Due to a moment of suspended sanity, Jess and I booked train tickets to Cambridge at 7.45am on a Saturday, little did we know that Cambridge only wakes up at 10am, we could have gifted ourselves a sleep-in. On the train ride from London we had a catch up and discussed our expectations for the day in this quiet University town – or so we thought.
While it is true that Cambridge was fast asleep when we first hit foot to pavement, the same could not be said as the day progressed and hordes of tourists descended upon this town to see the University. We thought we could escape the crowds of London, relax on the river and perhaps enjoy a jug of Pimm’s. Perhaps we cursed ourselves with that early train ride, perhaps we just made bad sleep deprived decisions, but from start to end, all choices made by myself, Jess or joint consensus, went wrong.
We stumbled upon a quaint craft and food market in the main square of the town near King’s College and like the true Kiwi’s that our Saffa born souls are, we licked our lips and set our sights on freshly made pies. Purchasing two for the hefty price of 5 pounds, we strolled over to a park bench to tuck in. Jess had brie, bacon and cranberry whilst I had venison and tomato chilli jam. Feeling adventurous with our gourmet flavours, we excitedly took our first bite – straight into cold pastry and even colder meaty filling. Turning in horror, we knew these were expensive. Cognitive dissonance was clouding over us faster than the weather changes in Auckland as we tried to smile enthusiastically about how good our pies tasted, even if it was “just a bit weird” to be eating cold pies. It was only after we forced ourselves to get the entire thing down that we finally were ready to admit how much we both hated every sickly cold tepid bite. Perking up because we knew we had fudge to follow, we dove into this with the same naïve hope that things in Cambridge would get better for us. Long story short: the fudge sucked pretty bad too. Cambridge: 2 Jess and Kirsty: 0.
At this point, with full bellies, but saddened hearts we headed towards the college to begin our sight-seeing and general tourist activities. Literally after about a minute of walking towards the main King’s College area, we were stopped by a handsome British lad. He was decked out in impeccable clothes, Ray Ban Aviators and had the preppiest of haircuts, what were two Kiwi girls to do? We were helpless as this man in his crystal clear voice explained in only the most proper English that he was a student of the University and would like us to sign up for his punting tour, only 12 pounds for 45 minutes. He smoothly assured us this was a great deal and normally we would have to pay 20, but he had a special offer for us, or “morning prices” as they are typically called in the bartering side of the world.
Hypnotised, we nodded blankly, ready to pop open our wallets and throw money at the guy, just to get him to keep talking to us in that irresistible accent. “Come step into my office”, he said and like the zombies we had become, we simply drooled and acquiesced. At this point, we should have realised something was wrong, but to keep our suspicions at bay, he used powerful misdirection by informing us how he longs to visit New Zealand and was a total “Lord of the Rings geek” since childhood. This was done to keep us under the spell and prevent us from realising, that the office, was in fact a small dairy or “News Agents” as the English refer to them. How suss this little dairy looked was actually enough to half break us out of the spell, whereby we exchanged a WTF look, but it was certainly not enough to stop us handing over our money to his “professional associate”.
We then walked over to the meeting point and joined a group of fellow suckers who had been similarly taken by these Ray Ban wearing Bandits as Jess dubbed them. Leading us down a back alley, we were taken to a tiny little bank on the river, around a corner and were quickly ushered onto a Punt – which is the type of boat used on their rivers which has a flat bottom and I don’t know what else distinguishes it in such a way that it becomes a Punt and not just a general boat. My boating knowledge is considerably lacking.
The punting ride was a shit experience. We were shoved on with people and their dog amongst other riff raff and our punting guide was really nothing more than a moody boy, who barely greeted us let alone provided us with tales of Cambridge infamy. Our 45 minutes turned into 20 minutes and we were back onto stable land, our punter shouts “I’m done. This is bullshit!” as we all awkwardly avoided making eye contact with each other, but suddenly another Ray Ban bandit showed up to usher us back to the main square.
Feeling more than a little gypped, we wanted to get back on the river with one of the actual guides that we had seen passing along telling stories and explaining the history of the buildings, but since for both of us, we had already spent $50, it was pretty difficult to justify it tallying up to $100 for a few minutes on the river. We had heard whispers by this point as well that the people we had gone punting with were actually scammers and operating illegal public punting tours, which further enraged us that we feel for the guys tricks.
Seeing an even more handsome British man wearing a blue Cambridge information polo shirt, we decided to ask him which were the real companies and explain how disappointed we were with the previous punting tour. He immediately turned to our aid, escalating the situation greatly by telling me to call the Cambridge police if the scammers refused to refund us. In the next swift sentence he was also clear to stress the point that we don’t mention him, since he’s actually good mates with them and doesn’t want them to know he told us to do this. Feeling hesitant to involve the police as well as doubting the authenticity of the phone number*, we plucked up all our courage and demanded our refund from the head honcho of the Bandits. Fortunately, he quickly agreed and once again we found ourselves in the diary/office getting our cash back. Sexy blue polo shirt then informed us we could buy tickets from him, for an authentic company and that we just had to pay – you guessed it – inside the dairy. At this point, I’m sure most regular people would be throwing their head back in raucous laughter at the insanity of returning to the scene of the scam, but no, Jess and I follow the blue polo shirt, once again transfixed by him being an English gentleman and purchase a new set of punting tickets.
Optimism restored we set out to find the Grunta Punting Company – this takes some time. We get briefly lost, but sigh with audible relief and wipe the sweat from our brows to discover we have not been scammed, that this time, after 5 hours of being in Cambridge, we will finally receive the punting ride of our dreams. Oh boy, and that it was. An hour rocking back and forth down the river, this time on a smaller boat so as we leaned back and munched on strawberries and took snapshots of agitated swans trying to attack the boats, we often had fear struck into the depths of our hearts that we would capsize.
Our punter did reassure us that this was highly unlikely. We were mainly shaken by our earlier experience on the river when we passed a group of self-hire punters with a boy sitting in the front of the boat, drenched head to toe, shaking with trauma as our boat bumped into his and his voice pleaded “please, no more! PLEASE, NO MORE!” We don’t want to know what horrors this boy had gone through, probably swallowing mouthfuls of dirty river water and a swan bite to boot. The moral of that story was – never hire your own punt. The river was several levels of unexpected carnage as mass traffic jams and crashes about as plentiful as there as scammers in Cambridge.
At the end of our time on the river, feeling sleepy from the sun and too many strawberries, we began our walk back to the train station to head home to London after a day filled with multiple misadventures and moments of major perving that led to us being duped. Naturally we wound up walking in, “entirely the wrong direction”, and had to enlist the services of a kind young French man (they are only mean when they’re in their home country, otherwise they’re delightful) to help direct us back onto the correct path. Since the walk from the University area to the train station was basically walking in one straight line, it was a testament to just how unfortunate our decision making skills had become when we veered left and walked for about half an hour through totally unfamiliar surroundings. Fortunately, for us we managed to correctly board the right train and were safely returned to London and did not wind up in Edinburgh, though after the day we had, I would not have been surprised.
*We called the phone number for the Cambridge Police once back in London – it was real. He was serious.