You don’t need to go looking for Dylan Thomas in south-west Wales, he finds you – through exhibitions, museums, festivals, statues, cafes, pubs, street names, paintings, posters and snatches of words still hanging in the salty air.
Good Celts them all, the Welsh share the Irish bent for tale-telling and, around Swansea, so many of the best ones concern the man Hollywood legend Shelley Winters dubbed “The Horny Welshman”. In 1950, she took him home for dinner where he drank pitchers of gin martinis served up in milk bottles by flatmate Marilyn Monroe while singing Welsh songs; the sort of ditties he’d learned at The Mermaid and The Antelope, his Swansea pubs of choice when “this sea town was my world”.
I came late to the Welsh bard. Before Under Milkwood and Do Not Go Gentle, at least for me, it was Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He’s there on the front cover of the 1967 Beatles album, in Peter Blake’s esoteric collage above Marlon Brando, beside Aldous Huxley, nearly clipped by cowboy Tom Mix’ hat. Blake has confirmed that John Lennon – who is said to have sometimes carried a battered volume of Thomas on his person during his Hamburg and Liverpool leather years – was insistent on the inclusion.
As I leave Swansea and wind around its bay to Mumbles and the Gower Peninsula, on the pilgrimage trail to the boathouse and writing shack at Loughnarne, there’s a copy of his Selected Poems on the car seat beside me. The back cover blurb is the right length for a traffic light stop. “Most notable for his verbal inventiveness, image-making power and almost pagan metaphysics, Dylan Thomas celebrated the glorious particulars of inner and outer landscapes in the face of weakness, mortality and decay.” Not hard to see why Lennon liked him.
I’m prepared to accept, though with not much graciousness, that not everyone who now trails this terrain has him as their filter. Mumbles, the busy seaside town beneath Mumbles Head, a popular resort since the Victorian era, which he summed up as “a rather nice village despite its name”, has a new fame. For this is where Catherine Zeta-Jones grew up and she still maintains a home there for regular returns. Chef Michael Knight, of Knights In The Mumbles restaurant in the town, makes himself available to cook privately for the actress and her family at said home. It’s a fascination, certainly, but will it last seventy years?
Mumbles is linked by a promenade to Swansea, Thomas’ “ugly lovely town”. It is to Cardiff as Glasgow is to Edinburgh – earthier, artsier, less accustomed to praise and patronage, ever obliged to try harder. It has tried particularly hard and, with considerable success, to showcase it – and Wales’ – pivotal role in the Industrial Revolution. A new National Waterfront Museum, built of Welsh slate, steel and glass and featuring 15 themed galleries and a hundred visual exhibits (three dozen of them interactive) graphically tells of a time, around 1850, when two-thirds of the families of Wales were supported by activities other than agriculture and copper smelting’n’shipping was Swansea’s distinction.
It’s a watery environment, to be sure, with masts in many lines of sight. It seems that there’s a Yacht Harbour Association and apparently they bestow an annual award upon marinas (five gold anchors no less). In 2005 Swansea’s took it out along with Singapore’s Raffles Marina and Australia’s Nelson Bay Marina. The brine also seeps indoors and in the vast Swansea Market teems local delicacies Penclawdd cockles and black laverbread, (made from edible seaweed).
Before leaving Thomas’ “blowsy town” to head “some miles [to] a very beautiful peninsula”, for which Mumbles is effectively a doorway, I’d been made aware of a certain status. Back in 1956, before such things had become commonplace, the Gower Peninsula was the first location in the U.K. to be officially designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There’s been no small effort to keep it that way since.
Scattered across Gower are things that remind you that this is one of the world’s oldest countries. Along with Tudor manor houses, medieval fortresses and famed fly fishing sites are ancient standing stones, burial chambers, Iron Age hill forts, tools and flints. Truthfully, more than I expected. If you’ve not been before there’s a temptation to believe, as you pay your fiver and sweep across the high bridge over the River Seven, that you’re just popping in on a few counties of England Lite. I’d heard it described, or perhaps denigrated, as England’s unloved backyard – so close that it could not be given its independence but far enough to be conveniently forgotten.
The great reward of Wales is not only that it is so very Welsh – as distinctive as Ireland and Scotland – but that there is so very much of it, a torrent of villages, towns, motorways, roadways and laneways, coastline and mountain, and everywhere the handprint of human history. Somebody has gone to the trouble of counting its castles and it seems there are 641 of them – one of the world’s highest concentrations of ancient fortifications, with the oldest erected more than a thousand years ago.
