I have been travelling in the last week of February right across South Wales, experiencing the sights and sounds of this land of poets and meeting the people that make it such a special place to visit. So join me on a journey through this small but perfect country where the daffodils and primroses already herald a sparkling spring.
Just a two hour train ride west from London, England I have found myself in a whole new country - Wales. A country that charms with the warmth of its welcome, and amazes with the richness and depth of its culture.
In fact the Welsh culture is one of the oldest in the world – Cardiff, the capital city, has well over 2,000 years of history. Wales has 641 castles – more per square kilometer than any other European country – a testament to its fascinating and turbulent past. The castles of Wales are open to visitors: climb towers, walk ancient walls and explore dungeons. This is the land of magic, myth and dragons!
Welsh is the oldest living language in Europe and the most widely spoken Celtic language. This land resonates with literature and song and is bursting with creativity in both its official languages. The beautiful landscapes of Wales inspired Lewis Carroll to write Alice in Wonderland and Beatrix Potter to write her Peter Rabbit books. Many film makers have used the stunning Welsh scenery as a backdrop to their movies. Harry Potter, Robin Hood and Snow White and the Huntsman were filmed in Wales, just to name a few.
This year Wales celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas – so you could add Fishguard in Pembrokeshire to your film locations list. The famous 1972 version of Thomas’ Under Milkwood (starring Welshman Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) was filmed there.
We are going to start our Welsh journey in its capital city of Cardiff, where I was in the experienced hands of Bill O’Keefe, Wales Blue Badge Guide.
One of the best ways to discover a country is through its history and there’s no shortage of that in Wales and in Cardiff in particular.
We started our tour at Cardiff Castle. Situated in Cardiff’s city centre, Cardiff Castle offers a packed programme of events that provide a glimpse into 2,000 years of history. In its fascinating life, Cardiff Castle has been a Roman Garrison, a Norman Stronghold, a Gothic Fantasy with lavish Victorian design... and it even harboured Wartime Tunnels during the Second World War.
The National Museum Cardiff brings together art, archaeology, natural history and geology, all for free! That’s right – there is no entrance fee to this fascinating museum. Starting with our ancestors, the Neanderthals, a quarter of a million years ago - everyday objects and beautiful artefacts tell the story of the people of Wales. Plus it explains the forces that created the dramatic Welsh landscapes. The Art collection at the new National Museum of Art, within the same building, is one of Europe’s finest. Five hundred years of magnificent paintings, drawings, sculpture, silver and ceramics from Wales and across the world, including one of Europe’s best collections of Impressionist works are here. My favourite: the Rodin sculptures…simply exquisite!
Cardiff boasts six historic Victorian Arcades, which in total stretch nearly 800 metres. These beautiful arcades still retain many of their original features and are home to dozens of unique stores as well as some of Cardiff’s most interesting cafés and delicatessens. You’ll find vegetarian and organic cuisine as well as great delicatessens for foodies looking to stock-up. One of Cardiff’s most famous shops, Spillers Records (the oldest vinyl record store in the world) is based in Morgan Arcade – its 3rd home since opening in 1894. We recorded a segment of the radio show at Cardiff Violins in a room lined with violins tucked away in the Castle Arcade!
On to Cardiff Bay…The city of Cardiff thrived as a port in the days when Welsh coal was the most valued energy source globally and Welsh slate was proudly covering rooftops around the world. Now the old Cardiff docklands have been redeveloped over the last decade to create Cardiff Bay. This is home to a large freshwater lake for sailing and water sports, the stylish five-star St David’s Hotel and Spa, and Mermaid Quay – a restaurant hotspot with everything from Caribbean to Turkish cuisine. Cardiff Bay is also home to exciting attractions and hosts events throughout the year.
The two Millennium project buildings, the Millennium Centre and Millennium Stadium are a testament to the renaissance of Cardiff as a modern city and its world class architecture. The Millennium Centre is an Arts Centre with 6 performance spaces and a year round programme of music, opera, theatre and dance. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, The Welsh National Opera and the National Dance Company of Wales all have their home at the Millennium Centre, which is close to the waterfront. I can recommend its contemporary wine and tapas bar, ‘One’, where we had lunch.
