also known as ‘Kitchen Bridge’). They run parallel to each other.

The Wren Bridge was constructed to replace a pre-existing wooden bridge and is a century older than the Bridge of Sighs. 

Christopher Wren submitted his design for a stone bridge to St John’s in the 1690s. But, the building work commenced only in 1709. The workers completed the project in 1713. Robert Grumbold supervised the construction. Wren suggested urns and pyramids in his original drawing. But, the work didn’t have them in construction. But still, the bridge perfectly reflects Wren’s design.

Wren Bridge is a tourists’ pedestal route through the college. While access to the Bridge of Sighs is only for the ones in St John’s College. This enables an uninterrupted view of Bridge of Sighs for the visitors.

The tranquil scenery of The Backs in Cambridge makes an incredible backdrop for casual walkers and nature lovers. A relaxing stroll along the serene river Cam, and the vibrant streets of Cambridge can instantly get you transported to a different era altogether.

Moreover, the stunning colleges of Cambridge are open to the public throughout the year that makes them one of the “most photographed” Universities in the world. With an extensive coverage of green spaces surrounding the overall campus and its vicinities, the backs in Cambridge certainly takes the top spot as one of the most attractive spots in London. It’s not just Cambridge University but the entire surroundings are enveloped in picturesque scenery in every location.

Why are they called “The Backs” ?

Cambridge University consists of 31 distinguished colleges, out of which 8 of them have the rear/side facade of the buildings and grounds facing the “Cam”, the river associated with the backs. In medieval times these grounds were extensively used for herding cattle and cultivating crops. Also, the River Cam was a busy commercial trade route in those eras.

This stunning location comprises several colleges that are flanked on either side of the River Cam.

Darwin College

This famous college was established in 1964 and named after the renowned English naturalist Charles Darwin. The entire college was built using the Victorian and Georgian styles of architecture. Also, the college grounds are integrated with the Darwin College bridges for easy passage and connectivity to the two islands owned by the college. Furthermore, Darwin has the honour of being the first graduate college in Cambridge to admit both men and women.

Queen’s College

Several iconic, medieval and modernistic styles of buildings can be found at the Queens College in Cambridge. They are famed for having their college buildings on either side of the River Cam. The connectivity between these two halves of the college is accomplished with the help of Mathematical Bridge. As the name suggests, the Queen’s college was established by two royals of England, Queen Margaret of Anjou and later by Queen Elizabeth Woodville. They were the wives of King Henry VI and King Edward IV, respectively, of England.

King’s College

King Henry VI was the founder of this distinguished educational institution in Cambridge. Kings is globally considered as an architectural marvel that showcases an exquisite range of Gothic-style architecture designs. The largest fan vault in the world and the gorgeously stained-glass windows are the other tourist attractions at King’s. Robert Walpole, the first prime minister of Great Britain was one of the famous alumni of the King’s College.

Clare College

Formerly known as the University Hall, this famed college of the Cambridge University boasts several iconic buildings and monuments like:

Old Court

“This grade I listed building is one of the most historic structures in England. The design of the Old court is a fusion of the Classic and Gothic style of architecture.

Memorial Court

“This structure was designed by the architectural genius of Britain, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.”

Clare Bridge

“Built completely out of stone, this is the oldest bridge in Cambridge to survive the civil war.”

Trinity College

King Henry VIII founded this esteemed college in 1546. This building houses an enclosed courtyard, which is said to be the largest in Europe. The reputation of the college lies in its impeccable architecture, the picturesque gardens and obviously, the 32 Nobel laureates from this prestigious institution. Popular attractions in the Trinity includes :

  • The Wren Library at Nevile’s Court
  • Trinity Bridge
  • Whewell’s Court north range
  • Great Court
  • The River Cam( river associated with the backs in Cambridge)
  • Clock Tower
  • Great Gate

Trinity Hall

The Bishop of Norwich, William Bateman, was the founder of this distinguished college in Cambridge. Established in the year 1350, Trinity was historically a law school but currently teaches arts, sciences and humanities. The architectural elegance of the Trinity exudes a medieval ambience, and the main building was modified to a Baroque style in the 18th century by the English jurist Sir Nathaniel Lloyd. Also, the college is open to visitors on certain days for self-guided tours and is one of the famous tourist attractions in Cambridge.

St. John’s College

Established in the year 1511, this institution is one of the eminent Oxbridge colleges in the Uk. St.John’s is renowned for producing numerous high profile alumni including Nobel laureates, prime ministers and several archbishops from various countries. The college is also well known as a tourist attraction spot in Cambridge with multiple heritage sites and architectural marvels. Some of the top sites include the Great gate, The Chapel, First Court, Second Court, Third Court, Chapel Court and Cripps Building.

Magdalene College

This institution is one of the distinguished colleges of Cambridge founded in the year 1428 and reputed for hosting the Benedictine monks in the past. The college was again founded in 1542 and thrived under the patronage of the nobles of Britain such as Duke Of Norfolk , the Duke of Buckingham and Sir Christopher Wray. Visitors can explore the magnificent college buildings , gardens , Pepys Library ,Cripps Court on certain days and also enjoy punting in Cambridge.

A chronicle of “The Backs”

The past

The lands that now constitute “The Backs” were owned by several colleges of the University in the past. These spaces were extensively filled with orchards, gardens and used as pasture grounds. For better connectivity, these lands were attached with wooden bridges built across the River Cam. Later, Lancelot Capability Brown, one of the greatest English landscape architects, laid plenty of wilderness by the Queens Road.

FACT – The Backs in Cambridge are listed as a Grade I Historic Park by the English Heritage

The Present Day

The Backs are currently set to undergo significant stages of evolution under the patronage of six colleges of Cambridge University. The next 50 years will reportedly witness drastic changes that improve the quality of the landscape and enhance the total appearance of “The Backs”. The transformations will be implemented under the expert guidance of Robert Myers, a landscape architect based in Cambridge. Moreover, the strategy involves the plan to enhance the existing landscapes and the formation of a wildlife corridor.