Poet in mo­tion

Marc Zakian vis­its West Wales on the Dy­lan Thomas trail, from Swansea to Laugh­arne

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Britain -

DY­LAN called it his ugly, lovely, town’, Pat Hughes tells me in her sonorous South Wales lilt, and from here you can see why.’’ We are stand­ing on Mount Pleas­ant, a fan­ci­fully named hill over­look­ing a Vic­to­rian cityscape re­shaped by blitz and 1970s con­crete. But, de­spite the at­ten­tions of the Luft­waffe and town plan­ners, Swansea’s soul is in­tact, bustling to the mu­si­cal chat­ter of a peo­ple im­mor­talised in the po­etry of its great­est son, Dy­lan Thomas.

Hughes is my guide to Thomas’s Swansea. Known to lo­cals as Pat the voice’’, she is a walk­ing one-wom­an­show of Thomas fact, folk­lore and off-the-cuff po­etry recitals. I fol­low her blonde shock of hair down to the Up­lands area of Swansea, where the Thomas story be­gins. Any writer born at 5 Cwm­donkin Drive was des­tined to savour the sur­real. The po­lite sub­ur­ban Ed­war­dian house clings to the side of the hill at such a mad­cap an­gle, it should long ago have slid down into Swansea Bay. Baby Dy­lan’s view of the world was framed by the criss-cross of glass panes that look down from the first-floor front bed­room on to the park.

Lit­tle Dy­lan grew up ad­ven­tur­ing in Cwm­donkin Park. His school­mas­ter fa­ther D. J. was des­per­ate for his son to go to uni­ver­sity, but Thomas ju­nior dis­cov­ered the nearby Up­lands Tav­ern, and his life-long love af­fair with beer be­gan. The Dy­lan Thomas pub trail leads to the port. In his day the haunt of sailors’ molls, it is now a shiny dock­side ma­rina, be­gun well be­fore Cardiff trum­peted its dock­lands de­vel­op­ment, Pat in­sists. If Swansea turned a blind eye to its way­ward son when he was alive, it is mak­ing up for it now: out­side the Dy­lan Thomas The­atre, in Dy­lan Thomas Square, is a squat, gun­metal statue of the poet. Vis­i­tors rub his foot for good luck and pay homage by of­fer­ing him a sip of beer.

The for­mer portside town hall is now the Dy­lan Thomas Cen­tre. The col­lec­tion is the work of Jeff Towns, who mi­grated from West Ham to West Wales in the 70s. Dis­cov­er­ing that his favourite singer Bob Dy­lan took his name from the town poet, Towns started read­ing Thomas, opened Dy­lan’s Book Store and be­gan ac­quir­ing Thomas mem­o­ra­bilia. In 1995 the city bought the col­lec­tion to cre­ate the Thomas Mu­seum.

To the north of Swansea is the tiny vil­lage of Bron­wydd, flanked by wooded Car­marthen­shire hills and trout streams. It is home to the Gwili Rail­way, a vin­tage steam line lov­ingly tended by lo­cal vol­un­teers. The rail­way is famed for its Thomas the Tank En­gine days, but it was the poet Thomas’s legacy that brought a film crew here to shoot scenes for the starry new biopic of the poet, The Edge of Love .

The Gwili Rail­way’s friendly con­troller is Jeremy John. Sit­ting in the dusty Vic­to­rian wooden wait­ing room cum of­fice, like many a good Welsh­man, John has a Dy­lan Thomas story to tell: I was a po­lice­man for 35 years. One of my jobs was to con­trol the fu­neral of Thomas’s wife Caitlin in Laugh­arne. It was just me and a traf­fic war­den, all very or­derly, un­til their daugh­ter Aeronwy threw a flower into the grave, then the press went mad.’’

The mod­ern me­dia went mad at Bron­wydd, swarm­ing the ad­join­ing fields dur­ing the film­ing of The Edge of Love , des­per­ate for a glimpse of Si­enna Miller and Keira Knight­ley. Amid the pa­parazzi frenzy, John and his vol­un­teers steamed up the trains and dressed in 40s cos­tume to be ex­tras. They cast me for my World War II mous­tache,’’ John says, chuck­ling. The makeup artists were de­lighted they didn’t need a false one.’’

