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Wales With Dylan Thomas

Written by  Monique Burns

Europe-WalesWith velvet-green hills and dells, rivers rushing from high mountains to moon-shaped bays, sandy estuaries lined with cockle and mussel beds, and miles of coastline lapped by the Celtic Sea’s wave-struck waters, Wales has inspired countless poets and writers, dramatists and musicians. In 2014, Wales celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas, the country’s greatest poet and writer, and author of classics like Fern Hill and Under Milk Wood. The Dylan Thomas 100 Festival will be an unparalleled international outpouring of poetry readings, music and dance performances, literary symposia and art exhibits. Some events are slated for Cardiff, the Welsh capital, others for London and New York, but most will unfold in South Wales, chiefly in Swansea, where the poet was born, and in Laugharne, where he spent his final years. On a weeklong trip to Wales, explore the poet’s haunts, from lively pubs where he savored ale with “live white lather” and “brass-bright depths” to his final resting place, and be charmed by the same “water lidded lands” and “harp shaped hills” that inspired him.

Wales’ Capital Attractions

Facing the Celtic Sea and clinging as fiercely as a limpet to England’s west coast, Wales is easy to reach. Though there are regular flights from major European cities to Cardiff’s international airport, many Americans fly to London, a 6-hour flight from Boston or New York. From there, it’s a pleasant two-hour journey aboard the First Great Western express train, with regular departures from London’s Paddington Station, or a scenic 2 1/2 to 3-hour drive west along the M4 highway to Cardiff, Wales’ lively bayside capital. 

Before heading west to Swansea, spend a night or two in Cardiff, perhaps at the stylish Parc Hotel Thistle (www.thistle.com) where The Social serves contemporary Welsh comfort food like fisherman’s pie, pork sausages with mashed potatoes, and free-range chicken. At the city’s heart is 11th-century Cardiff Castle (www.cardiffcastle.com), its lavish medieval-style rooms adorned with stained-glass windows and gilded ceilings. Nearby, the National Museum’s world-class collection, including the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art outside Paris, is open free to the public. Also in Cardiff are six Edwardian and Victorian-era shopping arcades, the huge Cardiff Market, and countless shops and malls along Queen Street. Rising along the bay is the Welsh Millennium Centre (www.wmc.org.uk), home of the Welsh National Opera and six other arts organizations, and the Welsh Parliament, sporting a wave-like roof and glass walls. Explore the trendy shops and cafes of Mermaid Quay (www.mermaidquay.co.uk), the white-frame Norwegian Church where Cardiff-born writer Roald Dahl was christened, and the Dr. Who Experience (www.doctorwhoexperience.com), based on the British sci-fi series now shooting in Cardiff and celebrating its 50th anniversary.  

Dylan Thomas’ Swansea and Laugharne

From Cardiff, it’s a one-hour journey west, by car or train, to Swansea, where Dylan Thomas 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, today Swansea is the gateway to the splendid Gower Peninsula, which thrusts its muscular arm into the bay. Book a room at Morgans Hotel (www.morganshotel.co.uk), an elegant brick and limestone building with high-ceilinged rooms, a spacious bar and a superb dining room. Morgans is steps from the Dylan Thomas Centre, hosting the annual Dylan Thomas Festival, October 27-November 9. The two-week extravaganza of poetry, music and theater might feature anything from a reading by Wales’ National Poet Gillian Clarke to a Bluestocking Lounge burlesque show with bawdy striptease acts punctuated by verse. Stop in to see the permanent Dylan Thomas Exhibit, featuring his manuscripts, doodles, photos and even the ink-stained borrowed suit worn during his fatal trip to New York in 1953.

Swansea was badly bombed in 1941 during a three-day German blitzkrieg but, miraculously, many Thomas haunts survived. On a hill overlooking Swansea Bay, the Dylan Thomas Birthplace (www.5cwmdonkindrive.com) is a semi-detached brick-and-stucco house open daily for tours by homeowner Geoff Haden. Featured in Thomas’ famous reminiscence, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, the house includes a small parlor with a flowered couch and easy chairs, a fireplace flanked by white ceramic poodles, and a shiny brass gramophone; the upstairs front guest bedroom where Thomas was born and his tiny bedroom. Stroll through leafy Cwmdonkin Park, Thomas’ boyhood haunt, to the large memorial stone carved with lines from Fern Hill. 

Steps from Morgans, at The Queens Hotel on Gloucester Street, Thomas, who worked at the South Wales Evening Post as a cub reporter, shared frequent pints of beer with fellow reporters. Closer to the waterfront, you’ll find Dylan Thomas Square, with the poet’s bronze statue overlooking a yacht-filled marina, and the Dylan Thomas Theatre, formerly the Swansea Little Theatre, where young Thomas performed. In the Meridian Tower, Wales’ tallest building, the Grape & Olive (www.swansea.grapeandolive.co.uk) offers wraparound views, and well-crafted Welsh lamb cawl stew, fish pie, steak and seafood. Opposite Morgans, on pub-lined Wind Street, the No Sign Wine Bar, at no. 56, is yet another Thomas watering-hole.

