Words, sweat and gears: poetry bike tour spreads festival's message across the South Downs
Six poets and two musicians on Tuesday set off on the first leg of a four-day, 100-mile poetry bike tour of the South Downs as part of an inaugural poetry festival stretching from East and West Sussex to Hampshire. The day proved to be the hottest of the year, with temperatures reaching 30C. Yet Hugh Greasley, Hugh Dunkerley, Stella Bahin, Paul Deaton, Sam Meekings, John Davies, Chris Hodgson, and Sophie Butler were equal to the task, reaching and reading at their five appointed venues, from Beachy Head, via Birling Gap, Alfriston, Charleston, to Firle. At the final reading in St Peter’s church, Firle, one of the poets, Paul Deaton, said it had been a “spell-binding day”.
The cycling was clearly not entirely a breeze. It included some off-road riding along the South Downs Way, and some hills where some poets took a breather and walked up. At the third stop at Much Ado Books in the impossibly-beautiful village of Alfriston - where only a sign advertising a “roaring log fire” in the George pub failed to strike the right note – South Downs poetry festival organiser and bike tour organiser Tim Dawes said the reading would have to be a bit shorter than advertised: “I did intend for us to go on a bit longer, but we do need to give these cyclists a rest.”
Not much of a rest, though. Soon it was to the next reading at the famous Charleston, home of Vanessa Bell and gathering place of the Bloomsbury Group. I’m not sure you would have caught any of those celebrated aesthetes doing something as physically strenuous as a poetry bike ride.
Hugh Dunkerley, pictured above, right, who leads the creative writing course at Chichester University, gave his definition of that “strange kind of creature, the prose-poem”, saying that what made it different from the short story was that it was not about narrative, “it’s all about association”. He also read a number of poems about fatherhood, and about his prematurely-born son.
There was a poem called ‘Protest’ from Sam Meekings; and guest poets at St Peter’s included the inventive Jeremy Page, St Peter’s own popular vicar Peter Jones, and Firle co-ordinator and nurse Caroline Poplett, with a poignant poem about dementia.
Today (Wednesday) the poets were cycling on to Lewes, Ditchling, and Steyning, and facing a strenuous Thursday including Petworth, Midhurst, Petersfield, and Steep, famed home of Edward Thomas. Friday, the last day of the tour, will see the poetry cyclists zigzag across east Hampshire. The festival culminates in a big weekend over 22-24 July in Petersfield, with poets such as Andrew McMillan, Penelope Shuttle and Jonathan Edwards among those appearing.
I had persuaded my wife, and two good friends of ours who live in Eastbourne, and didn’t seem to mind a bit, to accompany me as we followed the bicycling poets across the landscape and through the villages of the South Downs. As we drove from Beachy Head towards Alfriston with the roof down, a breeze just ameliorating the heat, our soundtrack the song of skylarks, I mused on how it can be a tough job, working as a poetry journalist. But, you know, someone’s got to do it.
PHOTOGRAPHS: GREG FREEMAN / WRITE OUT LOUD