Tag: Dylan Thomas

Story of the week: Celebrating the Dylan Thomas centenary across Wales

IMG_0492

Have you signed up for my new monthly newsletter? Subscribe at the home page.

Hannah Ellis never met her grandfather but his words keep him alive to her.

She doesn’t live in Wales but his stories, writings and recordings regularly take her, and many others, back to the country lanes and tight-knit communities of West Wales he inhabited.

Hannah’s grandfather is the firebrand Welsh poet, Dylan Marais Thomas [pictured above at Swansea’s No SignBar].

“There is such warmth and passion for my grandfather’s work,” says the diminutive mother of one with her mane of curly ringlets passed down through the family.

“I want his legacy to inspire young people to find their own creative voice.”

I first met Hannah at a glitzy party at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

It was the opening night of an exhibition of images inspired by Dylan’s work by the British pop artist Sir Peter Blake, the first in a year-long programme of cultural events to mark the centenary of Thomas’ birth – October 27, 1914.

She was clutching a glass of champagne amid the press photographers and the art-critic chin-stokers, pondering what her grandfather would have made of all the fuss.

“My grandfather started the legend of Dylan Thomas as the bohemian poet but that role wasn’t the real Dylan Thomas.”

“For me, he was a shy man, sat in Browns Hotel in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, with a pint of bitter, listening to the local gossip,” adds Hannah, who lead walking tours of Dylan’s Laugharne as part of Literature Wales’ Dylan Odyssey walks.

Each tour focused on different eras of Dylan’s story form his Swansea childhood, via the golden years of creativity in West Wales to his untimely death on a reading tour of America on November 9, 1953, just as his signature work, Under Milk Wood, was just starting to attract critical plaudits.

Famous footsteps 

For visitors to Wales keen to walk in Dylan’s footsteps, and to understand more of the sensitive family man behind the hard-drinking and wild-living myths, the classic pilgrimage starts at a small suburban house in the Uplands district of Swansea, a place the poet famously branded an “ugly, lovely town”.

Today local entrepreneur, Geoff Haden, runs the house as a quirky guesthouse and cultural centre.

He has restored the property to its 1914 finery with period furnishings and encourages house guests to soak up the war-era ambiance, although central heating now replaces coal fires and electricity replaces gas lamps as a concession to home comforts.

“The house was an anchor in his life. It kept him grounded but, like many young men, he also reacted against it,” explains Geoff, straining loose-leaf tea in the parlour and pouring the milk into dainty Victorian teacups.

Across town in Swansea Bay, the Dylan Thomas Centre hosts the annual Dylan Thomas Fringe Festival each autumn.

While the permanent exhibition traces his life story, more evocative is a series of recorded readings, including Thomas himself reading Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, the celebrated paean to his dying father.

The former festival organiser David Woolley says:

“Thomas is the artists’ artist. All the painters and photographers of his age wanted to capture his image.”

“Thomas fell out of favour for a couple of decades but there’s now a whole new generation of writers, such as the Welsh poet Owen Shears, who are embracing his legacy and adapting it for their own voice.”

Prodigal return 

Thomas left Swansea to flex his artistic muscles, living an itinerant life for years between London and Wales. But he eventually made a prodigal return, settling in a creeky old boathouse Laugharne.

He spent the final, and most productive years, of his life here, living with his wife Caitlin Macnamara and their three children from 1949 to 1953.

Today Laugharne, a cluster of stone-built cottages some eight miles from Carmarthen along winding, country lanes, is the beating heart of the nostalgia trail.

It is home to the annual Laugharne Weekend arts festival and Browns Hotel, his erstwhile favourite drinking den, recently re-opened as an upmarket hotel and bar following a £2m refurbishment.

I pick up the Thomas trail at The Grist, the makeshift town square with its ancient cross and views across to Laugharne’s 12th-century castle – “brown as owls” according to Thomas.

I take the coast path beside the estuary, now part of the Wales Coast Path, and edge along the moss-carpeted trail, a cluster of steep, stone-built steps descending dramatically to the beach below.

This leads to the garage, which Thomas used as a writing shed.

