Great rides: A cycling poetry tour from Bristol to Berwick

A woman is standing with a fully loaded touring bike. She is wearing a red winter cycling jacket, scarf and green helmet. Behind her is a lot of country scenery
Caroline Burrows at Grinton Lodge YHA, situated on the slopes of Swaledale
Touring a show around the country usually means driving. For cycle-poet Caroline Burrows – one of our 100 Women in Cycling – getting the show on the road meant living out of her Dawes Horizon’s panniers

Maybe there’s a medieval bard in my genealogy. That’s my theory why I toured my poetry show ‘Turning Pedals into Poems’ from Bristol to Berwick-upon-Tweed over seven weeks in 2022. I performed in arts and community centres, bicycle shops, libraries, book shops, record shops and ethical shops.

I’d trialled a tour the year before, after being chosen for mentorship by The Handlebards, the Shakespeare Theatre Cycling Company. In 2022, they helped me make a funding application and a venue spreadsheet, a word usually avoided by poets.

Tour planning began at the year’s start, juggling routes, venues, accommodation, publicity images, promotion and rehearsing. In retrospect, it was perhaps too much for one cycle-poet to manage.

In March I got Covid, followed by post-viral heart inflammation, making cycling across England seem far-fetched. Then the funding application came back as unsuccessful. I put my stuff in storage and rode on with the show.

A loaded Dawes Galaxy touring bike is leaning against a stone wall of a bridge going over a canal, which is lined with trees and bushes
Following the canal path heading towards Bradford

It’s not easy being green

Travelling with a lower-carbon footprint involves not only taking the road less travelled, as Robert Frost’s poem goes, but also taking the bike less lightweight, packing the bags most bulky, and, compared with driving, spending the time much lengthier.

I’ve had my Dawes Horizon, Bikey, for about 18 years. Others have come, fallen apart, and one even lost an argument with a Volvo, but Bikey has remained a constant.

I considered adding a dynamo to reduce how often I plugged my electronics into the mains, but was concerned that my average speed of 8mph wouldn’t generate sufficient power. Instead, I took solar panels that folded like an A4 hardback.

I set off in August’s heatwave, with solar power and then some, but it was worrying seeing the roadsides of the South-West and the Midlands lined with bleached grass and frazzled willowherb looking like fish skeletons. Later, during rainy days, I did charge indoors.

I filled a quarter of a pannier with prescription meds for niggling chronic conditions. An underactive thyroid makes me intolerant to cold, so I also packed my dad’s 1968 Norwegian woolly jumper. Its age was showing, so I repaired one elbow with a Cycle Touring Festival patch and sewed a cuff from an old glove around the jumper’s unravelling one.

One piece of advice I’d give for planning a tour is to calculate the climbing. Cycling the flat Bristol-to-Bath cycle path is very different from riding in the Peak District, and changes again factoring in camping gear. My limit was a maximum of 1,500ft a day, regardless of mileage.

However, advice is often ignored, often by the person giving it. For one unnecessarily arduous day of only 15 miles, but over 1,500ft of climbing, I blame another poet. Peter was shocked I’d be missing out Winnats Pass in the Peak District.

A woman in a pink sweater and blue jeans is standing in a garden. In front of her is a stand with some notes on. Behind her are several people all sitting down in a rough semi-circle
Performing a gig at Bromley House Library in Nottinghamshire

I told him not to be ridiculous. I’d spent hours engaged in obsessive hill-reduction planning. Why would I include one of the UK’s best-known climbs?

The next day, like a frayed-merino-clad Sisyphus, I pushed Bikey over the pass. I couldn’t even turn round to enjoy the view in case I lost my grip and Bikey hurtled back downwards. Head bowed, I spied a furry caterpillar on the verge making slow progress. We shared a moment.

You don’t get the ups without the downs

Entering the Yorkshire Dales and Pennines, I rotated suncream and waterproofs. The campsite near Leyburn was waterlogged so I cycled north to Grinton Lodge YHA.

The scenery was outstanding, interspersed with military signs that ordered no stopping, and forbade going off road where army shooting practice boards were visible. At my speed, I would have barely been a moving target.

At the YHA I received an email cancelling my next gig at short notice. I phoned alternatives. No joy. So I put a call out on social media and someone got in touch.

Allie was part of what I now call the Angels of Barnard Castle. Between them, a pop-up gig and accommodation were arranged for the following day. All I had to do was get there.

My friend Brenda phoned. I’d first seen her teaching how to make your own tarp at the Cycle Touring Festival. She warned me against going over the Stang, which she’d struggled with on an e-bike. Komoot showed a kinder route further west.

I set off in sunshine, popping into a bike shop to tell them about the gig, and in Reeth bought bread rolls for lunch. I was slower than usual and wondered if my thyroid was making me tired. A few miles on, I checked the front brake. It was locking on, the wheel barely spinning.

