There are few things nicer in life than going punting with a sweetheart or a small group of friends. You’re on the water among ducks and swans, someone’s brought a picnic, and since you’re all beginners, there will be lots of laughter. You’re also surrounded by glorious views, and a happy sense that generations of university folk have done exactly the same thing, with the same enjoyment. (In the high season, the rivers get crowded — too crowded, sometimes, for real happiness — but the fall is a delight.)
I’ve only been punting at Cambridge, but no doubt it’s just as much of a hoot at Oxford. If you are affiliated with the university, you can get a very good deal indeed on punt rentals, and some of the colleges offer punts to the public at good rates (e.g., Cambridge’s Trinity College). In both towns, however, there are a handful of big companies that will rent you punts — the price is higher, but they have more boats to offer and they take credit cards. All of the companies I contacted will allow you to bring your small dog on board with you.
One suggestion: Along with the picnic and blankets you bring with you, be sure to pick up life jackets for yourselves, and bring one for for your dog. The rivers are shallow, but they’re, you know, rivers, and in places they have mucky bottoms and tricky currents.
The River Cam is divided, for boating purposes, into the Lower River (generally reserved for rowers), the Middle River (the College Backs) and the Top River (heading southwest, or upstream, to Grantchester — where you can get lunch or tea, classically at The Orchard).
Scudamores Punting Co. will rent you punts for the middle and upper parts of the river. They allow dogs on self-hire punts and on their private chauffeured tours, but not on their public tours. Granta Boat & Punt Co. also offers self-hire punts and chauffeured tours of the middle and upper river, and they too allow small dogs on board. Scudamores has a couple of locations, but if you leave from their Mill Lane location you can wait until the last minute to choose whether you want to punt on the middle or upper river. Granta is located slightly upstream from Scudamores’ Mill Lane boatyard.
At Oxford, you have a couple of good choices. You can punt on the Cherwell, which heads south to meet the Thames (called the Isis here) just southeast of Folly Bridge. Hire punts at the Cherwell Boathouse, and head upstream to lunch at the Victoria Arms pub, or downstream past University Parks. Dogs of all sizes are allowed on the self-hire punts. Alternatively, you can hire punts at Magdalen Bridge Boathouse, located at (surprise!) Magdalen Bridge. Magdalen Bridge Boathouse also allows small dogs on board.
Alternatively, you can punt on the Isis, on the west side of town. A popular route takes you upstream past Port Meadow to the Trout pub. Salters Steamers‘ punt hire stand is located at the Head of the River pub, at Folly Bridge. Small dogs are allowed on Salters Steamers’ self-hire punts, and they are also allowed on the punts rented by Oxford River Cruises, located upstream from Salters Steamers at the Perch Inn. The inn is very near Port Meadow, so if you rent a punt from Oxford River Cruises you’ll have a shorter trip to the Trout.