Poet in motion
Marc Zakian visits West Wales on the Dylan Thomas trail, from Swansea to Laugharne
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?
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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
Memorial: Thomas statue, Swansea
At rest: Thomas’s grave at Laugharne