An ode to Dy­lan Thomas in Wales

Trav­el­ling in the poet’s foot­steps

Toronto Sun - - TRAVEL - LANCE HORNBY

LAUGH­ARNE, WALES — On the trail of Dy­lan Thomas, nearly every pub along the Welsh side of the Bris­tol Chan­nel has a pic­ture of their best cus­tomer/na­tional lit­er­ary icon.

Browns Ho­tel, here on King St. down the lane from his boathouse writ­ing shed, has a prom­i­nent black and white of the ro­man­tic poet with his mother, Florence, in their bar. The per­fect place to snap my drink­ing-age son — named Dy­lan Thomas — and his mom in the same seats.

Thou­sands of ad­mir­ers have al­ready come through: Jimmy Carter, Patti Smith, Mick Jag­ger and Pierce Bros­nan, the lat­ter’s son also a Dy­lan Thomas, with dad sup­pos­edly com­pet­ing with Jag­ger to buy a bed Thomas used at Brown’s, now a quaint bou­tique B&B.

Scan­ning the walls at the Queens near Swansea Bay, and the Pilot over­look­ing the pier at Mum­bles beach, it seems the au­thor of Fern Hill, Un­der Milk Wood and A Child’s Christ­mas in Wales never died, just stepped away for a bit. Should he ever re­turn, how­ever, the Dy­lan Thomas Cen­tre in Swansea has a framed copy of a hefty un­paid bar bill in pounds, shillings and pence.

He was just 39 when he died in New York af­ter over- do­ing it on his 1953 Amer­i­can lec­ture tour, but few of his craft crammed so much into so lit­tle time.

The story starts in Swansea, his birth­place and sec­ond largest city in Wales, a short train from West Coun­try English at­trac­tions in Ox­ford, Bath and Torquay.

Cross­ing the Sev­ern River through the green­ery, pas­tures and small rail sta­tions with bilin­gual signs (Welsh is a treat if you can eaves­drop on na­tives), head down Swansea’s lively High Street past cas­tle ru­ins to Thomas’s mas­sive ex­hi­bi­tion and the­atre. The cen­tre high­lights his in­flu­ence on pop cul­ture, start­ing with Bob Dy­lan al­bums and his head shot among the greats on the Bea­tles’ Sgt. Pep­per cover.

Press on to Swansea’s ma­rina vil­las, where vin­tage craft are moored next to shops and res­tau­rants, to the Prom­e­nade, where crash­ing waves do not de­ter lo­cal fish­er­men gath­ered on its steps. Through a squab­ble of seag­ulls, look in the dis­tance for Mum­bles light­house, vis­i­ble as in Thomas’s day from his home at No. 5 Cwn­donkin Drive.

“I grew up to be a sweet baby, a pre­co­cious child, a re­bel­lious boy and a mor­bid youth,” he wrote of Swansea, which had 28,000 un­em­ployed as he reached adult­hood in the De­pres­sion. By that time, he’d mined lo­cal char­ac­ters in and around town for three quar­ters of the prose he’d pro­duce. He com­posed 140 po­ems alone be­tween 1930-33, mostly at Cwn­donkin, a res­i­dence now re­stored with its own tour.

He de­scribed that mod­est abode and sur­round­ings as a world within a world that set his imag­i­na­tion free.

“New refuges and am­bushes in its woods and jun­gles, hid­den homes and lairs for the mul­ti­tude of imag­i­na­tion, from cow­boys and In­di­ans and the tall ter­ri­ble peo­ple who rode on night­mares through my bed­room.”

It’s also where his fa­ther/ teacher in­fused the Welsh

lan­guage, a huge ben­e­fit to Dy­lan’s brief news­pa­per ca­reer at the South Wales

Daily Post and more vi­tally, his elo­cu­tion with the Swansea Lit­tle The­atre com­pany. Now bear­ing his name, the the­atre has its own trove of Thomas let­ters, pho­tos and mem­o­ra­bilia, host­ing read­ings, plays and an an­nual jazz/big band fes­ti­val.

Coun­try­man Richard Bur­ton called Dy­lan “an ex­plo­sive per­form­ing force who ac­quired a taste for ap­plause” dur­ing those early the­atre days.

A 20-to-30-minute bus or rented bike to tiny Mum­bles “an iron tram that shook like jelly” in Thomas’s time, is a de­light. Thomas and friends frol­icked around the pier and looked in vain for mes­sages in a bot­tle to wash ashore. Mum­bles (pos­si­bly com­ing from the French mar­itime slang for breasts) still re­tains

tiny shops in the wind­ing streets, min­gling with water­front cafes.

Fern Hill (“time held me green and dy­ing, though I sang in my chains like the sea”) was writ­ten on hol­i­day at a rel­a­tive’s house near Car­marthen, en route to the fi­nal leg of the Thomas trail to Laugh­arne. A Swansea-to-Car­marthen train and con­nect­ing bus is just an hour to the last place Thomas found con­tent­ment and in­spi­ra­tion.

