Follow that poet

Dylan Thomas is everywhere in his native land, along with the hand print of history, Glenn A. Baker writes.

YOU DON'T need to go looking for Dylan Thomas in south-west Wales; he finds you. Through exhibitions, museums, festivals, statues, cafes, pubs, streets, paintings, posters and snatches of words still hanging in the salty air.

Good Celts all, the Welsh share the Irish bent for tale-telling and, around Swansea, so many of the best ones concern the man Hollywood legend Shelley Winters dubbed "the Horny Welshman". In 1950 she took him home for dinner where he drank pitchers of gin martinis served up in milk bottles by flatmate Marilyn Monroe while singing Welsh songs; the sort of ditties he'd learnt at the Mermaid and the Antelope, his Swansea pubs of choice when "this sea town was my world".

I came late to the Welsh bard. Before Under Milk Wood and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, at least for me, it was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. He's there on the front cover of the 1967 Beatles album, in Peter Blake's esoteric collage, above Marlon Brando and beside Aldous Huxley. Blake has confirmed that John Lennon was insistent on the inclusion.

As I leave Swansea and wind around its bay to Mumbles and the Gower Peninsula, heading towards the boathouse and writing shack at Laugharne, there's a copy of his Selected Poems on the car seat, with a back cover blurb the right length for a traffic light stop.

"Most notable for his verbal inventiveness, image-making power and almost pagan metaphysics, Dylan Thomas celebrated the glorious particulars of inner and outer landscapes in the face of weakness, mortality and decay."

Not hard to see why Lennon liked him.

Of course, not everyone who now trails this terrain has that filter. Mumbles, the busy seaside town beneath Mumbles Head, a popular resort since Victorian times, which Thomas summed up as "a rather nice village despite its name" has a new fame. For this is where Catherine Zeta-Jones grew up and maintains a home.

Mumbles is linked by a promenade to Swansea, Thomas's "ugly lovely town". It is to Cardiff as Glasgow is to Edinburgh - earthier, less accustomed to praise and patronage, ever obliged to try harder. It has tried particularly hard to showcase its - and Wales's - pivotal role in the industrial revolution. A new National Waterfront Museum of slate, steel and glass featuring themed galleries and 100 visual exhibits graphically tells of a time, about 1850, when copper melting and shipping was Swansea's distinction.

Advertisement

It's a watery environment with masts in many lines of sight. The Yacht Harbour Association bestows an annual award upon marinas. In 2005 Swansea's took it out along with Singapore's Raffles Marina and Australia's Nelson Bay. The brine also seeps indoors and in the vast Swansea Market teems local delicacies Penclawdd cockles and black laverbread (made from edible seaweed).

Before leaving Thomas's "blowsy town" to head "some miles [to] a very beautiful peninsula", for which Mumbles is effectively a doorway, I'd been made aware of a certain status. Back in 1956, before such things had become commonplace, the Gower Peninsula was the first location in Britain to be officially designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There's been no small effort to keep it that way since.

Scattered across the Gower are things that remind you that this is one of the oldest countries in the world. Along with Tudor manor houses, medieval fortresses and famed fly-fishing sites are ancient standing stones, burial chambers, Iron Age hill forts, tools and flints.

Truthfully, more than I expected. If you've not been before there's a temptation to believe, as you pay your fiver and sweep across the high bridge over the River Severn, that you're just dropping in on a few counties of England Lite. I'd heard it described as England's unloved backyard - so close that it could not be given its independence but far enough to be conveniently forgotten.

The great reward of Wales is not only that it is so very Welsh - as distinctive as Ireland and Scotland - but that there is so very much of it: a torrent of villages, towns, motorways, roadways and laneways, coastline and mountain, and everywhere the hand print of history.

There are no fewer than 641 castles, up to 1000 years old - one of the highest concentrations of ancient fortifications in the world.

Off and out of the Gower heading west it's a motorway sprint and an inland spike to twist around the Towy River estuary to Laugharne on sweeping Carmarthen Bay, there to conclude the Thomas trail. Not just peering into the clutter of the work shack and then walking about the cramped boathouse residence some way beneath, but dropping into the photo-festooned Brown's Hotel where he is said to have drawn inspiration for characters.

