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Letter from Laugharne

Time-warped, drink-sozzled, tide-worn… Laugharne, in Carmarthenshire, is best known as the sometime home of Dylan Thomas whose ghost still lingers in this enigmatic town.

Letter from Laugharne

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In other towns, cocks crow. In Laugharne, they cackle at dawn from the tops of ash trees above my small cottage in The Lacques — an imprecise district named, probably, for the lace woven by the many Flemish settlers. It’s unnerving to wake up with this raucous murder for company, but it’s fitting on drizzly days when the tide is out and the fret (sea fog) is drifting in.

Anyone with a passing interest in poetry knows about Dylan Thomas’s association with Laugharne, the township he called a ‘legendary lazy little black magical bedlam by the sea’. They know about his writing shed with its view over the ‘heron priested’ shores of the Taf Estuary. And about his drinking, his dark moods, his death in America.

He’s buried at the main church here beneath a simple white cross. His ghost lingers and his admirers come to smell the musty living room in the Boathouse, where he lived, and to look for characters from his masterpiece, Under Milk Wood.

But as literary birthplaces go, Laugharne is no Stratford-on-Avon, Haworth or Chawton. It remains an enigma. This small, steep-sided, village-sized town has retained the curious character — and, perhaps, some of the characters — that beguiled the Swansea-born bard six decades ago. To discover how it might have done this, you have only to take a walk. In my case, this means leaving the cottage and turning right up Newbridge Road towards the pub, not for a drink — not yet — but in search of a different kind of oblivion.

Laugharne came to me in instalments. First, in the late 1980s, Bob, a Cardiff-born university friend, was reading the newly published biography of Caitlin Thomas, Dylan’s wife (then still alive) and he mentioned to me a boozy little town he’d once visited. He talked fondly of Browns Hotel and Buckley’s ales. A full two decades later, as books and travel editor of Time Out, I decided to pay a visit. Bob came along. I found the town pretty but the people gritty; the pub was heaving, not with bookish types but with farmers, builders, shop assistants. I was enchanted and saw a cottage for sale. I went back to London, pondering, but non-committal. Then, in early spring 2012 — more than two years after the visit — I escaped the capital and rented the house. During my first weekend, London followed me on the train for the Laugharne Weekend, an annual, mainly bookish, rather retro, slightly punkish arts festival. Then everyone left and I settled in.

On the slow walk up Newbridge Road, I pass a fairytale garden full of giant rhubarb and ferns and other lovers of the dark and damp, and then cross a river. I have a small, partly culverted stream of my own, but here at the bridge, the water flows fast and bright. South Carmarthenshire’s rains, streams and rivers gather in the cow-filled fields and come down here looking for the sea. In the babble of the river is a clue to the place — for Laugharne is buried away from everywhere else, in a kind of valley with only one side. When you meet people from Carmarthen or St Clears or as far away as Hay-on-Wye, and tell them you live there, they say “That’s a lovely place… yes, and a strange place.”

But what does that mean? True, there’s no Welsh spoken, you never see policemen, everyone is related to (or divorced from) everyone else, gossip is the only gospel, and parking is free. But I suspect the strangeness is subtler than any of that.

At the junction with King Street, you pan a half circle to take in terraces of not-quite-grand, pastel-painted faux Georgian houses, a post office that doubles as a chemist’s, a secondhand bookshop, a potter’s and a knackered old petrol pump, and a road sloping gently down to the entrance to the castle. In ruins but still the loftiest thing around here, this Anglo-Norman fortress is evidence of Laugharne’s strategic importance as a sea defence. There was a city here once, but in 1607, floods — possibly the result of a tsunami — wiped out most of the population. It hasn’t looked forward since.

There are other ghost buildings: a butcher’s, with its marble-walled windows; a dead pub called The Pelican; a huge pile of a house with an empty ballroom at the rear. Many houses on King Street have spaces that used to be ballrooms. George Tremlett, the owner of the bookshop (and, as it happens, the author of the Caitlin biography Bob was reading) tells me there were once 33 pubs. It’s a prodigious, mythic-sounding number, evocative of a grand and thriving past life — and a reminder of the present-day stillness of small towns.

Two key buildings are right here at the corner: Browns Hotel, Dylan Thomas’s favourite boozer, reopened this year as a small, smart hotel with a bar and a little library. Opposite is a proper pub: The Three Mariners, where the poet would drink if he were still around.

At the estuary

Writers like Laugharne. Proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft spent time on the nearby family farm in the late 18th century. Edward Thomas spent a few weeks in the town during the winter of 1911 and in The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans (1913) contrasted grimy Balham in London with an idealised version of Laugharne. Richard Hughes, who wrote A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), lived at Castle House from 1934-46 and was the town’s petty constable (there are lots of such honorary posts here, all of them equally petty). In the 1980s, Kingsley Amis spent time at Cliff House and is said to have written parts of his Booker Prize-winning 1986 novel The Old Devils here.

