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Taking a Punt

PUBLISHED: 16:50 11 July 2008 | UPDATED: 15:18 20 February 2013

Bath Boating Station on the River Avon. Photo: Neville Stanikk

Bath Boating Station on the River Avon. Photo: Neville Stanikk

Although normally associated with boater-wearing undergraduates at Oxford or Cambridge, not many people know that you can actually go punting in Somerset - and the boater is completely optional.<br/><br/>There's been a boating station on Forester Road in ...

In 1879, a young man called Ben Fisher entered the boating station on Forester Road seeking a job. Ben himself eventually bought the yard and was still working on the boats up until his death 75 years later. Fads and trends have seen the station take various guises but there has always been a strong boatbuilding and repairing tradition. So much so that some of the current boats date back more than 100 years.

During the Victorian era, Bath Boating Station hosted several rowing clubs, from which manual workers were excluded on account of having an unfair advantage with the size of their muscles compared to those with a more sedentary occupation. In the early years there was a 'Pleasure Garden' here and in the mid-20th century a favoured lido, until fears over pollution made river swimming unfashionable. For a long while it was home to the 'Sunday Morning Bathers' who would confront the icy River Avon in even the coldest winter months.

The austerity of the Second World War, when many recreational activities were curtailed, produced one of the boating station's busiest periods, as boating and swimming became popular pastimes, particularly with the personnel of the many local military camps. Following the war, the boat station had difficulties purchasing wood to construct new vessels but the enduring problem over the years has been the risk of flooding, and that probably remains the case to the present day.

Since 1879, Bath Boating Station has been the domain of one family through four generations

As we set metaphorical sail from the Bath Boating Station, my son receives a text from his girlfriend: "You're going punting? What is punting?" To which he replies: "You put a stick in the water and push." More precisely, the Concise Oxford Dictionary (although for reasons of impartiality I shouldn't really be favouring Oxford above Cambridge when punting is involved) defines a punt as a: 'Flat-bottomed shallow boat, broad and square at both ends, propelled by long pole thrust against bottom of river.'

While this is true, it doesn't do justice to the wonderful serenity and sometimes adventure of the activity. After all, as Jerome K Jerome states in 'Three Men in a Boat': 'Punting is not as easy as it looks. As in rowing, you soon learn how to get along and handle the craft, but it takes long practice before you can do this with dignity and without getting the water all up your sleeve.' Punting is, put simply, a continual learning process.

I've been punting off and on (well I try to stay on) for 30 years and the water still goes down my arm, and frequently onto the head of the passenger in front of me, which in this case is my irascible son. "Calm down," I say in the manner of Michael Winner, "it's all part of the experience."

From the boating station you can either go left towards Pulteney or right to Bathampton. With a punt you can only go right as the water gets too deep the other way. In fact, even when heading Bathampton-wards you will find moments when the pole does not reach the floor of the river. The plus side of punting at Bath is that the floor is quite stony so you're usually pushing against something firm. When punting in Oxford it's not unusual to get the pole stuck in mud and you have to make an instantaneous decision as to whether to relinquish the pole or vacate the boat. Option one is recommended.

A competent punter should be able to get from Bath to Bathampton in two hours, tie up before the weir, have a very quick half at the pub and come swiftly back with the current. In our two hours, although there were several rowing boats out and about, we only saw a few other punts and some of those were being paddled, which might suggest that punting is going out of fashion again.

Sarah Hardick, great grand-daughter of Ben Fisher and manager of the family-run business at the Bath Boating Station, firmly disagrees. "It is still popular. You get a lot of punting on Saturdays, and they're very popular with hen parties." Yes, hen parties! Apparently it's because the women like to try something different.

Sarah says her family had a huge fleet of punts during the Edwardian period but that they did die out altogether in Bath for a short while during the '60s.

Punts were first used as upper Thames salmon-fishing vessels but became popular as pleasure vehicles during the Victorian era. Much debate and prejudice has been generated about whether you should pole from the Oxford bow end or from the stern deck as they do in Cambridge.

Particular admiration should be given to the sleek wooden poles at Bath Boating Station, as many punting companies have switched to aluminium. Sarah confesses that she is fed up with spending the winter varnishing the poles and so is also looking for aluminium ones.

Also available from the boating station are canoes, Thames skiffs and rowing punts, which are increasingly popular with families because they are wide, flat and stable. Any novice who fancies a go at punting is given a 5-10 minute lesson at the start. My main tip is to keep well clear of the large, motorised, passenger craft.

"People really enjoy punting. It provides a real sense of achievement when you've mastered it, like riding a bike," says Sarah. "You've made it once you've got the hang of the steering." Alternatively you could get someone else to do the work and just sit back and enjoy the tranquillity of the river and the wildlife activity. BY MALCOLM RIGBY

The Bath Boating Station is open 10am-6pm until the end of September. Tel 01225 312900, www.bathboating.co.uk

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