Pro­nounced ‘larn,’ and cel­e­brated as ‘the strangest town in Wales’ by Thomas, much of it came alive in Un­der Milk

Wood. It’s dom­i­nated by a 900-year-old Nor­man cas­tle, most of which sur­vived var­i­ous con­flicts, chang­ing hands in the English Civil War. Memo­ri­als to Thomas, who

wrote Por­trait of the Artist as a

Young Dog within its walls, and other Welsh he­roes are within the Tu­dor-era rooms.

A re­ward­ing 360-de­gree cas­tle van­tage, af­ter a spi­ral stair­case tower climb, was of hik­ers and dog walk­ers along the Taf River es­tu­ary and a sweep­ing vista of town steeples and graz­ing herds rolling up to the dis­tant Car­marthen­shire hills.

Spon­sor Mar­garet Tay­lor pur­chased the boathouse and its writ­ing shed for Thomas and wife Caitlin in 1938.

“You will find my wife ex­tremely nice; and me small, ar­gu­men­ta­tive, good-tem­pered, lazy, boozy as pos­si­ble,” Thomas said of their of­ten tem­pes­tu­ous mar­riage.

The re­con­structed shed (the orig­i­nal door is dis­played in Swansea), is set up in hap- haz­ard fash­ion for a typ­i­cal Thomas work day, a 15-minute walk from Browns. We met an emo­tional el­derly Thomas fan who called his glimpse into the shed a 60-year pil­grim­age in the mak­ing.

In the mod­est boathouse, with a small en­try fee, some fam­ily fur­ni­ture is still func­tional for guests and his vi­brant BBC record­ings echo through­out. The Dy­lan Thomas Cen­tre fur­ther ex­am­ines his body of work such as film scripts (Re­becca’s Daugh

ters) and Sec­ond World War pro­pa­ganda shorts (A Sol­dier Comes Home).

Be­fore Thomas’s first U.S. visit, many say no one in North Amer­ica had ever heard po­etry re­cited like him. Igor Stravin­sky, who be­came friends with Thomas in his

first U.S. visit, planned an opera around Do Not Go Gen­tle Into That Good Night and Thomas acted in a rare Pablo

Pi­casso play, the farce De­sire

Caught by the Tail.

Af­ter a part­ing pint of Guin­ness at Browns, we sought direc­tions to Thomas’s grave in St. Martin’s Church. The only per­son en­coun­tered in the quiet streets, thank­fully, was the ceme­tery groundskeeper, who knew a short­cut through the crowded yard of head­stones to a sim­ple white cross. Many vis­i­tors leave some­thing by his grave, on this day a sin­gle rose and two empty minia­ture liquor bot­tles were where both he and Caitlin rest.

THE RAIL WAY TO TRAVEL

Seven days, five cities by rail with a fam­ily of four might seem too am­bi­tious.

But from busy Lon­don to the West Coun­try of Eng­land, through South Wales and back, we (and our lug­gage) made it with no prob­lems, max­i­miz­ing our time in one of the world’s must-see re­gions. In trips as short as 10 min­utes or up to three hours, no trains were late, no con­nec­tions missed, as we flashed our Brit Rail South West Flexi Pass, cost spe­cific to our itin­er­ary. Sim­i­lar deals are avail­able for re­gional travel such as within Scot­land, day trips from Lon­don, or at the high-end, full travel through­out Bri­tain.

Only pur­chased through Rail Europe from North Amer­ica (a mo­bile pass de­vice for scan­ning is also an op­tion), we avoided crowds at the gates if ar­riv­ing or de­part­ing at peak times and skipped ticket lines al­to­gether.

There are stan­dard and first-class prices and some al­low chil­dren to ride for free. Though our fam­ily trip was in June near high tourist sea­son, seat­ing for larger groups such as ours was kept open.

Once aboard, there are re­lax­ing views of pas­toral towns, live­stock graz­ing in hill­top fields, seabirds dig­ging for shells at low tide, cy­clists on barge tow paths, and cen­turies’ old churches pop­ping out of the green­ery.

LANCE HORNBY/TORONTO SUN PHO­TOS

A name­sake of Dy­lan Thomas poses by his statue out­side the great poet’s Swansea the­atre. Make time to see this and the nearby Dy­lan Thomas Cen­tre.

Dy­lan Thomas’ unique work space recre­ated here at Laugh­arne Cas­tle in Wales. His shed, cot­tage home and, of course, the lo­cal pub were also his “of­fice.”

Swansea ma­rina, a mix of old and new, and very handy to all sites linked to the great Welsh poet.

As a boy, Thomas and ad­ven­tur­ous friends searched the beach at Mum­bles for mes­sages in a bot­tle. The sea­side, the res­i­dents and its wind­ing streets were the in­spi­ra­tion for many works.

The Mum­bles, about a 20-minute drive from Swansea, has cas­tle ru­ins, invit­ing pubs and a board­walk with sweep­ing views of Swansea Bay.

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