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 though: 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 overdoing 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 haphazard 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 Daughters) 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 BritRail 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.
IF YOU GO
For sites and accommodation in Swansea, Mumbles and the surrounding area, contact: visitswanseabay.com.
Taf Valley Coaches operates buses to Laugharne from Carmarthen. There are limited rooms at Browns (www.browns.wales), but other Laugharne hotels are available.
Raileurope.ca is the place to purchase BritRail tickets and passes outside the U.K.
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