Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dylan Thomas, Swansea, and Laugharne

It would be difficult to say that there was one highlight on our group's stay in Wales, but visiting the haunts of Dylan Thomas certainly ranked right up there.

Breakfast at The Boat House B&B

The first morning we drove to Swansea, where Thomas spent his childhood. We saw his house, the park where he played, and went downtown to the Dylan Thomas Center. Thomas wrote many wonderful short prose pieces inspired by the environs and people of Swansea. In modern Swansea I found it difficult to get any sense of what he experienced.

Here are some photographs from Swansea interspersed with exerpts from his story "Quite Early One Morning."

Downtown statue

Quite early one morning in the winter in Wales, by the sea that was lying down still and green as grass after a night of tar-black howling and rolling, I went out of the house, where I had come to stay for a cold unseasonable holiday, to see if it was raining still, if the outhouse had been blown away, potatoes, shears, rat-killer, shrimp-nets, and tins of rusty nails aloft on the wind, and if all the cliffs were left. It had been such a ferocious night that someone in a smoky ship-pictured bar had said he could feel his tombstone shaking even though he was not dead, or at least was moving; but the morning shone as clear and calm as one always imagines tomorrow will shine.

The park down the street from his house

The sun lit the sea-town, not as a whole, from topmost downreproving zinc-roofed chapel to empty-but-for-rats-and-whispers grey warehouse on the harbour, but In separate bright pieces. There, the quay shouldering out, nobody on it now but the gulls and the capstans like small men in tubular trousers. Here, the roof of the police-station, black as a helmet, dry as a summons, sober as Sunday. There, the splashed church, with a cloud in the shape of a bell poised above it, ready to drift and ring. Here the chimneys of the pink-washed pub, the pub that was waiting for Saturday night as an over-jolly girl waits for sailors.

Swansea building decoration

The town was not yet awake. Birds sang in eaves, bushes, trees, on telegraph wires, rails, fences, spars, and wet masts, not for love or joy, but to keep other birds away. The landlords in feathers disputed the right of even the dying light to descend and perch.

Ashtray outside the Dylan Thomas Center

The town was not yet awake, and I walked through the streets like a stranger come out of the sea, shrugging off weed and wave and darkness with each step, or like an inquisitive shadow, determined to miss nothing - not the preliminary tremor in the throat of the dawnsaying cock or the first whirring nudge of arranged time in the belly of the alarm clock on the trinketed chest of drawers under the knitted text and the done-by-hand watercolours of Porthcawl or Trinidad.

The Carters are very involved in the Dylan Thomas Center -
who knew he loved Dylan Thomas?

The chapel stood grim and grey, telling the day there was to be no nonsense. The chapel was not asleep, it never cat-napped nor nodded nor closed its long cold eye. I left it telling the morning off and the seagull hung rebuked above it.

Thomas' boyhood home

Thus some of the voices of a cliff-perched town at the far end of Wales moved out of sleep and darkness into the new-born, ancient and ageless morning, moved and were lost.

Swansea was a bit of a nightmare - traffic, construction, nothing to recommend it (at least downtown). We then had a change of plans. We decided to go to Fern Hill, which ended up seriously cutting into our writing time, but we were all so glad we went. Fern Hill was the farm owned by Thomas' relatives, which he visited and loved. It is not in the family now and someone has bought it with the intention of renovating, but nothing seems to be happening. After a drive down those classically Welsh narrow roads, we found the place was closed up, so we looked through the gate and recited "Fern Hill" - one of his most famous poems. Here it is:

Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
    The night above the dingle-starry,
        Time let me hail and climb
    Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honored among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
        Trail with daisies and barley
    Down the rivers of windfall light.

Mailbox at Fern Hill

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
    In the sun that is young once only,
        Time let me play and be
    Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hill barked clear and cold,
        And the sabbath rang slowly
    In the pebbles of the holy streams.

Courtyard at Fern Hill

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as a house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
    And playing, lovely and watery
        And fire green as grass.
    And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
    Flying with the ricks, and the horses
        Flashing into the dark.

Reading "Fern Hill"

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
    Shining, it was Adam and maiden.
        The sky gathered again
    And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
    Out of the whinnying green stable
        On to the fields of praise.

In the courtyard of Fern Hill

And honored among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
    In the sun born over and over,
        I ran my heedless ways,
    My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
    Before the children green and golden
        Follow him out of grace,

Fern Hill

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
    In the moon that is always rising,
        Nor that riding to sleep
    I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
        Time held me green and dying
    Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Those last two lines are some of my favorite in poetry.

The shed where Thomas did much of his writing

Back in the small town of Laugharne (pronounced Larn) where Thomas spent a number of years with his wife and children, we went to see his house and the shed where he wrote. It's really a place of pilgrimage for writers and readers. He lived in the Boat House, wrote in the shed, drank in Brown's Hotel, and is buried in St. Martin's churchyard.

Looking into the writing shed

When you see where he lived and setting of his house and writing shed above the Taf estuary - the birds, the water, the sheep in the green fields across the way, the changing light and weather - you really come to understand his inspirations. 

Looking across the estuary

Not that I mean to imply that, with all that was in front of him, I could be a poet like Thomas. But it beats sitting on my bed in Santa Rosa!

Looking own on his house

And we did get to spend some time writing in his house - yes, I was looking out over the estuary - and I produced nothing that immediately stands out for me. I will reread it and see what I can find, but.....maybe I needed beer or to be damp and cold!

Looking at the Taf estuary

Just a short walk back to the B&B

We got kicked out (not literally) at closing time - as I said, the Welsh are prompt about that. Terry wanted to continue her writing and I got these photos of her sitting below the writing shed - absorbing the spot and writing.

Terry soaking it up!

Terry is the white spot bottom left
and that is Thomas' house

And is there a castle in Laugharne? Of course there is and I'm standing right under it while taking this photo of Terry.

13th century Norman castle

There is a public parking lot below the castle along with a sign warning people that the estuary floods in high tides. We parked on higher ground!

Keeping an eye on the castle

That night we planned a "gourmet" dinner at the Cors Restaurant - they change the menu to some degree every day and they use local products.

The Cors Restaurant - also an inn

It has a very beautiful garden filled with sculpture and ponds. And it has enormous Gunnera - here it is dwarfing me.


When we got there, Rebecca surprised us with the news that her employer wanted to treat us to dinner! I'm feeling terrible that I can't remember his name. Scott? We really enjoyed it and such an improvement over the crazy people the night before.

Shrimp, papaya, and avocado

Very local lamb

And the day wouldn't be complete if we didn't end up on our computers at brown's Hotel.

Wifi always goes better with a beer

And we got to listen in on conversations - about local stuff like sheep!

Across the estuary -
who wants to help me buy this house - I'll let you visit


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