Cambridge is a place steeped in tradition. It is famed for its university and perhaps infamous for some of its arguably outmoded customs in the colleges. Whether it is formal dinners in gowns or readings in Latin, the 800 years of history still show themselves today. A hallmark of these practices is the punts that are guided along the river everyday. In the 21st century is slightly odd to think of coming to a thriving city with shopping centres and scientific research labs to see wooden boats being pushed by wooden poles. It highlights one of the paradoxes of the university. It is at once a pinnacle for innovation and a place where the last college to accept women was 1985. All of the traditions are placed within, and often pitted against, an inevitable modernity.
Flat bottomed and so are easily pushed by a pole. Today they are just used to take people up and down to look at the other historical parts of the river. So realistically, not much has changed over the years along the water. The design of the buildings may have changed as more crop up on the banks, but an average day in the river’s past would probably see the same colleges and, of course, the same punts. The ‘Backs’ of the colleges, as they are known, are like an outdoor museum. It’s like a naturally occurring exhibition. Going down the river on one of these old school boats is like witnessing the buildings’ extensive past all in an afternoon. Some people criticise out-dated practices or stagnant traditions, but in this case the antiquity of the colleges is more than welcome in the modern world. They have been preserved over the years perfectly and act like almost like a time machine accessed via boat. You may start in a place with cars and Apple stores, but soon after you’re under the first bridge you will be transported into completely different world.
Still, having half a city that is essentially a display of antiques is an odd contrast to the developing modern city. This fact makes it a strange and fascinating experience for visitors. However, most tourist attractions in the UK are famed for their age. Britain prides itself on its rich and vintage heritage. The difference is though that punting, or even just walking, past the colleges fits effortlessly into the daily life of the city as well as for visitors wanting a historic experience.
Whether the Latin and gowns are kept remains to be seen, but surely even when cars are flying, the punts will remain contentedly on the water.