It was here, with views across the “heron-priested shore” that Thomas indulged in his “craft or sullen art”, penning some of his best-loved poetry, including Poem in October. With its discarded, scrunched-up papers and pools of fountain pen ink, it looks as if he had just popped out for a quick breath of fresh, sea air.

The Boathouse, the former family home, has a range of exhibits drawn from Thomas’s career, while a mock-up of the family’s erstwhile front parlour features family photographs that explore the quieter side of Thomas away from the bravado of the literary poster boy.

Downstairs, the bookshop is doing a brisk trade in copies of his works. I pick up an illustrated copy of A Child’s Christmas in Wales for my own children before heading on.

Later that day I call into Corran Books, an antiquarian bookshop with a labyrinthine collection of dust-covered books, to find the ruddy-faced owner, George Tremlett, who has lived in Laugharne since 1982 and wrote the autobiography of Thomas’ widow, Caitlin (Secker & Warburg, 1986).

For him, living in the eye of the storm in Thomas’ centenary year, the trails and events are a welcome celebration but visitors should read the work to truly understand the man.

“Thomas evokes something in me – even at my age he makes me cry,” says George, looking across to the lunchtime drinkers at Browns Hotel opposite. “He never tried to be contemporaneous.”

“He wrote about the great answerable questions in life and that’s why his work has become part of national heritage.”

Both Dylan and Caitlin are buried in the graveyard of St Martin’s Church in Laugharne, the latter joining her late husband in the flower-strewn plot in 1994.

The graves are marked with a simple white cross and offer eternal views across the rolling hills of Carmarthenshire. In the cold-stone interior of the church, meanwhile, a plaque to Thomas bears the inscription from one of his most evocative poems, Ferne Hill. It reads:

“Time held me green and dying. Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

* This store was originally published in the spring 2014 issue of Journeys Magazine under the headline, Literary Legend.

Liked this? Try this: At home with Dylan in Swansea.

Post your comments below.

Dylan Thomas centenary for Visit Wales and Telegraph Travel

 

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

This year marks the centenary of the birth of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas [pictured above as part of Sir Peter Blake’s Llareggub exhibition].

I’ve been busily picking up commissions on the theme.

One of these projects was a series of blog posts for a microsite sponsored by Visit Wales and positioned within the Telegraph Travel site.

Each one of the short pieces – 100 posts for 100 years – focused on a narrow theme relating to Thomas.

I covered a range from his voice through to his often-forgotten sister, based on desk research, previous visits to Wales and interviews, bashing out roughly one per day for three weeks.

Catch up with my full set of stories as follows:

Dylan Thomas the actor

Nancy: Dylan Thomas’s forgotten sister

The Ceredigion years: walks that inspired Dylan Thomas

The appeal of Dylan Thomas’s voice

The magic of A Child’s Christmas in Wales

Dylan Thomas at the BBC

A Great Welsh Literary Tradition

A Thriving Cultural Heartland

Read the whole series at Visit Wales: Dylan Thomas centenary

 

At home with Dylan Thomas in Swansea

 

Dyls Desk

The Dylan Thomas 100 festival continues apace.

I’ve been busy guest blogging for both the official DT 100 website and writing pieces for the Daily Telegraph‘s DT 100 microsite in association with Visit Wales – more of this in a forthcoming post.

The latest post for the former is about a recent journey in Dylan’s footsteps, tracing the early years in Swansea to Cwmdonkin Drive, where he lived as a boy, and the Kardomah Coffee Shop, where he cut his artistic teeth as a young man.

I even spent an afternoon poking around his old bedroom [pictured above], which has been lovingly restored to its shambolic 1934-era glory.

It’s like tour guide Matt Hughes told me over mugs of tea by Dylan’s old writing desk:

“Laugharne has The Boathouse, New Quay has the Apple House but Swansea has Cwmdonkin Drive.”

Read the latest blog post, Return Journey.

Or check out some of my previous posts at the DT 100 blog.

Story of the week: Dylan Thomas and the real Llareggub

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

* Right up to date this weekend with Laugharne Live bringing Dylan Thomas devotees to West Wales.

As ever, follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS, for weekly updates from my travel-writing archive in the months to come.

