You may not have heard of The backs if you have never visited Cambridge. However, the area of Cambridge known as the backs includes seven of the 31 Cambridge colleges that form Cambridge University and every year millions of visitors from all of the world visit Cambridge to see them.
What a lot of these visitors don’t know is that the best and most relaxing way to see them is by being punted along the river by an experienced local tour guide, also known as a punt chauffeur.
The journey through the colleges takes just under an hour to travel along the river from one end of the backs to the other and then back again, a round trip of about a mile and a half. Along the way your guide provides an historical commentary about the colleges as well as various anecdotes about student life over the centuries.
The trip takes in some of the most well known Cambridge colleges, amongst them Magdalene (pronounced maudlin), St Johns, Trinity, Kings and Queens with famous landmarks such as the chapel at Kings, the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s and the Mathematical bridge at Queens.
The majority of the land in Cambridge and especially adjacent to the river banks in the centre of the city is owned by the various colleges. The consequence of this that tourists are usually unaware of is that you cannot walk along the river banks from one end of the backs to the other. However, you can walk through the narrow (and sometimes cobbled streets) of Cambridge city centre but the high, medieval style walls at the front of the colleges prevent you from getting much of a view inside. This makes a punt trip, the best, if not the only true way to see into the colleges as you can see into the grounds of the colleges from the river and see some views that are only visible from either the river or inside the colleges themselves.
Visitors to the colleges have to an admission fee to gain entry to the grounds of any of the Cambridge colleges. The price of admission varies from college to college and if you are a resident of Cambridge and can prove it, then you can get in for free! If you’re not though and you wanted to visit all of the seven colleges that you would see on a Cambridge punt tour it could be quite pricey by time you added them all up. Another consideration is that, depending on the time of year of your visit to Cambridge you could be disappointed to find the that colleges closed to the public for example, because it’s exam time. It’s extremely rare for the river to be closed to the public. I remember a couple of occasions when this has happened – once when the Queen was visiting and on another occasion when some filming was taking place for movie.
There are several punt companies operating in Cambridge. One of those is a very large operation that controls the majority of the market in terms of location, numbers of punts, etc but it’s good to know that they are not the only option.
Personally I prefer to chose the friendly, personal feel and experience provided by a small, locally owned and independently operated business. The more personal approach really adds to the experience for me, plus you don’t feel like the tour guides are reading from a script that they have had to memorise.
Whether you are a one time or a regular visitor, punting in Cambridge is something that everyone should do at least once in their life times. Make sure you remember your trip for all the right reasons.
Find an operator with experienced guides where you don’t feel like you are being treated like a passenger on a budget airline and you will have a great time.
Of course, there is nothing to stop you doing the punting yourself and it is possible to hire punts and take them out without a guide. You might well be tempted to do this after watching some of the punt chauffeurs glide effortlessly up and down the river, seemingly having to do very little. A word to the wise though, try watching some of the people on the smaller punts who are spinning around in circles, crashing into the banks and generally looking rather unsteady – they are the ones who have decided to give it a go themselves.
If that doesn’t put you off then make sure you take all your valuables out of your pockets before stepping onto the back of a punt. Electronic items like mobile phones, cameras, etc don’t mix well with river water and countless thousands of pounds worth of items have gone to a watery grave at the bottom of the river Cam!