You can follow the Dylan Thomas Trail brochures sold at the Dylan Thomas Centre bookshop (www.dylan-thomas-books.com), or the excellent Dylan Thomas’s Swansea, Gower and Laugharne by James A. Davies (University of Cardiff Press, 2000). But the best way to explore Thomas’ haunts is with an entertaining guide like Anne Haden (www.anniefromwales.com). Dr. Mike Davies of Dragon Tours (www.dragon-tours.com) runs van tours throughout Dylan Thomas Country. On select 2014 dates, Literature Wales (www.literaturewales.org) will offer 17 tours, from 2-hour walks to 3 to 5-night visits, many including bus, boat, canoe, horse-drawn carriage and horseback rides. 

If Swansea is the “ugly, lovely” town of Thomas’ youth, Laugharne remains his “beguiling island of a town,” a village of incomparable beauty where Thomas spent his final years with wife Caitlin, their three children and dog Mably. It’s also the setting for the annual Laugharne Weekend (www.dylanthomas100.org) of music, poetry, theater and film. Slated for April 4-6, 2014, the event will be expanded to include three additional festivals lasting till September 30. Entering Laugharne (pronounced “larn”) - you’ll pass St. Martin’s Churchyard where Thomas and his wife lie buried under a simple white cross. In livelier Browns Hotel (www.browns-hotel.co.uk), have a pint of house ale where Thomas once tippled and played cards. If you’re lucky, a ukulele player or guitarist might drop in to have a pint and entertain the locals. Upstairs, 14 spacious rooms have been tastefully refurbished and modernized. At Corran Books, across the street, shop-owner and Thomas biographer George Tremlett quietly holds sway. Around the corner, another Thomas haunt, the six-room New Three Mariners Inn (www.newthreemarinersinn.co.uk), is perfect for a bountiful Welsh breakfast with thick, meaty bacon. 

Perhaps Laugharne’s most famous site is the Writing Shed, a short walk from Laugharne Castle’s crenellated ruins. At Castle House, Thomas’ friend, Richard Hughes, wrote his 1929 bestseller A High Wind in Jamaica, and Thomas composed his famous short-story collection, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. In the nearby Writing Shed, whitewashed walls are adorned with postcards of voluptuous women by the likes of Botticelli and Renoir, while a manuscript and empty beer bottle grace the poet’s red writing table. Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood here while gazing at cattle on low-slung Sir John’s Hill. Gentleman-farmer Bob Stevens, who keeps cattle there today, has carved out a hilltop trail (www.dylanthomasbirthdaywalk.co.uk) based on Thomas’ Poem in October. Steps away, the poet’s last home, The Boathouse (www.dylanthomasboathouse.com), hangs on a cliff above the River Tarn Estuary still fringed by “the mussel pooled and the heron priested shore.” Inside, there’s a tiny parlor decorated with the Thomases’ 1950s furniture, a shop selling books and CDs, and a tearoom where, on warm days, you can take tea and coffee, along with sandwiches and raisin-studded Welsh cakes, on the slate terrace. 

After a couple days in Laugharne, head north to New Quay where Thomas wrote Fern Hill and held court in the Black Lion Inn (www.blacklionnewquay.co.uk). Then continue north along the Celtic Sea’s Cardigan Coast to Aberystwyth to see paintings and manuscripts at The National Library (www.llgc.org.uk), mounting a major Dylan Thomas exhibit, June 28-December 20, 2014. From there, it’s a 15-mile drive southeast to quaint Tregaron. At historic Y Talbot (www.ytalbot.com), named for an extinct hunting dog related to our present-day beagle, sit beside the fireplace for a fine meal of slow-cooked Cambrian Mountain lamb shoulder, or fresh salmon, with ale or hard cider. 

Stay overnight, then drive east, through the glorious Cambrian Mountains, to Hay-on-Wye, a tiny town of some 40 booksellers. Peruse the many volumes, keeping your eyes peeled for coveted first editions of Thomas’ work. After a hearty pub lunch, travel south through the Black Mountains of Brecon Beacons National Park (www.visitbreconbeacons.com) to overnight in Cardiff before heading to London for the flight home. 

For More Information

For details on the Dylan Thomas 100 Festival, log on to www.dylanthomas100.org For more on the annual Dylan Thomas Festival, visit www.dylanthomas.com For information on Wales, log on to www.americas.visitwales.com

 

 

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