It started with a shooting.

In March, 1945, the British army officer William Killick, recently returned from active service overseas, collected a machine gun from his home in southwest Wales.

He marched down to the neighbouring property and, fuelled by drink and a heated discussion in the Black Lion pub, fired several shots into the bungalow, Majoda. Inside was the poet Dylan Thomas [pictured above], his wife Caitlin McNamara and Kellick’s wife, Vera, Thomas’ childhood friend from Swansea.

Thomas refused to testify against Killick at the subsequent court case in Lampeter and the soldier was acquitted. But the shooting also marked the end of a tremendously creative period in Thomas’ life.

By July 1945, Thomas and his family had left New Quay never to return.

This brief but important period forms the backdrop to The Edge of Love, a semi-fictionalised film about Thomas’ life released in 2008 with Rebekah Gilbertson, a descendant of William and Vera Killick, acting as producer.

Thomas had moved to Majoda on the fringe of New Quay in September 1944. It was one of the coldest winters on record and the bungalow, little more than a wood-and-asbestos shack, had no amenities.

Yet despite the conditions, Thomas was happy here and this reflected in his output. He completed several major works, including A Winter’s Tale and A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London, plus the radio script Quite Early One Morning.

“It was,” says David N. Thomas, author of Dylan Thomas: A Farm, Tow Mansions and a Bungalow, “one of the most productive periods of his adult life. A second flowering.”

 A place by the sea

Wales is expecting an influx of Dylan devotees in 2014 with a major cultural programme to mark the centenary of his birth.

Most Thomas pilgrimages lead from Cwmdonkin Park in Swansea, where he was born, to Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, where both he and Caitlin are buried.

The well-trodden trail leads via Swansea pubs and the country lanes of West Wales to The Boat House, where the family moved in 1949.

It was from here that Thomas left for New York in 1953 as part of an American reading tour. He was just starting to receive critical acclaim for his work when he died on November 9 at St Vincent’s Hospital.

But to leave out New Quay is to omit a crucial element of Thomas’ story.

That’s why I’ve come to Ceredigion for a self-drive weekend, exploring the country lanes and rustic pubs that inspired one of the shortest but most creatively dynamic eras of his life.

The journey mirrors a project by Literature Wales, a series of one-off walks during summer 2014, whereby in-situ contemporary writers and actors will bring places from this period of his story to life.

I start my odyssey in his footsteps by approaching the charming seaside town of New Quay the same way Dylan would have approached it – walking along what is today the Ceredigion Coast Path from Majoba towards the town.

In Quite Early One Morning he describes this very walk, creeping out after dawn to breathe the sea air and walk the silent streets of the “the cliff-perched town at the far end of Wales.”

The windows of the pastel-coloured, matchbox houses still glisten in the morning sun just as he described them.

The approach to town via Brongwyn Lane, repurposed as Goosegog Lane for Under Milk Wood, opens up before me to reveal New Quay, higgledy-piggledy and sea-breeze blown, to be little different now from Dylan’s day.

The Dylan Thomas New Quay trail map, available from the tourist information centre, highlights places around town that Thomas frequented, taking in the old post office, from where he posted his scripts to London, Manchester House, the former draper’s shop, and notably the Black Lion Hotel, the bar most often frequented by Dylan and his friends.

For fans of his work, it’s a chance to connect with the landmarks he recorded in his punch-drunk verse.

Local hospitality

That night over dinner at the Black Lion Hotel, now re-opened as a restaurant with rooms, the locally based writer Roger Bryan describes how Thomas’ time in New Quay inspired some of his best characters.

This ear for gossip and personality traits became a key device for developing the script for Under Milk Wood. Indeed, many suggest that New Quay, not Laugharne, provided the real inspiration for Llareggub, the setting for his best-known play for voices.

“He drank in the Black Horse Hotel and was fascinated by the local characters, especially the then landlord, Jack Pat, who sometimes rode his horse right into the tiny, one-room bar,” says the Lancashire-born owner of Plas Llanina, the erstwhile country pile of the patron of poetry and arts Lord Howard de Walden.

“He repurposed the local farmers, shopkeepers and sea captains to populate his own stories.”

