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Can you say that your Oxford experience is complete if you have never navigated down, or indeed up, the Thames?

On the River

Can you say that your Oxford experience is complete if you have never navigated down, or indeed up, the Thames?
Photography by Raquel Lopez and Bruno Reynolds

"A little tipple makes the whole experience that much sweeter."

Shaunna Latchman


The renowned rowing rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge often takes centre stage when the River Thames comes up in conversation, and why wouldn’t it? Two elite academic institutes, undergoing months of gruelling training and then racing for the title – that’s big news. However, I’m far more interested in the mishap happenings that take place when the less trained take to the river...

Can you say that your Oxford experience is complete if you have never navigated down, or indeed up, the Thames? Fear not, I have taken matters into my own hands, and what better way to inform you than to hop aboard and captain a small vessel myself? From my somewhat limited experience, taking charge of a rowboat is a lot easier than it looks. I’ll admit, it took me a little getting used to and I may have spent a few minutes spinning in circles, but once I found my rhythm we were away! Granted, I ached everywhere afterwards, even my earlobes (should that be physically possible?), but I can now say that I have successfully commandeered a ship.

Step-by-step guide to rowing: first-timer style

Tip: Imagine you’re at the gym on the rowing machine: replicate these movements.

Step-by-step guide to punting: first-timer style

Punting, on the other hand? Let’s just say it isn’t my forte (and neither was it pretty). For those of you who have yet to familiarise yourself with our strange Oxonian ways, a punt is a long, narrow, flat-bottomed boat, square at both ends and propelled with a long pole.

Tip: If, like me, you have little to no upper body strength, bringing along a comrade to steer said vessel would be wise – and by steer, I mean do the hard work.

Step-by-step guide to pedalo-ing: first-timer style

A small pedal-operated pleasure boat, the pedalo sits somewhere between the physical exertion of rowing and the leisurely laid-back-ness of punting.

Tip: Pretend you’re cycling, but in a more reclined position.

Okay, so now we’ve established the modes of transport available, where are the best places to go?

Salter’s Steamers located by Folly Bridge offers punts, rowboats and electric motor boats.

Route: Amble along the Thames past the college boathouses and explore the byways past Christ Church Meadow. If you’re feeling like you need a pit stop downstream, head towards Iffley and the Isis Tavern.

Cost: Punts and rowing boats: £20 per hour, £60 per half day or £100 for a full day. Deposit and ID required. Visa and Mastercard accepted.

Magdalen Bridge hosts punts, rowing boats and pedalos.

Route: Drift along the Cherwell past the Botanic Garden, around Magdalen College School playing fields and Angel & Greyhound meadow, past St Hilda’s, and up the byways past Christ Church Meadow to the Isis Tavern (funny how all rivers lead to the pub!) Self-drive or book a chauffeur, there are plenty of options.

Cost: £22 per hour. Chauffeur is £32 per half-hour.

Cherwell Boathouse offers punting and rowing, however, two weeks’ notice is required for chauffeurs.

Route: Float along the Cherwell past University Parks and Parson’s Pleasure (downstream), or past Wolfson College and Marston Meadows to the Victoria Arms (upstream).

Cost: £16 per hour or £80 whole day weekdays, £18 per hour or £90 whole day weekends & public holidays. Deposit: £80 weekdays or £90 weekends.

Remember, you will be given a list of rules you must follow while in possession of your chosen floating medium, but there is a certain etiquette that all should adhere to. Fear not, I have devised a handy list of Dos and Don’ts.


Dress appropriately. Flat shoes with grip and clothing that allows easy movement will make getting in and out of the vessel far more glamorous.

Keep time. Work out how long it will take to complete the route given to ensure your prompt return to the boathouse at the agreed time.

Wear sunscreen and bring insect repellent. You don’t want sunburn and bites to ruin a lovely day on the river.

Bring a picnic and a blanket. You never know when you may come across the ideal spot to pull up and lay down.

Be aware of passing river users, including the waterfowl.

Bring the booze. A little tipple makes the whole experience that much sweeter.


Make any sudden movements! The water might not be deep and it wouldn’t really be a typical punting experience if no one fell in; but if you don’t want it to be you, proceed with caution.

Litter. That’s just poor form.

Feed the ducks. You are in their domain, and encouraging them to follow will probably cause havoc.

Drink and sail. I’m aware that I am contradicting myself, but try to strike a balance. You could be one rum away from becoming a pirate.

Drop the pole/oar. If you do, don’t panic. More often than not it will float, but you will have to wait for a kind passer-by to lend a helping hand.

And that’s it! True, we may lack the romantic flair of a gondola gliding through the narrow canals of Venice, but we do have the beautiful backdrop of the college grounds, meadows, pubs and Pimm’s.


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