Cambridge SUP Guide #1 - The Backs

Paddle boarding the River Cam, King’s College Cambridge


Paddling time: 60-75 minutes

Start point: Lammas Land car park, CB3 9PA

The stretch of the River Cam known as The Backs has got to be one of the most scenic paddles anywhere in the UK. As it meanders through the centre of Cambridge the river passes some of the oldest and grandest colleges of the University of Cambridge, whose manicured lawns stretch right down to the river’s edge. These blockbuster views were once best experienced by punting, that most quintessential of Cambridge pastimes, but now Stand Up Paddlers have discovered a better way.

Put-in point

This tour begins just outside the city centre at Lammas Land, a large park with children’s play area, paddling pool and conveniently, a car park right next to the river. Enter the water here and head left downstream, immediately passing under a small footbridge and Cambridge Canoe Club on your left. Shortly after, the river passes under Fen Causeway bridge and then things begin to get more interesting as the view to your right opens up and you get your first glimpse of the university buildings. On your left is the boatyard of Scudamore’s punting company with wooden punts stacked high for storage or maintenance.

Portage to Mill Pond

A little further on the Hilton Hotel appears on the right and this marks the portage point, which is down a slipway on the left alongside some flood gates. Enter the water here from a platform at the bottom of the slipway. This is Mill Pond. The water will be calm unless after heavy rain, in which case its best to head past the platform to the left river bank and away from the turbulent waters by the flood gates.

Mathematical Bridge and King’s College

The river widens here but is often congested as punting tours of the Backs set off from this point. Immediately the river passes under Silver Street bridge by the Anchor Pub and with Queen’s College on your left and right you’ll be faced by the wooden skeleton-like frame of the Mathematical Bridge. The river is quite shallow here in places and with King’s College on your right you’ll see another bridge with three archways approaching. Pass through and look immediately to your right for the most spectacular view in Cambridge. It’s worth stopping here to admire the view, with King’s College lawns stretching towards the imposing 15th century King’s College chapel and to its left, the Old Court of Clare College – quite possibly the most photographed spot in Cambridge.

Wren Library and St John’s College New Court

When you’re ready to move on, continue downstream under another couple of footbridges and past Trinity College punts on your right next to a cobbled stone slipway. Beyond the next triple-arched bridge the river follows an S-bend underneath a huge willow tree and on your right, the Wren Library containing many rare notable books and manuscripts. The view to the left is expansive, taking in the lawns of St John’s College and New Court, known as the ‘wedding cake’.

Bridge of Sighs

Around the corner is another must-see sight in Cambridge – the Grade 1-listed Bridge of Sighs. The only way to see the bridge is by paying for access to St John’s College, or better still, from the river itself which affords easily the best views. The river has a more enclosed feel along this short section, with college buildings right up to the water’s edge of both sides.

St John’s College Ivy Wall

Before the Backs tour is complete there’s one more spot to look out for, this time on your left (and actually easier to spot on the return journey) is the 180-year-old wall of ivy on the walls of St John’s College, reputed the largest in the UK and at its most colourful and spectacular in Autumn.

Magdalene College and Jesus Green

The final bridge of this journey is Magdalene Bridge, with Magdalene College on your left. At this point you’re back in the bustle of the city at Quayside with its bars and restaurants and Scudamore’s punting station. Here you have a choice – turn around and complete the tour back to the start, or continue to Jesus Green lock, another 300m or so downriver. If you want to break the tour half way then it’s worth continuing as on a nice day Jesus Green is a great place to pull up on the river bank.

Further information

All craft paddling The Backs, including paddle boards, are required to be registered with the Cam Conservators, who look after the River Cam between Mill Pond and Bottisham Lock to the north of the city. Membership of British Canoeing will suffice, but in addition the Cam Conservators require your membership number to be displayed on your board. Think about a temporary solution if you’re paddling this tour as a one-off. It’s worth noting there are no day passes issued by the Cam Conservators (only annual £55 passes) so British Canoeing annual membership is your best and most cost-effective option.

For a handy map of The Backs including some of the highlights along the route visit the Scudamore’s Punting Company website.