I got it working but then the same thing occurred, and I was about to ride into sparsely populated hills, with no phone signal. Feeling dejected, I reached a pub and asked for help.

A loaded touring bike is leaning against a wooden fence next to a country road. In the background is the high moorland of Holme Moss
Caroline and Bikey take a breather on Holme Moss

They let me phone the bike shop I’d passed, and a man gave me a lift in his 4×4. One of my water bottles emptied across the back. I was very apologetic.

The shop mechanic couldn’t replace the brakes but made a temporary fix. Then I set off, along the same roads I’d cycled three hours before but now in heavy rain. At the turning, there wasn’t a road but a gravel path. Going back meant the Stang but carrying onwards lead to Tan Hill, Britain’s highest pub.

I took the path most gravelly, which deteriorated into rocky, flooded potholes. Apparently, there are two types of fun: type A and type B. I was having neither when I reached a gate saying I was on the Pennine Bridleway. All I could see were hills and sheep.

I’d forgotten to refill the spilled bottle and had drunk my other one. Maybe food would help? I got out the rolls and squeezy honey. The honey had set irretrievably solid at the bottom. Only the sheep could hear me scream.

You don’t get the downs without the ups

I felt like the long-distance hikers I’d met camping at Crowden, all walking the Pennine Way. I sucked on my rain-infused bread and trudged the bike through puddles, knowing I’d get somewhere eventually.

Never was I so happy to spot a distant road with lorries speeding down it. Farmhouses appeared. Another gate. Tarmac. A village. A bench. A phone signal. It hadn’t been that far but had felt it.

A woman in blue jeans, red jacket and pink sweater is standing holding the handlebar of a packed touring bike that is leaning against a cycle hoop. They are outside a big stone building
Caroline and Bikey at Hexham’s Queen’s Hall Arts Centre, ready for another gig

I arrived just in time to get changed and into my host’s car, with a bowl of pasta on my lap, to get to McNab’s Books. It was a delight, with a cosy group discussing their own stories with my poems. An evening of heaven after the day from hell.

Other tour highlights included admiring wind turbines spinning while cycling towards Alnwick in an impossible headwind; recording a poem for the ethical bank Triodos on Hadrian’s Wall Path; being the support act for a cycling stand-up comedian; performing under a willow tree in Shakespeareland (very Ophelia-esque); and getting lost on the moors with a friend in Brontë country, an authentic Wuthering Heights experience.

No cycle-poet is an island

That’s how I’d have titled John Donne’s poem if I were writing it almost 400 years later. Help for my tour came in many forms. Some venues provided accommodation. I slept on a boat, in the attic room of a historic house and a sports’ changing room.

I stayed with a Green councillor and an organiser of Berwick’s Great Big Green Week. When venues helped, I taught free poetry sessions before gigs. I also stayed with Warmshowers and Cycle Touring Friends hosts, including a penny-farthing rider and another of Cycling UK’s 2022’s 100 Women in Cycling.

Adam Crowther promoted the tour on BBC Radio and Cycling Minds, a Cycling UK 2023 Volunteer Award Group, spread the word in Hexham. Family, friends and friends of friends also provided moments of calm shelter. Quite a few local bike shops kept my temperamental front brake going until a new one was fitted in Newcastle.

I cycled and performed solo but couldn’t have done that without the help of so many people.

Fact file: Turning Pedals into Poems tour

Distance: 580 miles.
Climbing: 24,500ft.
Route: Bristol to Stratford-upon-Avon, Cotesbach, Stamford, Nottingham, Matlock Bath, Holmfirth, Bradford, Barnard Castle, Hexham, Newcastle, Bamburgh, and Berwick-upon-Tweed. (I detoured to Middlesbrough for a train to Hexham due to front brake issues, and got a lift between Holmfirth and Keighley.)
Conditions: A heatwave, heavy downpours, strong headwinds and some pleasant summer days.
Accommodation: Camping, YHA, Warmshowers, Cycle Touring Friends, family, friends and friends of friends.
Bike used: Dawes Horizon touring bike (Bikey, also known as Old Reliable).
Maps/guides: Komoot. Pages from a road map of Britain. Local knowledge.
I’m glad I had: My dad’s woolly jumper. Shimano Gore-Tex cycling boots; overshoes are never waterproof enough. A Highlander camping chair/mat.
Next time I would: Buy honey in a glass jar. Plan a few days at the end at a spa to recover.
Further info: @VerseCycle on social media.

More about 100 Women in Cycling

I found out I was one of Cycling UK’s 100 Women in Cycling while rolling out my sleeping mat in a very cold sports’ changing room in Bamburgh Pavilion. It was wonderful to be included among other women involved in genuinely meaningful endeavours such as leading community groups, campaigning, and promoting cycling.

Naming 100 women each year showcases the many different and marvellous ways cycling can be championed and celebrated in an inclusive way, and demonstrates there are styles of cycling activity to suit everyone.