May 2003: Swansea & Laugharne

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Aeronwy Thomas with bust of Dylan Thomas

Aeronwy Thomas with bust of Dylan Thomas

Metal figures large in Swansea’s past. This was the main dock for iron and copper, and copper smelting proceeded from the end of the 19th century The past is a rich one, full of Normans and the egotistical flourishes of the copper barons, their names preserved in big houses along the coastline, Groves, Tucker, Button, Clement, Talbot, Morris, Mansell.

Pat Hughes in Swansea

Pat Hughes in Swansea

The centre of Swansea was bombed absolutely flat during the war. And from the wreckage a modern tourist product has emerged. The old Associated British Ports building now turned into Morgan Hotel, by a self made travel entrepreneur Martin Morgan, and he will proudly show you the five star suites which count as the plushest beds in town. The building is just across the road from the Dylan Thomas centre and served as headquarters of the year of literature.

The work is still appearing from that era. Gwen Watkins, widow of Vernon, launched a book of Dylan poems last month that had lain in her husband’s collection since his untimely death in 1967. Local bookseller Jeff Towns has a magnificent collection of Dylan manuscripts and memorabilia, and his Aladdin’s cave bookshop is worth the 35-minute flight (Air Wales do Dublin and Cork) in itself.

 

There is more to Swansea than Dylan, the Maritime Quarter has been transformed and the former financial district is now adorned with bars and restaurants such as Braserie which serves seafood and steaks (you can select the meat you want before it is cooked) and the No Sign Bar, where guests get served in cellars which date back to 1400. The intriguing name comes from the area’s banking past, when people who worked in the bank used to nip in to off license to have a quick bevvy, on the corner of the magnificently named street: Salubrious Passage

There is more on the way. The town plans a new national waterfront museum which will pull together the whole marina area and is expected to be completed in 2006.

There is already a thriving industrial maritime museum which gives a lot of the history of the Swansea valley which was the big copper smelting area.

 

A low sun brings out the best in Laugharne, one of those seaside beauty spots you get on both sides of the Irish Sea and which seems to play in the hours of sunshine. You would say that the short walk from the old Norman Castle to the boathouse, the shore below unchanging amid the flux of centuries, would inspire a genius.

It already has. Dylan Thomas lived here and wrote his inspirational Under Milk Wood (they will show you the site of the actual wood) and threw in most of the local characters from the town for good measure. The pub where he drank, one of about 2,000 in the locality claiming links with the great drinker and rhymer, keeps its character free from the ravishes of tourism. The shed where he did much of his writing is exactly as he might have left it.

Then along the path you come to the house where Kingsley Amis wrote the Old Devils. The shorelines nearby are where the memorable black and white footage of Vernon Watkins was shot, a denser, more intricate poet than Dylan and one who uttered the immortal lines; “a poem is something just waiting for a poet to come along and write it down.’

 

That figures. Wales is a place just waiting for someone to come along and find it. Write about it. Savour it. And drink a few whiskeys to celebrate. Not the 18 that finally killed Dylan, mind.

“He wasn’t really a shorts drinker at all,” Sean Keir in the Dylan Thomas centre in Swansea reveals. “He drank Buckley’s Brown, and only in small quantities until his mid twenties. By then the great volume of his poetry had already been written. Dylan died young (38) but for all intents and purposes his work was over with the magnificent exception of Under Milk Wood.

 

Aeronwy Thomas remembers, as a five year old, the first day that she realised that her daddy was something special. She was called out by her primary school inspector to the front of the class and pointed out as the daughter of the most famous Welsh poet. She says he would love the adulation he enjoys in his native Swansea nowadays, where the Dylan Thomas centre has been opened in an old port building and a strange reverse chronological depiction of his life can be enjoyed by visitors. The centre is a hive of cultural activity for the new generation of Welsh writer.

Aeronwy recalls two great trips to Co Clare when she was little, where her mother Caitlin came from. Being Caitlin’s daughter has advantages too.

Being Dylan’s daughter she shares his love of Swansea. The town was uneasy with their most famous son’s reputation (not the only one, Bonnie Tyler and Catherine Zeta Jones still live nearby) but a group of Irish people who helped organise the year of literature in 1995 helped Swansea come to appreciate just how rich was the legacy of Dylan and the Kardomagh group of which he was part.

 

Welsh Rarebits, the leading collection of quality hotels in Wales, has several new establishments in its 2003 brochure. Membership of the scheme, started in 1985, is by invitation only, and the emphasis is on welcome, good food and high standards of service and comfort.

Newcomers among the 42 entries in this year’s brochure include the Harbourmaster Hotel, overlooking the harbour in the Cardigan Bay resort of Aberaeron. The building dates from 1811, but the interiors have a contemporary style: there are seven bedrooms, with double or twin rooms at £75-£90 per night, including full breakfast.

Also in a 19th century building – given a new lease of life last year – is the 20-bedroom Morgans. It is housed in Swansea’s former Port Authority building. Outside, it looks much the same but the interior, while retaining the classical features, is unashamedly modern. A double room, with breakfast, costs from £100 a night. A third new entry, the Old Post Office at St. Fagans on the outskirts of Cardiff, is primarily a restaurant, but with six bedrooms costing £75 a night for a double room.

A free copy can be obtained by calling Welsh Rarebits on 0044168 666 8030, fax 0044168 666 8029 or e-mail: info@rarebits.co.uk. Website: www.welsh.rarebits.co.uk.

n The Welsh Oyster-opening Championships will be one of the highlights of the Abergavenny Food Festival this autumn (September 20-21). This South Wales market town is developing a reputation as a culinary hotspot and this is the fifth year that international chefs, authors and broadcasters will congregate to share their love of good cuisine in demonstrations, competitions, speciality food markets – even a ‘food fringe’. The town is surrounded by lush farmland and the beautiful Brecon Beacons National Park is nearby. Website: www.abergavennyfoodfestival.co.uk.

 

Pat Hughes was choreographing a theatre group in Swansea when one of the stars failed to show one night. It started a love affair with acting, and in particular with the most famous work by Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood, which she started performing as part of the Swansea tourist circuit three decades ago. Now Pat has started the Merlyn Entertainment Company and has toured America and Australia with her dramatisation of the poet’s work, and operated guided tours of landmarks and locations associated with the poet. Her personal guided tours, which include dramatisations and stops at other Gower beauty spots, are in great demand. She is seen here with her beloved Swnasea, “the lovely ugly town” of Dylan Thomas. patmerlyn@aol.com

 

That figures. Wales is a place just waiting for someone to come along and find it. Write about it. Savour it. And drink a few whiskeys to celebrate. Not the 18 that finally killed Dylan, mind.

 

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