Travel: Following the trail of Wales's greatest bard
To begin at the beginning: it is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent . . . . and all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.’
In fact Laugharne, the inspiration for the fictional seaside village of Llareggub (try saying it backwards), the star of Dylan Thomas’s beguiling play for voices’ Under Milk Wood, is anything but silent. A spring night it may be, but when a gang of us descend on the bar at Brown’s Hotel, scene of so many drunken evenings in Dylan’s day, the place rings with the lubricated noise and laughter of an intriguing cast of characters who seem to have walked straight from the pages of Wales’s most famous bard, whose centenary we are marking.
We have indeed begun at the beginning. After overnighting in Cardiff’s stylish St David’s Hotel, we were bussed to Swansea, and specifically Number 5, Cwymdonkin Drive, where the poet started life and wrote two thirds of his work. Rather improbably our first encounter is (in the form of a welcoming DVD) with President Jimmy Carter, who as a young man chanced upon Thomas’ extordinarly powerful poem A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London and became a passionate enthusiast and promoter of his work. Number 5 was a new house when it was bought in 1914 by schoolmaster DJ Thomas and his wife Florence; Dylan Marlais was born that August in the upstairs bedroom and would spend 23 years here.
The house has been meticulously, authentically restored from its disintegration and of this terrace of six houses is the only one to retain original doors, windows and skirting boards. The family’s maid Emily was consulted about the layout and details of how the household operated. So Dylan’s tiny bedroom brilliantly (and, it has to be said, slightly repellently) has the fug and ambience of the male adolescent bedroom, with overflowing ashtrays, unmade bed and postcards depicting his heroes — in this case, Yeats, Joyce, Greta Garbo.
Round the corner, past the house where Martin Amis was born (his father Kingsley was a lecturer at Swansea University in the Fifties), we arrive at Cwymdonkin Park where the poet played as a child. Our guide Annie Haden is Swansea born and bred and is steeped in Thomas, this boy’ whom she patently reveres; conversely, her spleen for Kingsley is matched by her contempt for Dylan’s wild Irish wife Caitlin Macnamara.) This verdant park, with its paths of bluebells and Dylan’s words cut into commemorative stones, was the location in April for Welsh Mam’s Day, inaugurated to honour the memory of the put upon Florrie Thomas who, in a span of 16 months, would bury her husband and both children: Nancy predeceased Dylan by less than a year from liver cancer. Overlooking the park are houses once used as a refuge for fallen women; as Annie remarks, even in this small area there was a lot for him to draw on.’
From here, it’s a short journey to the Maritime Quarter and the Dylan Thomas Centre, opened by President Carter in 1995, and home to a permanent exhibition celebrating his life and work. I loved looking at his notebooks while listening to that other Welsh giant Richard Burton declaim the words. Just before his final, fatal tour of America in the winter of 1953, Thomas asked Burton for money to help educate his children. Burton refused and felt such guilt subsquently that he dedicated the proceedings of his recording of Under Milk Wood to the Thomas estate. There’s also a chance to view the sombre footage of Dylan’s funeral — the final heartrending frame shows an elderly woman standing alone by her wayward, brilliant son’s grave.
We leave his birth place — ugly,lovely town’ as he put it — and enjoy a superb lunch in Patricks with Rooms at Mumbles, the pretty seaside village which is the gateway to the wonderful Gower peninsula. Here come the moneyed Welsh: native Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas have a holiday home in these parts. The appeal of this rugged, unspoilt and spectacularly beautiful coastline is obvious; even Thomas who considered himself a townee’, acknowledged his work was deeply influenced by the rural beauty of Carmarthenshire, where he spent some of his childhood with his relatives on the farm that inspired Fern Hill, my first introduction to him, as to so many Irish schoolchidlren in the Seventies (when he didn’t feature on the Welsh syllabus).
And so to Laugharne (pronounced larn), where Dylan spent much of the last decade of his life with his family. They settled in the Boathouse, preserved now as a museum. The setting with its views over the estuary is lyrical but it’s hard to think of this feckless pair raising their three young children in this cramped, remote spot. On the other hand, it’s easy to see him in the Writing Shed. A stone’s throw away, it’s impeccably preserved with a functioning fire, the boiled sweets he loved so much, numerous postcards of his literary heroes (Lawrence and Sitwell have by now joined the icons of his youth) and images by Botticelli and Gauguin - he liked tits and bums’ adds our guide wryly. Above his desk, like flypapers, hang strips of words which he used for alliteration and assonance.
At the medieval castle in the village, we visit the circular gazebo where he also liked to compose alongside Richard Thomas, author of A High Wind in Jamaica, who also lived here with his family and was more tolerated by the Laugharnians.
I think Dylan, who wrote a collection of poetry entitled Deaths and Entrances, would approve of the place where we conclude our brief voyage around his short, fascinating life. Hedgerows of valerian, wild garlic and ragged robin fringe the shaded path which leads to the small sloping graveyard at St Martin’s Church where he’s buried. A simple white cross bears his name and dates (and on the reverse those of Caitlin with whom he shares this sacred space). Annie urges us to follow tradition and leave coins and sweets. She places a roll-up cigarette at the base of the crucifix: there you are, mate.’ It is a moving moment and one which adds poignant dimension to his most powerful and memorable lines, from the first poem he published at the tender age of 18: Though lovers be lost love shall not;/And death shall have no dominion.”
Dylan Thomas centenary celebrations (www.dylanthomas100.org) run until November 2014. Visit Cwmdonkin Drive (www.5cwmdonkindrive.com) to see the place of Dylan’s birth and the Dylan Thomas Centre, both in Swansea. In Laugharne, Brown’s Hotel prices start from £95 per room including breakfast www.browns-hotel.co.uk. St David’s Spa Hotel with rooms from £95 per night (www.thestdavidshotel.com). For more information go to www.visitwales.com
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