Cardiff is indisputably the home of Doctor Who. The series is filmed on location in and around the city as well as at the new BBC Studios in Cardiff Bay. Just next door, the Doctor Who Experience has brought the Doctor back to his roots, making a stop in Cardiff the perfect choice for Doctor Who fans of any age. I remember watching the very first episode of Doctor Who in black-and-white as a kid from behind the sofa, so this was a special treat for me to see the Tardis close up and personal!
- Bill provided a wonderful introduction to Wales and its capital city of Cardiff and before we parted I asked him about this special year in Wales celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas. Like so many people around the world his poetry inspires me – and I wanted to know where should I go next to find out more about the man and the legend? “’Begin at the beginning’ as the man himself said – go to Swansea an hour’s drive west of here and see where he was born and visit the Dylan Thomas Centre. Ask for Jo Furber – you’ll be in good hands there!” And so I did.
Dylan Thomas Trail
Dylan Marlais Thomas was born on 27 October, 1914 in Swansea, Wales and died in New York in 1953 at the age of just 39. He has left behind a lasting legacy as one of Wales’ best known poets, writers and broadcasters. Some of Dylan Thomas’s most popular works include the poems "Do not go gentle into that good night" and "And death shall have no dominion", the play for voices, “Under Milk Wood”, and stories and radio broadcasts such as “A Child's Christmas in Wales” and “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog”.
Although Thomas was appreciated as a poet in his lifetime, he found earning a living as a writer difficult - so he augmented his income with reading tours and broadcasts. His radio recordings for the BBC during the latter half of the 1940s allow us still to enjoy his beautiful voice – however no known moving footage of the poet remains, so if you have some old film of the man in the attic, let me know!
While living in London, Thomas met Caitlin Macnamara, whom he married in 1937. Their relationship was turbulent and marred by alcoholism. In the early part of his marriage, Thomas and his family lived hand-to-mouth, finally settling in the Welsh fishing village of Laugharne.
In the last few years of his life Thomas travelled to America, where his readings brought him a level of fame - though his erratic behaviour and drinking worsened, and he had a reputation as somewhat of a drunken and doomed poet. During his fourth trip to New York in 1953, Thomas became gravely ill and fell into a coma from which he did not recover. His body was returned to Wales where he was buried at the village churchyard in Laugharne.
Wales is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas with a yearlong countrywide cultural festival … but there are sites related to the poet that are part of the Welsh landscape and heritage and you can visit them any time. So come with me as I join the Dylan Thomas Trail…
I have travelled a little over an hour westwards from Cardiff to Swansea, the second city of Wales, which had its origins as a Viking trading post at the mouth of the river Tawe. I followed Bill’s advice and started my pilgrimage of Dylan Thomas’ Wales with Jo Furber at The Dylan Thomas Centre, a beautiful building in the Maritime Quarter of Swansea that was formerly Swansea’s Guildhall. This is the ideal starting place on a quest for Dylan Thomas as the exhibition places the poet's life and works in an historical context. Jo showed me around the Centre; her job title here is Literature Officer…only in Wales! The Centre features a permanent exhibition on Dylan Thomas and his life and is also home to many literary events throughout the year - including the annual Dylan Thomas Festival during October and November. www.dylanthomas.com
The area of Swansea most associated with Dylan Thomas perhaps is the Uplands, a part of Swansea overlooking the sea where he was born and spent the formative years of his life. The poet was born in Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive - the Thomas family bought it in 1914 as a new house and Dylan was born in the front bedroom of the house that very year. He continued to live at Number 5 until his parents moved out in 1937.
The Dylan Thomas House has been restored by Geoff Haden and recreates exactly how the Thomas family would have seen it in 1914. Imagine standing in the bedroom where one of the most iconic figures in Welsh literature was born… Or drinking in the atmosphere of the writing room where one of the greatest poets and writers of the 20th century first put pen to paper…Geoff himself showed me around, pointing out the views from the windows that were incorporated into Dylan’s poems. If you plan far enough ahead you can actually sleep under Dylan Thomas’ roof: you can rent the whole house or maybe stay on a bed and breakfast basis if all the rooms aren’t filled. And there are reading performances and Edwardian dinners here too.
A short walk from Dylan Thomas House took me to Cwmdonkin Park which features repeatedly in Dylan’s poems. It has changed very little from the time he penned “that small, iron-railed universe of rockery, gravel-path, playbank, bowling-green, bandstand reservoir, chrysanthemum garden…” The children were squealing in the playground when I was there, the clouds were chasing each other across the sky above the distant sea and the spring flowers were lighting up the park.