These authors came for the tranquillity and the time and space to think; for the disconnection from London and from the so-called literary life: if Laugharne has a spiritual opposite, it’s places like Soho and Fitzrovia, full of people trying so hard and shouting about it so loudly. To quote Vernon Watkins, often overlooked as ‘Swansea’s other poet’:

Here, where the earth is green, where heaven is true…
Who in his heart could murmur or complain: 
‘The light we look for is not in this land?’
That light is present, and that distant time
Is always here, continually redeemed.

Watkins’s poem was titled ‘Peace in the Welsh Hills’ but is equally apt for the bays and beaches, dunes and sandbanks.

Laugharne has not been prettified. Yes, the cottages on Victoria Street, which I pass as I leave the Mariners behind me, are pastel-hued, but each is adorned with a satellite dish. The bakery opposite doesn’t do pain au levain, but pasties and white baps. The Mariners is the closest thing we have to a gastropub; it serves pizzas. And it stays open when it rains, which the other pub doesn’t. In fact, apart from one posh restaurant — The Cors, tucked behind a garden of gunnera — there’s no fine dining in town. There’s no beach, no deli, no farmers’ market, no museum of local life, no galleries selling blue-tinted watercolours. But for those who need it, there’s Pendine Sands: static caravan sites, ‘family fun’ and Mr Whippy, 10 minutes’ drive away.

Following the curve of Market Lane, I pass some pretty little houses and slope down a path to the sea. Cliffs encircle the wide Taf Estuary, where gulls scream and curlews whistle. To walk only once along the edge of the water is to miss the point of the place. Estuarial life is about shifting moods and reading the seasons and the weather through the oscillating tides.

On the wildest and wettest days, as in the washout summer of 2012, I go out to wake up with the gusting westerlies and to study the greys. On sunny days, I join the walkers and weekenders who flock together on the foreshore to drink up the blue air. Low tide is gentle and suggestive, while high tide — or, just before, when the sea is rushing in — is a showy, spectacular affair. But I’m still only learning; you’d have to be here years to really know the estuary well.

Except at highest water, a path follows the foot of the red sandstone cliffs to two steep staircases leading up to a narrow road. Here is Dylan Thomas’s writing shed — once a garage built to house Laugharne’s first car (a green Wolseley). ‘My study, atelier, or bard’s bothy, roasts on a cliff-top,’ wrote Thomas to a friend. But in winter it must have been a damp den of an office and it’s unlikely the little coal-fired stove that can still be seen did much to defrost the poet’s fingertips. Caitlin would lock her husband in the shed to ‘help’ him meet his deadlines — and keep him from slipping off to the Browns.

A few steps along is the Boathouse — the third and final property the Thomas’ occupied in Laugharne. Previously, they had spent periods at ‘Eros’ on Gosport Street and at ‘Sea View’ (now a hotel). The Boathouse, where they lived with their three children from May 1949 until Dylan Thomas’s death in November 1953, stands alone and apart from the main town. It has some of the loveliest views of the estuary and beyond and is the most photographed spot in Laugharne. Inside, a parlour and bedrooms have been refitted to exhibit photographs and furniture: a chaise lounge and a desk; books; and a death mask of Dylan made by US artist David Slivka, formerly the property of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Out on the terrace, away from the memorabilia and the booming voice of Dylan reading his verse, spare a thought for Caitlin. She left Laugharne for Italy in 1957, describing it as a ‘permanently festering wound’. This might not fit neatly with the fantasy version of Dylan and Wales, but it remains the truth; the words came through drink and darkness and despair, and Laugharne and the Boathouse are part of that reality.

Finding Oblivion

The best Thomas-themed experience in the township is the Birthday Walk. From the foreshore it takes you up around Sir John’s Hill, south of the town, to a high vantage point for remarkable views of the mouth of the estuary — an expanse of marshland riven by pills (drainage ditches), and, across the bay, Llansteffan and Pembrey Forest. In the haze is the Gower Peninsula — a low finger of land jutting into the Bristol Channel and marking the limit of Carmarthen Bay. Afterwards, climb over the hill itself and stumble back downhill into town.

At the end of all walks there’s always the pub. Not content with being forgotten by the wider world, Laugharnians like to forget their working day, their women (and men!) and other woes by gathering at the Mariners, or The Cross House (the one that closes when it rains) or Browns, or the Fountain (aka the rugby club, which only opens when it feels like it) to drink. At weekends, the Grist — the main town square — is busy with boozers hopping from pub to pub, from conversation to quarrel, from sobriety to oblivion of the real, unpoetic kind.

