I like to imagine the 19 year old aspiring poet, Dylan Thomas arriving at Laugharne on the ferry, taking in the wide open skies of the Taf estuary, the small boats stranded in the marshy channels and the stark, stone towers of the ruined castle, and thinking “YES!, this is where I want to be.”
He later wrote that it was the sort of place where people like him ” just came, one day, for the day, and never left; got off the bus, and forgot to get on again.” Laugharne in Camarthanshire is one of the places that Dylan Thomas is most connected to, living for the last 4 years of his life in The Boathouse overlooking the estuary which inspired him to write some of his greatest poetry.
Even if you know or care nothing about Dylan Thomas, Laugharne is an enchanting place to spend a day, as we did as part of our weekend following the Dylan Thomas Trail, in honour of the centenary of the Poet’s birth.
Staying at Brown’s Hotel – Dylan’s favourite pub
We’d spent the Saturday in Swansea, discovering the city that Dylan knew as a young man and wrote about in Return Journey as well as visiting the Dylan Thomas Birthplace, before driving on to Laugharne to stay at Brown’s Hotel. As we pulled up, the evening sun lit up the front of the Georgian pub, a favourite drinking haunt of Dylan that has now been renovated as a bar with boutique style guest rooms.
When he lived here, Dylan’s routine was to sit in the window seat of Brown’s in the morning, studying the papers, or dropping in to see his parents Jack and Florence who lived at The Pelican opposite, before going home to the Boathouse for lunch and working in the writing shed in the afternoon, usually returning in the evening with his wife Caitlin for a few more beers.
Our room was The Laques, named after a part of Laugharne that you can see from the bedroom window where Flemish weavers once settled. The style was very much boutique retro, with a stripy carpet, those chalky Farrow and Ball tones of beige on the walls and modern oak furniture with a 1950s air. The double bed had coverings and cushions in similarly muted shades of grey and purple and from the bed we could gaze at the photo-mural opposite – a soft-focus shot of the estuary with waving grasses in the foreground.
The room was small but thoughtfully kitted out with tea and coffee, bottled water, a few old books including a Dylan Thomas selected works and a bedside radio. The adjoining loo and bathroom featured those rectangular white tiles that were popular in the 1930s when a plumbed-in bathroom was a novelty, a bath with white waffle shower curtain and shower above and some delicious Warm Ginger toiletries. As the hotel isn’t really a hotel but a bar with rooms and only does bar snacks, we stuck our noses into the Three Mariners pub next door, but the place looked packed and the music was Saturday-night-loud, so we ended up having dinner at Cafe Culture, a pleasant Italian down the road.
Brown’s Hotel, King Street, Laugharne, Carmarthenshire. Tel: 01994 427 688 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Rooms are £75-140 based on 2 people including breakfast. Heather and Guy stayed in The Lacques, a Classic King Room which costs £105/ night for weekend stays. Twitter @BrownsLaugharne | Facebook Page | YouTube
Evening light on the Taf estuary
I took advantage of the evening sunshine to go and explore, following signs along the lane towards The Boathouse, where Dylan Thomas lived with his family. From the lane above the house, now known as the Dylan Thomas Birthday Walk, I caught the beautiful views over the Taf estuary, where the water was gently rippling and glittering in the evening light. The tide was out with the sandbanks exposed at low tide and some wading seabirds picking their way gingerly through the shallows. It was this view that inspired Dylan to write his Poem in October about his walk from here to St John’s Hill where the wood overlooks the town.
It was my thirtieth year to heaven Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood And the mussel pooled and the heron Priested shore The morning beckon With water praying and call of seagull and rook And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
You can follow the Dylan Thomas Birthday walk yourself, on the route Dylan described in his Poem in October, where there are benches and signs along the way so that you can read each line or verse at the place it was written. There’s a Dylan Thomas Birthday Walk Website with all the information you need and an App of the Dylan Thomas Birthday Walk for iPhone and Android.
Dylan and Caitlin – in life and death
On Sunday morning we enjoyed a good cooked breakfast in the bar at Brown’s Hotel, surrounded by memorabilia and mementos of Dylan Thomas and then walked up the main street towards St Martin’s church. Through the main churchyard gate and over the little footbridge across the lane, we found the plain white cross of Dylan and Caitlin Thomas standing out among the grey gravestones.
In the church there is also a replica of the stone memorial in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, with Dylan’s lines from the poem Fernhill ” Time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea”. Dylan Thomas died in 1953 aged only 39, while on a poetry reading tour in New York, of causes which have not been fully explained but were probably a combination of pneumonia, morphine overdose and heavy drinking, while Caitlin was also buried with him after her death in 1994. Dylan’s father, Jack had died only the year before Dylan himself and Dylan wrote one of his most popular and moving poems Do not go gentle into that good night about his father’s illness.
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
It felt a little voyeuristic taking a picture of the gravestone, so we continued up the leafy lane beside the church, fringed by cow parsley and pink campion, taking a short cut to The Boathouse.
The Boathouse – my sea-shaken house
In 1938 Dylan and Caitlin visited their friends the writers Richard and Frances Hughes at Castle House in Laugharne and decided to find their own place nearby. The couple moved into a tiny fisherman’s cottage and then into a grander house at SeaView where they lived until 1940 until the war years intervened and they moved to London. In 1949, The Boathouse which Dylan described as “my sea shaken house on a breakneck of rocks”, was bought for Dylan by his friend and patron, Margaret Taylor and he lived there with Caitlin and the children until his death in 1953.