Time for a pint in Dylan’s local bar, the Uplands Tavern at the bottom of the hill… Here he first grew to love the conviviality of such places and I raised a glass of ale to his luminous memory. It was time to move on to the place that most inspired his creative genius: to the tiny coastal community of Laugharne, just another hour up the road to the west….
Laugharne nestles on the southwest coast of Wales in Carmarthenshire. It has fine Georgian buildings, a Norman castle, rivers, an estuary and a defining landscape. A landscape evocatively captured forever in the words of Dylan Thomas.
In 1938 Dylan Thomas moved his family to Laugharne, with spectacular views of the estuary of the River Taf. Their house was called 'Sea View'. In 1949 Dylan and Caitlin moved back to Laugharne and he lived at The Boat House. Laugharne was the inspiration for his best-known work: Under Milkwood. Dylan wrote Under Milk Wood in 1954 as a radio drama. It was later adapted as a stage play and the 1972 film version starring Richard Burton is still a landmark movie. The work is centred around characters in a fictional small Welsh fishing village called Llareggub. Typical of his sense of humour - Llareggub is "bugger all" spelt backwards!
I met Maggie James at The Boat House who explained in our interview how the poet was inspired by the spirit of the place. And it’s not hard to see why. Dylan chose the garden shed as his writing place. The Boat House terrace offers wonderful views over the Taf estuary to the Gower beyond – it’s a haven for egrets, lapwings, herons, oystercatchers, seals and otters with fishermen and cocklers continuing the ancient traditions. The views change with the tides. The Boat House houses a small museum and a tearoom with a locally sourced, home-cooked menu which I can warmly recommend – especially the cawl, a memorable home-made soup of local ingredients.
I wanted to experience more of the spirit of this wonderful place and Maggie suggested that I meet Bob Stevens and hike the Dylan Thomas Birthday Walk. I took her good advice and in the company of Bob Stevens, Creator of the Dylan Thomas Birthday Walk we set off past the twelfth century castle walls towards the estuary. In 1944, Dylan wrote “Poem in October” about his birthday walk to the shoulder of Sir John's hill. The poem is simply about his love of Laugharne and getting older. The poem was set on the 27th of October, 1944; his 30th Birthday. The sounds of the estuary and the memory of the herons awaiting the tide were on his mind…The walk is a little over 3kms in length and winds uphill to magnificent views of the estuary, Dylan's boathouse, the Gower, north Devon, Caldey Island and Tenby. A fitting climax to my Dylan Thomas Trail.
My last two sites were more sentimental. A pint of the fine local ale in the bar of Brown’s Hotel in Laugharne where I stayed – and where Dylan would drink and chat endlessly with the local characters of the village. And finally a walk up through the village to St Martin’s Church. Here in a sloping graveyard with an arcing view across the Welsh hills is a simple white cross amidst a field of more ornate and grand memorials. It’s where Dylan and Caitlin are buried and it’s where my Welsh pilgrimage sadly ends.
The great thing about Dylan Thomas is the way his words paint a picture of the people and places of Wales in a way a camera never can. And following his life-thread through Wales is a wonderful way of absorbing the beauty of the Welsh landscape and the people. My thanks to Bill, Bob, Jo, Geoff, Maggie and all the wonderfully warm and hospitable Welsh people we have met on our journey through Wales. And special thanks to Bob Titley and Rob Jones of Visit Wales who made my journey possible. I recommend two websites for planning your trip: www.americas.visitwales.com
for all your Welsh travel needs and www.dylanthomas100.org
to share in the celebrations of the Dylan Thomas centenary.
“A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone's knowledge of himself and the world around him.”
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By Sylvia Reddom on
Excellent article an it brought back many warm memories of a visit to family and friends in Fishguard (sp) in Wales (Pembrokeshire I believe). Our family friend had inherited the original courthouse there, was in the middle of renovating it to live in so we got to stay there also! We enjoyed a very historical overview, visit around the country and up the coast, punctuated by delicious lunches surrounded by musical Gaelic spoken everywhere we went!. We travelled there via the "Boat trains" which take you from London to the boats which sail over to Ireland (alas that waits for another trip). Thanks for refreshing those great memories!