Where city folk cluster in cliques and drinkers in big, broken towns arrange themselves in rival factions, in Laugharne, in the main, it’s a free-for-all-everyone-invited affair. My only rule is to never be the last in the bar; on Sunday mornings, I always hear about breakdowns — in communication, of nerves, of marriages — and I don’t want to be there when they happen. According to biographer Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas told a friend he drank to reconcile the disorder outside and the order within himself (Ferris says Dylan was drunk when he said this).

When I head home after a last glass of Welsh malt at Browns, I walk back down Newbridge Road. If I look up and it happens to be clear, I feel reconciled to the stars above. If the cosmos is chaos, after all, then maybe Dylan was right.

A cockler once lived in my cottage. The shed where I store my books probably housed a horse or donkey, employed to freight the shells back from the treacherous mud flats. He would have risen before the sun on those days when the tides demanded and set out from the deep vale at the western end of Laugharne and walked across the Grist and on to the great, lonely mystery of the estuary’s seaward edges. In that, as much as in any celebrity scribbler’s feted outpourings, there is a deep and honest poetry. Oblivion takes many forms. It can be the dreaded alcohol, it can merely be being forgotten, or it can be — and Thomas laced all his poems with this theme — death itself. Even now, you can hear the crows waking and that plaintive call.

ESSENTIALS

Wales

Getting there
A car is the easiest way to reach Laugharne and visit the nearby beaches and coastal resorts: Pendine, Tenby and Saundersfoot. There are trains to Carmarthen from London Paddington (most change at Swansea) and from Manchester Piccadilly, from which it’s a 20-minute taxi ride to Laugharne.

 

Getting around
If you plan to stay in Laugharne, you can walk everywhere. For longer walks, the Wales Coast Path runs east to Pendine and Amroth, and you can jump on the bus to get back. The 222 runs between Laugharne and Pendine and the 351 between Pendine and Amroth; a taxi costs just a few pounds. www.walescoastpath.gov.uk

 

When to go
Summer, although late spring and early autumn are also usually fine, with April and September fabled to be the best months. Be aware the Laugharne Weekend (three days of literary, arts and music events) falls in April, so either avoid the date or book a room well in advance. www.thelaugharneweekend.com

 

Stay
Browns Hotel. This former pub — said to be the address Dylan Thomas gave to his publishers for correspondence — was reopened in July 2012 as a smart, understated 14-room hotel. Doubles from £80, B&B. www.browns-hotel.co.uk
Hurst House on the Marsh. Originally a dairy farm, this 16th-century, 17-room luxury hotel and restaurant, is a 10-minute drive from Laugharne in an isolated spot on the marshes. Doubles from £175, B&B. www.hurst-house.co.uk
Seaview. Another building with Dylan Thomas associations, this tall, yellow 1850s house has just four double rooms — the top two have estuary views. Doubles from £99, B&B. www.seaview-laugharne.co.uk
The Cors. Acclaimed small — and very romantic — restaurant with three rooms and a beautiful garden; chef-owner Nick Priestland changes the short menu daily. Open Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. Doubles from £80, B&B. www.thecors.co.uk

 

Visit
The Boathouse and writing shed. Thomas’s home in Laugharne from 1948 until his death in 1953, with his workplace next door, both with lovely views of the estuary. Entry from £4.
www.dylanthomasboathouse.com
Laugharne and Llansteffan Castles. Impressive Anglo-Norman bulwarks. www.cadw.wales.gov.uk
Laugharne Weekend. Three days of cultural debate, poetry readings and music concerts, in venues around the town every April. www.thelaugharneweekend.com

 

More info
Dylan Thomas would have been 100 in 2014; events are planned across South Wales. www.dt100.info
Wales Coast Path. www.walescoastpath.gov.uk; good PDF-format maps can be downloaded at www.ccgc.gov.uk/enjoying-the-country/wales-coast-path.aspx
Aurum’s Welsh Coast Path. Amroth to Swansea, by Chris Moss, will be published 2013.
Discover Carmarthenshire. www.visit.carmarthenshire.gov.uk
Literature Wales’ Literary Tourism. www.literaturewales.org/literary-tourism/
Get OS Map 177 or buy a custom-made map if you plan to set out on the Wales Coast Path. www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk

 

How to do it
Celtic Trails offers a self-guided, three-night, two-day walking break around the Carmarthenshire coast, staying at Browns Hotel, from £315 per person, including taxi transfers, map and walking notes. www.celtic-trails.com

Published in Nov/Dec 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)