The Gwili Rail­way poses as Tenby sta­tion for the film. Tenby was never on the rail­way, but the film takes dra­matic li­cence. In any case the ever-pen­ni­less Thomas barely had money to pay for a rail fare, as he hitched and blagged his way around the coastal towns of West Wales in search of a place to write.

What the lit­tle fish­ing vil­lage of New Quay made of Dy­lan and Caitlin when they stayed in a cliffside bun­ga­low here in 1944 is hard to imag­ine. Even to­day New Quay is a glo­ri­ously old-fash­ioned bucket-andspade town of ice cream cones, slot ma­chines and white­washed gwely y brecwast (B & B) houses.

The town’s sin­gle main street snakes past the Black Lion Ho­tel. Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, this is New Quay’s mon­u­ment to Thomas. He called it his pink-washed pub . . . wait­ing for Satur­day night as an over-jolly girl waits for sailors’’.

In­side, on the wooden beams, is a quote from Un­der Milk­Wood Time passes. Lis­ten. Time passes.’’ Though in New Quay, I’m not sure it does.

If there is one place that cap­tures the soul of Thomas it is the time­less, beau­ti­ful, barmy (both spellings)’’ sea­side vil­lage of Laugh­arne. Thomas joked that he got off the bus here and for­got to get back on. It’s not dif­fi­cult to see why: a writer could not wish for a more ro­man­tic set­ting, with the raggedy re­mains of the cas­tle stand­ing watch over the green marshes and heron­priested shore’’ of the Taf es­tu­ary.

Thomas loved his Laugh­arne boathouse home, which he called a seashaken house on a break­neck of rocks’’. As I scale the steep cliffside steps to visit, a lo­cal, seem­ingly drawn from the pages of Un­der Milk Wood (based on Laugh­arne), won­ders how the bug­ger ever got up ere, be­ing drunk all the time’’. The in­side of the boathouse is fur­nished as it was in the poet’s time: a

‘ house-proud par­lour and a mod­estly neat lounge.

He lived here from 1949 un­til he boozed him­self to obliv­ion on a visit to New York in 1953. His body was brought back for burial in Laugh­arne’s gothic St Martin’s Church. A sim­ple white cross stands at the cen­tre of the grave­yard. Pil­grims bring tributes, from a white plas­tic toy horse to an aptly empty whisky bot­tle. Dy­lan is here in spirit. Why would he want to get back on the bus out of Laugh­arne?

Check­list

TheEd­ge­ofLove , with Matthew Rhys as Dy­lan Thomas and Si­enna Miller as Caitlin, is now show­ing in Aus­tralian cin­e­mas. In Swansea, the Dy­lan Thomas Fes­ti­val runs from Oc­to­ber 23 to Novem­ber 10 each year. More: www.dy­lan­thomas.com. Pat Hughes re­ceived an MBE in 2005 for her work pro­mot­ing the legacy of Thomas. For more in­for­ma­tion on her tours: pat­mer­lyn1@ya­hoo.co.uk. The best place to stay in th­ese parts is Ty Mawr Man­sion and Coun­try House. Martin Macalpine has turned this Ge­or­gian manor in the Aeron val­ley into a re­lax­ing re­treat amid graz­ing sheep and blue­bell fields. It was an ideal hide­away for the ac­tors who stayed here dur­ing the film­ing of TheEd­ge­ofLove . I stay in the red-themed Keira Knight­ley Suite (she is no longer there) with its flo­ral canopied bed; Macalpine ap­pears as an ex­tra in the film. More: www.ty­mawr­man­sion.co.uk. www.dy­lan­thomasthe­atre.org.uk www.dy­lan­thomas­boathouse.com www.aus.vis­it­wales.com

Seashaken house’: The boathouse at Laugh­arne that Dy­lan Thomas shared with his wife Caitlin in the fi­nal years of his life

His­toric site: The ruin of Laugh­arne cas­tle, on the Taf es­tu­ary near the boathouse

Il­licit pas­sion: Keira Knight­ley and Matthew Rhys in TheEd­ge­ofLove

Pic­ture: Marc Zakian

Memo­rial: Thomas statue, Swansea

At rest: Thomas’s grave at Laugh­arne

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