Though Laugharne sends you to the seaward side of the A40, Carmarthen town, on the other side is the legendary birthplace of Merlin the Magician. Here the landscape is dotted by sites sacred to those who hold to be true the tales of Arthur and his knights and like to think they're connected to the convergence of the power lines of the mind.

Clinging to the coast is slower but infinitely more rewarding, for the western side of the bay is the start of the ragged, jagged, tossed and towering Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, the only coastline in Britain so designated. With 70 named bays and beaches - one of which, Whitesands, recently ranked with St Tropez and Copacabana for a best 20 beaches of the world award - it is a more dramatic and less developed Cornwall.

Pembrokeshire will never be damned by faint praise. Recognition is constant, plaques are plentiful. There were 14 in 2005 alone acknowledging the charm of pastel-coloured Victorian terrace houses, castles, inlets, havens, heads, off-lying islands and all those beaches.

Tenby is the showpiece, endlessly photographed but still startling upon first sight. It has three beaches and high above them an old walled town with some of the wall still intact. There's a ferry out of Tenby Harbour to Caldey Island, where the order of monks who have been in residence since the 6th century make perfume, fudge, shortbread and chocolate in the moments left outside the regimen of seven worship services a day. Those still intrigued by codes, Da Vinci or otherwise, explore the old priory with a certain fervour but most are content to stroll about St Illtyd's Church to locate the Caldey Stone, inscribed in Celtic and Latin.

At Bosherton, just around the coast on the Castlemartin Peninsula, is the 6th century St Govan's Chapel, which requires visitors to make their way down irregular steps to the base of a sea cliff and gives the appearance of having grown out of the rock.

The descent is accompanied by the sound of seabirds - auks, skuas and petrels. Puffins, gannets, Manx shearwaters and guillemots nest nearby. Isolation encourages plentiful wildlife. Badgers and otters are elusive but they're there. A couple of thousand dolphins a year visit, as well as humpback, fin, orca and minke whales.

Between Tenby and Pembroke is Manorbier Castle - actually a medieval manor house on a hilltop above plunging cliffs - and Carew Castle with its famed Celtic cross and Wales's only restored tidal mill.

Pembroke itself is a walled town with one of Britain's finest Norman castles. Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty, first drew breath there. The surrounding area is a gourmet's preferred destination. The great food halls of London eagerly stock the region's crabs, lobsters, cheeses, herbs, organic lamb and vegetables along with wines of the Cwm Deri Vineyard.

It gets rugged and weather-beaten beyond Pembroke Dock on the final leg through to the westernmost point of the park and of Wales. Solva is a village of great seafaring tradition that floods at high tide, the lower half nestling in a ravine at the head of a natural harbour.

Then it's just a little further along the shore of St Bride's Bay to the city celebrating the patron saint of Wales. While all around you is a town or village, St David's is a city, having been granted such status by the Queen in 1995 in acknowledgment of a magnificent cathedral - a dominant presence and pilgrimage destination since the 12th century.

Unless you've a mind or the means to look in on the breeding colony of Atlantic grey seals on Ramsey Island or you're driving a little north to Fishguard to take the two-hour ferry ride to Ireland, it's a matter of turning around and heading off north to Snowdonia or east past the spectacularly sited and powerfully atmospheric Carreg Cennen Castle into the Brecon Beacons National Park.

Now a determined dash will certainly take you from there to the addictive Hay-On-Wye near the English border - a village famed for its bookshops and book festival.

But there is a well-stocked one incorporated into the impressive Dylan Thomas Centre back in Swansea, and if you'd not spent enough time there first time around . . .

The writer travelled with assistance from Visit Wales.

TRIP NOTES

* Qantas flies to London three times a day. For information phone 131 313. There are no air connections from Heathrow, so the most practical way to access Wales is by road. Hire a car and you're there in three hours or less. It is the best means by which to venture into the bays, coves, nooks and crannies of this etched environment.

* Wales is replete with guest houses, B&Bs, small hotels - all levels and prices of accommodation. The same goes for restaurants and cafes.

* Any season apart from the dead of winter (November-February) is comfortable.

* The essential website for research into a journey to Wales is http://www.aus.visitwales.com. Other useful sites include http://www.walesholidays .co.uk and www.wales-calling.com/guide/pembroke.htm.

Comments