Not many adventure sports begin by punting down the Isis on a sunny afternoon. To our left, a posse of medical students were drifting by on a relaxed revision cruise, testing each other’s gynaecological knowledge with the aid of various textbooks. No dirty joke here – this was what they were actually doing. To our right, there was nothing but green fields, cows, and the occasional jogger – that portion of Oxford that I only ever seem to see from the river.
We, the relics of a garden party for my sister’s 21st birthday, were in two groups. In my punt was Tom Codrington, who had the build I normally associate with a racing biker, but who turned out to be a rock climber – and a dab hand with the punting pole. His girlfriend Tabitha was with us. In the second, much rowdier punt were my sister Jessamy, her boyfriend Steve, and a smattering of friends from Oxford and Winchester. They had all the left over food from the garden party, some of which they would thoughtfully toss our way whenever the punts bumped together.
So far, there was nothing to separate us from the dozens of other luncheon parties on the river, save perhaps for the coils of climbing rope, carabiners, and tangled harnesses in the till of the punt. That, and the energetic way in which, when the punt came to a low-lying bridge, the occupants would swarm up over the side of it and drop back down into place, while the punt glided smoothly on beneath.
After about half an hour’s lazy cruising, we came to a taller bridge. It was a gorgeous twenty foot arch that crossed the river in a single span, simple, functional, yet still of a piece with Oxford’s greater architectural glories. Here we moored down stream, gathered up the rope and harness, and set to work getting the whole thing set up.
Bridge swinging, in its commercial form, is an alternative to bungee jumping where people swing to-and-fro like a pendulum instead of bouncing up and down like a yo-yo. Large sums of money are paid to do this. In its amateur form, I found, you fix a rope to the railings of the bridge, cross to the the far side, and then swing the other end underneath, high enough so someone on the other side of the bridge can catch it. This is a complex activity which requires timing, foreshortening, and good reflexes on the part of the person in charge of catching the rope. Tom Codrington proved to be expert at this, as well. When that’s done, all you need is someone foolhardy enough to climb into a fluffy, tatty climbing harness, long since discarded from actual climbing duties, clip themselves to the far end of the rope and leap over the railings. My sister went first, and I was close behind.
It was a nervous business, actually, since I had got to get as low as possible to be sure of a good swing, feet pressed flat to the stone and fingers gripping the railings for dear life, while the people on the other end of the bridge took in the tension until this new umbilical was stretched almost horizontal under the bottom of the bridge, taught as a guitar string. Then all I had to do was let go.
Three or four wild, whooping arcs ensued, as I swung crazily between the bridge and the water: then, at the apex of the upswing, Tom Codrington slacked his hold and I crashed into the silver-green Isis, surfacing seconds later, gasping for breath and wiping the water from my eyes. I trod water for a minute while I fumbled with the carabiner’s screw-lock, detached from the rope, and struck out for shore.
Except for Jess’s boyfriend Steve, who was too cool for it, we all took a turn. The girls shrieked, the boys whooped – even the most timorous went, after a false start or two. I went three more times, with varying degrees of disaster – the first time I leaned too far back and inverted, swinging around upside-down like a bungee jumper in a high wind. Then Tom Codrington and I decided to do a swing together, but the rope stretched too much and we kept crashing into the water on the down swing, slowing us down and taking up from the perpendicular to the pendulous in seconds.
We finished up utterly soaked, thoroughly exhilarated, and with the satisfaction of giving all those picnicking upon the riverbank a little lunchtime entertainment. It was a good afternoon’s work.