Thursday 9 July 2015

The Original Dylan

Current Location: Fishguard, Wales - bound for Ireland.
Distance since Lisbon, Portugal: 2,441 km.
Health: Judy the Stoker shaking off a bad cold, Mike the Captain fit as a buck rabbit, The Beast of Burden purring like a kitten.
Saddle/Bum Status: Sweet as....

"Give Dylan my regards," called the elderly farmer as we cycled off.

"Wish we could."

On reflection it seemed an odd thing for him to say. On further reflection it didn't. 

Dylan Thomas in 1952 - American tour

Dylan Thomas, poet and story teller, has been dead for more than 60 years but seems very much alive in the south of Wales. Mention his name and there is instant recognition. Mention Laugharne where he lived for four years and it's the same.

"Ah, The Boat House," people say referring to the waterfront cottage in Laugharne bought for the Thomas family by a patron, actress Margaret Taylor.

The Boat House, Laugharne, as it stands today.

We were intrigued. In an age where poetry often takes a back seat to worn out pop lyrics and instant fame how could Dylan Thomas command so much respect?

Dylan's influence - from the Beat Poets to the Beatles and Bob Dylan. John Lennon wanted Dylan's picture included on the Sgt Pepper's album. And remember Bob Zimmerman, who became Bob Dylan via Bob Dillon.

Part of it may be due to marketing which offers visitors to south Wales plenty of opportunities to indulge in Dylan mania. There is something called the Dylan Thomas Trail which takes in Swansea, the place of his birth; Carmarthen, where he and wife Caitlin would visit the farmers' market; Llandysul, the home of a literary ancestor and a list of other places with sometimes tenuous links. There are museums and CDs and mountains of books analysing his work and life, including his problems with alcohol.

Dylan's grave in Laugharne cemetery.

And last year, 2014, was the centenary of his birth marked by exhibitions, poetry readings and performances of Dylan's play for voices, Under Milk Wood. A new film version of it was shot in the small Welsh coastal town of Solva and is due for release soon. No wonder public awareness is high.

Dylan's favourite watering hole reminds visitors of its link to the Welsh poet.

At Swansea we spent a happy afternoon in the Dylan Thomas Centre, listening to recordings, learning about his life and work, and even his composition methods which included writing long lists of rhyming words on strips of paper.

It took us two days on cycle way NCN 4 and a night in a terrible campground outside Carmarthen to reach Laugharne and The Boatshed at last:

"seashaken house built on a breakneck of rocks."

The writing room

There were lots of pictures, newspaper clippings about his death, his poetry aloud from an old radio, a video documentary and peeks from the windows of the Taf Estuary - which influenced his work. But it was his writing room - once a garage - that caught our attention. Fifty metres from The Boat House, it has been left as if the poet had just walked out. A jacket over a chair, a cup, books stacked carelessly and crumpled balls of paper on the floor under the table, itself under a window with another tantalising view of the sea.

The man was missing, but his work lives on.

"Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art."

It was in the writing room that Dylan struggled to finish Under Milk Wood.

The Taf Estuary "... By full tilt river and switchback sea
Where the cormorants scud..."

Dylan Fans

The conversation started at the men's urinal at Pontypridd's Blueberry Inn. Where are you going with that bike I was asked. Swansea, Laugharne to see where Dylan Thomas lived, then west.

It wasn't long before we were invited to join a table - James, Ange*, Angie and Nic were all Dylan fans and we had a highly entertaining night with them.  and learned that Laugharne is pronounced larne, like barn. 

Nic had a deep voice with a rich timbre and a reputation for impersonating Richard Burton reciting Dylan Thomas. A couple of times Nic ventured half  a line of Dylan, but maybe he needed one more drink (or was it one less) to encourage him. 

* Whoops, guessing at the spelling of the names here. Apologies if I have them wrong.

And then there is rugby, but that's another story.

In Laugharne itself we met a born and bred local whose father was a teenager when Dylan was at the height of his fame.

The drinking bouts were legendary, and the young man with his teenage friends was sometimes invited back to party at The Boat House.

"What was he like?" son asked the father years later.

He remembered Dylan and wife Caitlin arguing a lot. Dylan was different. He stood out and had travelled. And he was fun to be around, although their age difference meant that the father was always on the fringes, not part of Dylan's inner circle. No, he never asked Dylan about his poetry.

Laugharne Castle

And there was a story, although its veracity cannot be checked. It's said that sometimes Dylan was so drunk descending the steps to The Boat House that to prevent himself falling into the sea he would climb down backwards on his hands and knees.

Dylan Thomas died on 9 November 1953 in New York. He was 39.


  1. I remember a very long night 40 years ago when we almost ended up in Laugharne - where we should never have been. ..

  2. I seem to remember a very long night 40 years ago off the ferry from Ireland, nearly ending up in Laugharne which we had absolutely no right to be anywhere near


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