By Monique Burns.
With velvety green hills and dells, craggy mountains and moon-shaped bays, sandy estuaries dappled with cockles and mussels and miles of coast lapped by wave-struck seas, Wales has inspired countless writers, dramatists and musicians. Perhaps the most legendary of all was native son Dylan Thomas, author of lyrical classics like “Fern Hill” and “Under Milk Wood.” On a week long trip, experience a Dylan Thomas pilgrimage in Wales by visiting the poet’s many haunts. From the lively pubs of his Swansea birthplace to his final resting place in the tiny village of Laugharne, wherever you go you’ll be charmed by the “water lidded lands” and “harp shaped hills” that inspired him.
On the Atlantic Ocean facing the Celtic Sea and clinging fiercely to England’s west coast, Wales is easily reached. From Boston or New York, it’s a six-hour flight to London’s Heathrow Airport. Once there, catch a 30-minute express train to Paddington Station, then hop a Great Western Railway train for the two-hour journey to Cardiff. Wales’ lively bayside capital is known for attractions like 11th-century Cardiff Castle with its incomparable stained-glass windows and The National Museum with the largest collection of Impressionist works outside Paris. It’s also known as the birthplace of Welsh legends Roald Dahl, author of children’s classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and singer Shirley Bassey.
From Cardiff, it’s a one-hour journey west by car or train to Swansea. In Thomas’ “ugly, lovely town” with its big sandy bay and waterfront pubs, its tree-shaded hills and smokestack-fretted skyline, the poet was born in 1914, spent his first 23 years and composed two-thirds of his work. Known as “Copperopolis” in the days when it produced 60 percent of the world’s copper, Swansea lost more than 800 buildings during a 1941 Nazi blitzkrieg. Miraculously, many of the poet’s haunts survived.
Book a room at downtown Morgans Hotel. Swansea’s former Port Authority, the stately brick-and-limestone building features luxurious rooms with polished woodwork and high ceilings plus an elegant dining room and spacious bar. Morgans is steps from the former offices of the South Wales Evening Post, where young Dylan Thomas worked for a year before devoting himself to poetry. On nearby Gloucester Place, The Queens Hotel still features the long burnished wood bar of Thomas’ day. But you won’t see any of the poet’s “shilling women,” who wrote the price of their favors on the soles of their shoes. Opposite Morgans on pub-lined Wind Street is yet another Thomas watering hole: the No Sign Bar at no.56.
Fittingly, The Dylan Thomas Centre, around the corner from Morgans, hosts the annual Dylan Thomas Festival October 27-November 9. Reflecting Thomas’ reputation as both a respected man of letters and a beer-swilling man-about-town, the two-week poetry, music and theater extravaganza is similarly eclectic. Expect any and every thing–from a solemn reading by Gillian Clarke, Wales’ National Poet–to a bawdy Bluestocking Lounge burlesque show with stimulating striptease acts interspersed by Dylan Thomas verse.
The center’s permanent Dylan Thomas Exhibit features the poet’s doodles and family photos as well as manuscripts and playbills. Also on display: the borrowed, ink-stained suit Thomas wore during his fatal 1953 New York lecture tour when he died allegedly after guzzling 18 glasses of whiskey at Greenwich Village’s White Horse Tavern.
In the hilltop enclave of The Uplands, the Dylan Thomas Birthplace, a narrow, semi-detached brick-and-stucco “villa,” is open daily for tours. The cozy downstairs parlor has a fireplace flanked by white ceramic poodles, a shiny brass gramophone and the flowered couch and easy chairs where “the uncles snoozed” in A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dylan’s poignant childhood reminiscence.
On the second floor in the sunny front bedroom where Dylan Thomas was born, take in panoramic views of Swansea Bay, then visit the tiny, monk-like bedroom where he penned two-thirds of his life’s work. To really commune with Thomas, ring up homeowner Geoff Haden and rent the four-bedroom house for several overnights.
Facing the house are the rolling greens, huge yew trees and massive oaks of Cwmdonkin Park, which the poet immortalized as “a world within the world of the sea town.” See the cast-iron fountain from Dylan’s boyhood days and the more recent memorial boulder shaded by weeping willows and inscribed with the final verse of his celebrated poem, “Fern Hill.”
In Dylan Thomas Square, the poet’s bronze statue overlooks a yacht-filled marina. Steps away in the Dylan Thomas Theatre, formerly the Swansea Little Theatre, the poet once performed. Also nearby, the Grape & Olive in the Meridian Tower serves up well-crafted Welsh specialties like fish pie and lamb cawl, or stew, with fine local ales. While there, drink in 360-degree views of the aforementioned “water lidded lands” and “harp shaped hills” that influenced Thomas. About five miles west is the town of Mumbles whose single bayside street, the Mumbles Mile, is lined with inns and restaurants. Be sure to pop your head into two more Dylan Thomas haunts: The Mermaid Café and The Antelope Pub.
