My hunt for the real Dylan Thomas took me all across the idyllic, then industrial, then idyllic again landscape of southern Wales. It turns out that there are several Thomases: the one in books, the one in anecdotal evidence, the one in myth, and the one in the PR machine that revs the man into high gear, plus all the individual takes. For a man who died only in 1953, he certainly has a lot of lore attached to him.
Thomas died at the appallingly young age of 39, but in that time managed to create a foundation for praise that today seems to have no upper limit (artists are always lionized after death). That foundation itself is built in large part from huge chunks of a tiny seaside hamlet you could right by in the fog and never see: Laugharne.
Pronounced “Larn,” the rough fishing village was, until Thomas, known for its Normal Castle and medieval governance laws. After Thomas, well, just try NOT getting away from the man. Pubs, houses, a scenic walk–anything the man touched is now immortalized. His grave, in a kirkyard just outside of town, is a literary pilgrimage site. Considering he and wife Caitlin moved there from London in 1949, it is a tribute to Thomas that a 4-year stay pulls so much gravitas.
Backwards and Forwards
But the love seems to be one-way. Laugharne served as the template for Llareggub, the fictional town that was as much a character as the rest of the quirky cast of Thomas’s seminal work, Under Milk Wood. But methinks there may have…um, been a some, ah, “layers” to that relationship–spell Llareggeb backwards.
So you might say it was a rough start, and for the Thomases, used to the artist paradise of London, it must have been equivalent to an exile. But let us be truthful: Dylan and Caitlin basically couch-surfed for almost all their time in the capital, despite his success in radio broadcasting. At one point, they were genuinely homeless. It may have been distant, it may have been rustic, but when the pair took up residence in the now-iconic Boathouse, Laugharne represented the first time husband and wife had a permanent, stable home to call their own. Or as stable as the two ever got; these two fought tooth-and-nail to the day he died.
Welsh villages being Welsh villages, Laugharne still has a lot throwbacks to the “Thomas Era.” The boats still line up on the waterfront, rising and falling with the (INCREDIBLY HUGE) tides, the sheep still dot the hills, and Sir John’s Hill, the inspiration for the fictional hill of Milk Wood, is still, in fact, wooded. But a rough fishing village it is no more.
The Browns Hotel is the snazziest digs around. It’s still very rustic, and you can tell the property absorbed the adjoining buildings because you “step down” from one second floor to another, but who cares? My room was palatial and with beam-lined high ceilings, and the bed was pretty expansive, too. I even had a little library of books on the desk so I could curl up with some good literature (I mean, other than Thomas’s) when the soggy weather kicked in.
But to go to Laugharne and miss the Boathouse is to like going to Mars and never getting out of the rocket. Thomas put Laugharne on the map, and his former home keeps it there.
By The Sea
Sandwiched between the River Taf and a sheer sea wall, the Boathouse really is one; you can have some of the best tea in Wales on the old slipway. Yet as much an A-class tea room as it is, the Boathouse is first and foremost a Temple of Thomas. Many of his first editions, Caitlin’s work (she was a writer in her own right), and even Dylan’s DEATHMASK are in the museum upstairs.
Downstairs, amid the bustle of the tea-making, are rooms preserved (it’s a bit of a reconstruction) in the way Caitlin kept house. It is respectable, snug, and very British. In the yard outside, the staff are still finding lost toy cars and other baubles of the Thomas children, who circled back over the years to identify each one.
Thomas, however, with three kids running rampant, did very little work in the Boathouse. Instead, he had a garage perched over it converted into his very own literary man-cave: the Writing Shed. Again, much of the inside is a reconstruction from photos of what it probably looked like, since, as with his childhood home in Swansea, Thomas didn’t become a tourist-draw until much later after this death. Both Boathouse and Writing Shed would see other owners before the The one thing that is exactly the same, however, is the timeless and airily vast vista the man had of the Taf and headlands opposite Laugharne. He may not have been thrilled with living with living there, but the town inspired from every direction nonetheless.
It was time to explore Laugharne in earnest, the town that Thomas hated, loved, and turned into an entire parallel universe. That’s for Part III.