Off and out of Gower (preferably after a Rhossili Bay sunset) heading west, it’s a motorway sprint and an inland spike to twist around the Towy River estuary to make it down to Laugharne on sweeping Carmarthen Bay, there to conclude the Thomas trail. Not just peering into the clutter of the work shack and then walking about the cramped boathouse residence some way beneath it but dropping into the photo-festooned Brown’s Hotel where he is said to have drawn inspiration for his characters. A starkly different sort of verse would be inspired by those who frequent the place now – more punters than poets.
Laugharne sends you to the seaward side of the A40, unquestionably the place to stay, notwithstanding that Carmarthen town, on the other side, is the legendary birthplace of Merlin The Magician and that the landscape is dotted by sites sacred to those who hold to be true the tales of Arthur and his knights – those who like to think they’re connected to the convergence of the power lines of the mind.
Clinging to the coast is slower but infinitely more rewarding for the western side of the bay is the start of the ragged, jagged, tossed and towering Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, the only coastline in Britain so designated. With 70 named bays and beaches – one of which, Whitesands, recently ranked with St. Tropez and Copacabana for a Best 20 Beaches of the World award – it is a more dramatic and less-developed Cornwall.
Pembrokeshire will never be damned by faint praise. The recognition is constant, plaques are plentiful – coveted Seaside, Green Coast European Blue Flag Awards, citations from the Sunday Times and The Independent. There were 14 in 2005 alone, all acknowledging the charm of pastel-coloured Victorian terrace houses, walled towns, castles, inlets, havens, heads, off-lying islands and all those beaches.
Tenby is the showpiece, endlessly photographed but still startling upon first sight. It has three beaches and, high above them, an old walled town with some of the wall still intact. There’s a ferry out of Tenby Harbour to Caldey Island, where the orders of monks who have been in residence since the 6th century make perfume, fudge, shortbread and chocolate in the moments left outside the regimen of seven worship services a day. Those still intrigued by codes Da Vinci or otherwise explore the Old Priory with a certain fervour but most are content to stroll about St. Illtyt’s Church to locate the Caldey Stone inscribed in Celtic and Latin.
At Bosherton, around the coast a way on the Castlemartin Peninsula, is the 6th century St. Govan’s Chapel that requires visitors to make their way down a set of sprayed steps to the base of a sea cliff and gives the appearance of having grown out of the rock. The descent is accompanied by the sound of migrating seas birds – auks, skuas and petrels. Puffins, gannets, manx shearwaters and guillemots nest nearby. Isolation encourages plentiful wildlife. Badgers and otters are elusive but they’re there. A couple of thousand dolphins a year visit, as well as porpoises and humpback, fin, orca and minke whales.
Between Tenby and Pembroke is, on different roads, Manorbier Castle – actually a medieval manor house on a hilltop above plunging cliffs – and Carew Castle with its famed Celtic Cross and the only restored Tidal Mill in Wales. Pembroke itself is a walled town near a century old with one of Britain’s finest Norman Castles. Henry VII, founder of the Tudor Dynasty, first drew breath there. The surrounding area is a gourmet’s preferred destination. The great foodhalls of London eagerly stock the region’s crabs, lobsters, cheeses, herbs, organic lamb and vegetables along with wines of the Cwm Deri vineyard.
It all gets a bit rugged and weatherbeaten beyond Pembroke Dock on the final leg through to the westernmost point of the park and of Wales. Solva is a village of great seafaring tradition that floods at high tide; the lower half nestling in a ravine at the head of a natural harbour. Then it’s just a little further along the shore of St. Bride’s bay to the city celebrating the patron saint of Wales, indeed the only Welsh saint to be canonized and culted in the Western Church.
While all around you is a town or village, St David’s is a city, though you’d be hard pressed to understand why if not armed with the information that it had been granted such status by Queen Elizabeth in 1995 because of the presence within its precincts of a magnificent cathedral that has been a dominant presence since the 12th century and a pilgrimage destination throughout the Middle Ages.
Unless you’ve a mind or the means to look in on the breeding colony of Atlantic grey seals on Ramsey Island or you’re driving a little north to Fishguard to take the ferry to Ireland (less than two hours) it’s a matter of turning around and heading off north to Snowdownia or east over the first rises of the Cambridge Mountains, past the spectacularly-sited and powerfully atmospheric Carreg Cennen Castle, into the Brecon Brecons National Park.
Now a determined dash will certainly take you from there to the addictive Hay-On-Wye near the English border – a village of some thirty bookshops. But there is a very well-stocked used book shop incorporated into the impressive Dylan Thomas Centre back in Swansea, and if you’d not spent enough time there first time around …..
©2014 Glenn A. Baker. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.