Picturesque little Mumbles is gateway to the grand Gower Peninsula, ringed by more than a dozen bays and a dozen beaches. As a teenager, Dylan climbed Rhossili Bay’s limestone cliffs and romanced girls on the golden sands of Caswell and Langland bays. Today, visitors surf, kayak, camp and ride horses and mountain bikes. Hikers can trek the 35-mile Gower Way. Or the 39-mile Gower leg of the 870-mile Wales Coast Path, the first walking trail ever to encircle an entire country.
An hour’s drive west of Swansea is the tiny town of Laugharne, besieged each spring during the Laugharne Weekend of music, poetry, theater and film. In that “legendary lazy little black magical bedlam by the sea” Dylan Thomas spent his final four years. Entering Laugharne—pronounced “larn”— you’ll pass St. Martin’s Churchyard where Thomas and his wife lie beneath a simple white cross. Pay your respects, then stroll down King Street to lively Brown’s Hotel. Dylan Thomas held court there daily, seated in a bay window, playing cards and sipping pints of ale with “live white lather” and “brass-bright depths.” Upstairs are 15 spacious well-appointed rooms, renovated in 2012. Around the corner is another restored Dylan Thomas haunt: The New Three Mariners Inn, with six rooms and bountiful breakfasts boasting thick, meaty Welsh bacon.
For his elderly parents, Dylan Thomas rented lime-green Pelican House, across from Brown’s. In his famous 1951 poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” he urged his dying father to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Two years later Dylan’s own body, carried home by ship from New York, would lay in state in that very house.
Corran Books, a few doors away, is presided over by white-haired, leonine George Tremlett, the Dylan Thomas biographer who also co-wrote the 1986 autobiography by Caitlin Macnamara, Dylan’s golden-haired wife and muse. In that tell-all book—detailing the couple’s enduring love as well as their drunken brawls and frequent infidelities—Caitlin recalled their happiest years spent at Sea View, a yellow and white house around the corner. It’s a short walk from there to the River Taf estuary. In Castle House, beside the ruins of 13th-century Laugharne Castle, English novelist Richard Hughes wrote his 1929 bestseller, A High Wind in Jamaica and Thomas penned his 1940 short-story collection, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.
Just beyond, in the Writing Shed, an empty beer bottle and manuscript still grace the poet’s red writing table. Here Thomas wrote “Under Milk Wood,” his famous play for voices while contemplating cattle grazing across the estuary on Sir John’s Hill.
Gentleman-farmer Bob Stevens, who still keeps cattle there, has laid out a two-mile Dylan Thomas Birthday Walk based on Dylan’s 30th-birthday trek, recalled in “Poem in October.” From atop the rise you can see clear across the estuary’s opalescent blue waters rimmed, as Thomas wrote, with “mussel pooled and heron Priested shores.”
Jutting out on a cliff above the estuary, The Dylan Thomas Boathouse is the “seashaken house” where the poet lived with his wife Caitlin, their three children and dog Mably. Visit the tiny parlour with its coal fireplace and humble 1940s furniture and browse the little shop selling books, CDs and intricately carved Welsh love spoons. Then enjoy a currant-studded Welsh cake with coffee or tea on the tearoom’s slate terrace.
After a couple of days in Laugharne, drive 44 miles north to New Quay where Thomas frequented the Black Lion Inn’s pub and wrote his well-known “Fern Hill.” Continue north along the Celtic Sea’s wave-tossed Cardigan Coast to Aberystwyth and The National Library, home to the world’s largest collection of Dylan Thomas-related material. From there it’s a 15-mile drive southeast to quaint Tregaron. At historic Y Talbot, named for an extinct hunting dog related to the beagle, sit beside the fire and tuck into a fine Welsh meal, perhaps fresh salmon, or slow-cooked Cambrian Mountain lamb, accompanied by ale or hard cider.
Overnight, then drive 47 miles east through the glorious Cambrian Mountains to Hay-on-Wye. Peruse countless volumes in this tiny town of 40 booksellers, keeping an eye peeled for coveted first editions of Dylan Thomas works. After a hearty pub lunch, continue south through the Black Mountains of Brecon Beacons National Park. Spend the night in Cardiff before heading to London for the flight home.
Photo Credit: All photos – ©Crown copyright (2017) Visit Wales
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