The painter Augustus John introduced de Walden to Thomas and his lordship was suitably impressed by the young poet’s work to offer him free use of the 18th-century Apple House [pictured below] as a writing studio.

The dilapidated storage shed was located in the grounds of his mansion, Plas Llanina. Dylan was living down the road at Majoba with his young family at this time and craved a place of tranquillity to work.

Today the ruined structure of the Apple House remains at the bottom of the tree-fringed garden. Ivy creeps defiantly through the broken-down window frames while the stone chimney clings to the roof with an air of perilous desperation.

Roger plans to open the grounds on selected dates in 2014 for people to admire the Apple House in all its ruined, falling-down glory – eventually to start raising funds to save it.

IMG_0084
The Apple House

From the archives

The next morning I venture beyond New Quay, driving the country roads of Ceredigion that Thomas came to know so well.

Heading towards Aberystwyth, I eschew the coast road in favour of the more circuitous but scenic backroads.

The drive takes me through the rural wooded valley of the River Aeron, passing tiny farm estates and lost-in-time chapels.

These are the roads where Dylan would join the local vet, Tommy Herbert, on his rounds of the farms to gather material for his stories.

On the way, I stop off at Plas Gelli, a modest country-house estate located near the hamlet of Tal-sarn.

Today privately owned, Dylan and Caitlin lodged here between 1941 and 1943 at the invitation of William and Vera Killick, the redwood-engulfed house providing wartime shelter from the bombing of London and Swansea.

Today, a wooded public footpath leads past the house, towards the banks of the River Aeron, where it is suggested that Dylan’s first child, Aeronwy, was conceived.

A letter Thomas sent in August 1942 to a friend in London describes the sanctuary of life at Gelli. He wrote: “I watch the sun from a cool room and know that there are trees being trees outside and that I do not have to admire them.”

The letter and the sketch map he drew of fictionalised Llareggub are just two of the items to feature in Dylan, a major exhibition from June 28 to December 20, 2014, at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.

The library is home to the extensive Dylan Thomas collection, which will be bolstered by the arrival in March 2014 of a set of Thomas’ original notebooks on loan from the University of Buffalo in New York City.

The library hopes to digitise the entire collection for posterity in due course.

“Before I joined the library I’d probably only ever read A Child’s Christmas In Wales. But now, having studied the archive, I feel like I know Thomas as a man,” says interpretation officer Mari Elin.

“He was much more than his popular image as a poet and a drunk. There is much more depth to his work.”

The three key elements of the exhibition are a set of more interpretative exhibits and sound installations in the Gregynog Gallery, the temperature-controlled Hengwrt Gallery to display more delicate items and an installation piece, based on life at the writing shed in Laugharne, by the visual artists Pete Finnemore and Russell Roberts.

One treasured exhibit, finding its place amongst a literary bar to pull poems, a walk-through Llareggub and a legacy section to record your own reactions to Dylan’s life and work, is a hand-written wordlist, columns of rhyming words Dylan used to compile his verse.

“This proves,” says Mari, “how important the sounds of the words were to him.”

Llareggub reborn

Back in New Quay, I meet the poet Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch to discuss the age-old theory about the true location of Llareggub.

Visitors to West Wales next summer will have an opportunity to decide for themselves if they venture beyond the traditional haunts of Swansea and Laugharne.

“Generations of my family have lived in this house,” says Wynne-Rhydderch, whose latest book, Banjo, was shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year 2012. My maternal grandfather was Dr Jones, the village doctor for 30 years.

“He remembered patching up Caitlin one night after a particularly heavy session in the Black Lion.”

The poet has opened a retreat for writers and artists, Write by the Coast, in her converted 19th-century stable block in time for the centenary year, and will be poet in residence at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse during June 2014.

“Knowing the setting and the local characters, my feeling is that – while probably an amalgam – more of Under Milk Wood was based on New Quay than Laugharne,” she says.

“Quite simply,” she adds, “Dylan was always attracted to the most inaccessible places.”

More from www.dt100.info

* This story was first published in Discover Britain magazine in 2014. Liked this? Try Blogging the Dylan Thomas centenary.

And post your comments below.