A summer’s day in Oxford

… or a punt around the harbour…

For those of you who have been loyally following my blog, you could well be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that I am something of a booze-hound. After all, quite a few of my posts have either directly involved alcohol in one form or another, or been set within the confines of a bar or a pub. So, just to reassure you that there is more to yours truly than a half-empty beer glass and borderline writer’s block, I give you this heart-warming recollection of a good deed done during my time at Oxford University, a tale involving myself, a punt and two elderly Americans.

Summer in Oxford is a glorious thing, spoiled only by the amount of traffic and the huge influx of tourists, all gawking and snapping away at the ancient, stone-built colleges that line the city’s main thoroughfares. Fortunately, I was at one of the newer colleges on the outskirts of the city, so largely avoided the predations of the coachloads of new travellers arriving each day. Consequently, in my mind, it is a place full of sunshine, endless blue skies, fluffy white clouds and of course, punts.

Punts, for those that do not know, are a special type of long, flat-bottomed boat, with square ends, designed to be extremely unstable and difficult to control. Rather than the usual rudder and wheel approach, punts use a long stick, called a ‘punt pole’ to both propel and steer the vessel. It takes a bit of time to master, especially if you come from the ‘other’ place (Cambridge) and persist in standing at the wrong end, but once you have done so, there is no feeling like it.

Getting back to the story at hand, for one reason or another, I found myself with the afternoon off one summer’s day and decided to spend it relaxing by the college harbour, soaking up as much sunlight as my pale skin would take. Just as I was making myself comfortable, I was approached by Barry, one of the college porters, who asked me if I would do him a favour. Not wanting to disappoint him, because he was always very good to me, I agreed without hesitation and followed him to the porter’s lodge, where I met the aforementioned elderly Americans.

It turned out that one of them, the husband if I remember correctly, had been a member of the college many years before and was visiting for the first time since he had graduated, with his wife in tow. Apparently, one of their greatest wishes during their visit to dear old ‘Blighty’ was to go punting, however, neither of them was able to manage a punt anymore and no one else, apart from myself, was around at that time.

Of course, I agreed. I mean, who wouldn’t want to go punting down the Cherwell river on a beautiful summer’s day? Slowly, we made our way to the harbour to find only a single punt remaining. Unfortunately, it was the one that no one ever wanted to use, because it had a split running down the side of it (thankfully above the waterline), which made it even more difficult to control than usual. Undeterred, I gently ushered the American couple into the punt and let them get comfortable on their cushioned seats. Then I unmoored the vessel and pushed off into the harbour, doing my best to cancel out the alarmingly wobbling punt, using my body as a counterweight. It took a little while, but eventually, we made it safely out of the harbour and into the river proper, all ready to take a leisurely cruise along the waterway. However, no sooner had we left, than the lovely American couple, who were, I stress, thoroughly enjoying themselves, announced that they wanted to return to the college because they had another appointment to go to!

I was dumbfounded. We had hardly set off and already they wanted to go back. Was it me? Was it the punt? Were they getting seasick or feared that I would capsize them? I really didn’t know. I tried several times to talk them into going further, but they insisted that all they had really wanted to do was to sit in a punt and be taken around the harbour, and that they were on a very tight schedule and had shortly to leave.

Well, there was nothing that I could do short of abducting them, so I made my way back into the harbour and moored up once again, helping the aged couple out of the punt and back onto dry land. The whole trip had taken less than twenty minutes when I was more than happy for it to have taken two or three hours. Still, as I mentioned before, the Americans were extremely pleased with their experience and thanked me profusely for giving up my time to help them. It was no problem for me. I loved punting and still do, so you can imagine my surprise when they insisted on paying me for my trouble (and I mean insisted, as only Americans can). The ex-college member practically forced a ten-pound note into my reluctant hand before patting me on the back and thanking both myself and Barry once more for our help, as he and his wife left the college.

I never saw them again and I do sincerely hope that they enjoyed their brief punt ride. As for the ten pounds, well, that just happened to be the exact price of a college ‘bar-book’ (tokens for the student pub), so you can guess where that money went!

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