Walking down the steps to the whitewashed house, the views across the Taf estuary were striking, not only from all the rooms, but from the balcony running around the house and the terrace at the back where there was originally a landing stage for the coal boats. Under the roof was the main bedroom which is now an exhibition space with mementoes and information about Dylan’s life, while through the small shop was a parlour furnished as it would have been by Dylan and Caitlin and kept for ‘best’ as was the custom. I spotted the desk that had belonged to Dylan’s father and had come from his childhood home at 5 Cwmdonkin Park, since Geoff Haden had told me how he really wanted it back!
Downstairs where the family would have gathered was now a tea room but we were able to sit on the terrace in the sunshine with fabulous views over the estuary where I had a chat with artist in residence, Cheryl Beer, who was playing her ukelele and making up poems with some of the children visiting. Cheryl told me that she was one of 12 different artists who had been invited for a month to create a work related to Dylan Thomas – you can see some of the photos from her month in residence on her blog here. She had noticed the strips of paper in the writing shed like shopping lists of the words that he planned to use, and was asking people to write a line of poetry or prose on a strip of paper, which she could incorporate into one large digital work. Having read some of the passionate, tender and angry love letters between Dylan and Caitlin, she also was planning to write a song that told the story from Caitlin’s point of view, “as a woman who was often being apologised to”
The Dylan Thomas writing shed
After visiting The Boathouse we walked back along the path to Dylan’s writing shed which the staff kindly opened for me to take photos, although you can normally only peer through the window. Inside Dylan’s writing desk was set out as if he had just left, with cigarette stubs, strips of words hanging up and that inspiring view right across the estuary. The first poem he wrote there was Over Sir John’s Hill, in which he describes the birds stalking their prey and bringing death in the midst of this beauty.
Over Sir John’s hill, The hawk on fire hangs still; In a hoisted cloud, at drop of dusk, he pulls to his claws And gallows, up the rays of his eyes the small birds of the bay
This is also where Dylan wrote his most famous play for voices, Under Milkwood, inspired in part by the people of Laugharne. Dylan described his work in a letter as “a play, an impression for voices, an entertainment out of the darkness, of the town I live in .. (so that) you come to know the town as an inhabitant of it.. utterly familiar with the places and the people.” From the writing shed we dropped down a path to the level of the estuary where we walked back along the paved causeway with the marshland ahead of us until Laugharne castle came into view.
The Dylan Thomas Boathouse, Dylan’s Walk, Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, SA33 4SD |Twitter @DTBoathouse | Facebook Page | Open daily 10am-5.30pm in summer, 10am-3.30 in winter Adults £4.20/ Children £2.00. There is a pop-up Dylan Thomas shed, a replica of the original which is on display in various festivals and places around Wales.
Laugharne castle, Brown as owls
The final stop on our day in Laugharne was the ruined castle which overlooks the marsh and the estuary, described by Dylan in his Poem in October.
Pale rain over the dwindling harbour And over the sea wet church the size of a snail With its horns through mist and the castle Brown as owls But all the gardens Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
Laugharne Castle was built in the 13th century, probably on top of an earlier Norman castle and it came under siege in the English Civil War and was partly dismantled. When Dylan first came to Laugharne, the castle and its grounds were in the gardens of Castle House next door, owned by writers Richard and Frances Hughes. Dylan was allowed the use of the gazebo in the garden which overlooks the estuary and it was here that he wrote the short stories “Portrait of the artist as a Young Dog”.
A nice touch is that there is a writing desk and old typewriter within the gazebo to recreate how it would have looked when Dylan wrote there. The castle is now open to the public, although it’s really just a picturesque shell of the castle that the Welsh Lords used to dominate the estuary and port at Laugharne before it silted up. You can climb the tower for views over the estuary, and there’s a Victorian Rose garden which is a pleasant place to sit on a summer afternoon.
Laugharne Castle is run by CADW and is open April-October 10am-5pm Adults £3.80
Whether you are a Dylan Thomas fan or not, Laugharne is an enchanting place to visit, for the views of the estuary, the walks up to St John’s Hill, for the Brown as Owls castle, and of course for the fascinating Dylan Thomas connections. Follow where Dylan walked, drink where he drank and be inspired by the beauty of the place and the poetry. In a place like this we might all have a literary masterpiece in us.
For more information to help you connect with Dylan Thomas in Laugharne;
Visit Wales – the official website for everything to see and do in Wales – also on Twitter @VisitWales and Facebook
Visit Carmarthenshire – discover places to see and stay around Laugharne in South Wales
Dylan Thomas 100 – everything that’s going on for the 2014 Dylan Thomas Centenary year
Brown’s Hotel – Dylan’s favourite pub where you can now drink and stay the night
The Dylan Thomas Boathouse – where Dylan lived from 1949-1953
Dylan Thomas Birthday Walk – take a walk inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Poem in October
Laugharne Castle – where Dylan wrote in the gazebo owned by his friends the Hughes
My thanks to Visit Wales for arranging this weekend and allowing me to discover Dylan Thomas in Wales
Read my other articles about the Dylan Thomas Trail in Wales
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