independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Go Wild in Wales

Adventurous escapades and whimsical interludes . . . Nicola Brady explores the home of Dylan Thomas

Coasteering in Wales

It was late when we arrived in Laugharne, and the Welsh village appeared to be sleeping. The windows of the houses were dark and the lights from the castle illuminated an empty estuary. A few men lingered outside the village pub, the only sign of life in a blissfully quiet hamlet.

In his play 'Under Milk Wood', Dylan Thomas described Laugharne as "lulled and dumbfound", "starless and bible-black". The peace and solitude must have suited him as he called the village home for a number of years, the time he spent there inspiring much of his later work.

On the main street of the village we pottered into Browns Hotel, where Thomas whiled away many an evening. The small reading room next to the bar holds a selection of books dedicated to the man himself, which you can peruse while nursing an ale. Nowadays, it's home to an eclectic bunch of locals, joined regularly by visiting fans of the poet.

The next morning, the sleeping village had awoken and we set off to explore. Considering his strong presence in Laugharne, we thought the Dylan Thomas Boathouse would be as good a place as any to start.

The boathouse was one of the places called home by the writer during his time in the village. Perched on the edge of a coastal hill, the tiny building has been carefully maintained, capturing the spirit of the era in which Thomas lived.

The main parlour appears frozen in time, with magazines stacked next to a sunken armchair. I settled down with a 'Vogue' from July 1953, thinking that this was the kind of museum I could get used to.

The only thing that could tempt me from my seat was the tea room downstairs. Floral crockery towered next to our table in an old armoire, as traditional Welsh cakes and scones came out alongside a pot of Earl Grey.

Bellies full and minds in slumber, we weren't quite ready to return to the present day. So when we ambled back into Laugharne and passed a small sign for a 1940s museum, we made our way there.

The Tin Shed Experience (tinshedexperience.co.uk) is just that – a tin shed, and quite an experience. Founded by two friends with a shared dream and passion, the exhibition was born thanks to an extensive private collection of Second World War memorabilia.

But stuffy wartime museum this is not. We were led around by Matt, who talked us through each of the pieces and brought them to life. He explained the details of a soldier's uniform, the glamour of the formal outfits and the horror of a gas mask. As we made our way around the shed, he picked up several pieces, urging us to feel the stitching of a jacket and the weight of a flak vest.

At the back of the lot, there's a corrugated metal shack surrounded by woodland and fields. Built to fit in with the style of the original shed, the house resembles an old cabin from the Deep South. Inside, the interior is filled with quality mementos from the 1940s. Most of the contents were donated from local homes, whose owners had clung to unopened bottles of fig syrup and vacuum-packed coffee.

Speakers hidden in the walls blared out the sound of low-flying aircraft, so realistic that we jumped. Unnerving as that was, the small bunker outside reinforced the reality of life during wartime.

That's not to say the Tin Shed is a completely sombre experience. Gigs, concerts and parties are often held in the garden, with guests in retro dress, ready to party like it's 1949.

But this corner of Wales isn't all poetry and retro living. It's also one of the best locations for adventure sports, with a stunning coastline just begging to be explored. Preseli Venture (preseliventure.co.uk) is an adventure centre in Pembrokeshire where people are taken into the wild for various activities, including coasteering.

The idea of jumping off cliffs into the rocky sea didn't appeal, so we opted for a kayaking trip instead. Our guide, Jon, took us to the nearby waters of Abercastle Harbour. We stood on the beach, watching the rather alarming waves smash into the rocks, and listened very carefully to his safety tips.

A little apprehensive, we made our way into the bay, taking a few minutes to learn the basics of paddling, before heading out into what can only be described as white water.

We weren't so much bobbing on the waves as smashing through them, surfing the peaks and troughs. Jon was whooping and cheering with every break, as the adventurous are wont to do.

His spirit was contagious, and soon I was roaring with the best of them. Minutes into our adventure, a seal popped his head out of the water and started to swim towards us, eager to see what all the fuss was about.

"Are you feeling brave?" Jon's voice carried over the sound of waves pounding into the cliff edge.

Oddly, I was. Which explains why I followed him through a small gap in the cliffs to engage in what is known as rock hopping. My friend stayed back, looking decidedly queasy in her rocking kayak, while I followed Jon as he paddled hard through the crevasse.

Whatever I was doing with my paddle, it was through no choice of my own. The waves carried me every which way, as I somehow made my way through to the other side. The only problem was getting back.

I thought that being carried by the wave would be more helpful than fighting it, but as the swell rose in my wake, I realised I was mistaken. Quickly and swiftly, the wall of water took control and I found myself upside down.

It took a few seconds for me to realise where I was. Jon had told us what to do if we capsized, but his words flew out of my head when I was trapped under the water. I forgot it all, despite the steps being incredibly simple and logical. Logic had left me, so it was fortunate that by simply panicking and pushing I was soon free, carried to the surface by my buoyancy aid.

Jon was soon by my side, helping me back into my boat and marvelling at my escapade. Confused, and really quite soggy, the adrenaline coursed through me and I felt like an audacious buccaneer, rather than a clumsy oaf.

After what I referred to as a near-death experience, I decided that a little treat was in order. Back down along the coast, in the pretty town of Saundersfoot, was just the spa that I deserved.

The vitality pool at St Brides Spa overlooks the beach, with water heated to exact body temperature and jets to pummel sore back muscles. And if that wasn't enough, four different thermal rooms are just inside, from a salt-infused steam room to a herbal rock sauna.

Getting massaged by jets of warm water was definitely preferable to being battered by the ocean.

Dusk began to fall, turning the sky a brilliant purple over the bay as I lay back in the salt water. As the sun disappeared behind the horizon, it seemed that this place could make a poet out of anyone.

Need to know

Getting there

Stena Line (01-204 7777; stenaline.ie) sails from Rosslare to Fishguard twice daily, with fares starting at €178 return for a car and passenger (additional passengers are €33pp each way).

Foot passengers pay €35 to travel at any time.

Places to stay

The stylish Browns Hotel (0044 199 442 7688; browns-hotel.co.uk) has recently reopened, designed as a 1940s boutique bolthole. Each room is quirky and unique, with antique furniture and thick Welsh woollen blankets. Rooms from £80 (€93) with breakfast.

On a cliff-top overlooking the sea, St Brides Spa Hotel (0044 183 481 2304; stbridesspahotel.com) is another classic destination to have reopened in recent years. The food is delectable and the spa stunning. Rooms from £150 (€175) with breakfast and use of the spa.

Irish Independent

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