Poetry's prince of Wales

The home of Dylan Thomas gears up for an anniversary, writes Stephen McClarence.

It's nearly closing time and, after a pint or two at Browns Hotel, Dylan Thomas' favourite pub, I set off to retrace the poet's walk home, out on to the main street in Laugharne.

It's the Welsh village where he lived for the last four years of his life. I turn left and left again into the darkness of a mossy narrow lane scuttling with cats.

Suddenly, on this starry Carmarthenshire night, the Taf estuary opens out, revealing a great, broad sweep of water reflecting the misty moon. Two keening curlews soar and swoop, but otherwise all is stillness.

Here is the shed where Thomas wrote (or so often didn't) while farther on is the Boat House where he lived. It's a magical seascape, with a powerful sense of his presence and his poetry.

Laugharne, near Swansea and the likely inspiration of Thomas"s most famous work, Under Milk Wood. It's the key location for the year-long Dylan Thomas 100 Festival, an ambitious Wales-wide jamboree commemorating the century next year since his death.There's his old school, places he knew as a local newspaper reporter, quotations from his poems displayed on buildings, and pubs where he drank, perhaps most authentically explored on one of the regular Dylan Thomas Literary Pub Crawls.

Above all, quite literally, there's his birthplace, in Uplands, a hilly middle-class suburb, where Anne Haden shows me round.

She and then-husband, Geoff, rescued this smart semi from years as student flats and furnished it in authentic late-Edwardian style, prompted by the memories of Emily Simpson, the Thomas family maid.

It's open to the public and, thrillingly for Dylanites, can be rented for self-catering. Sleep in the front bedroom where the poet was born, or the box room he used for much of his childhood.

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"The whole place creaks of him; it's like a thousand ghosts," says the writer Jon Tregenna, who has stayed here and whom I'll be meeting in Laugharne.

Thomas lived in this "provincial villa" for 20 or more years and wrote about two thirds of his works here. But, says Haden, it wasn't the poetry that he was remembered for locally.

"When I was growing up in Swansea in the '50s, he was notorious as a drunkard and a womaniser, not as a poet."

It's a recurrent theme.

In the Maritime Quarter the Dylan Thomas Centre houses the world's biggest collection of Thomas memorabilia. It's absorbing, and includes the original scuffed blue doors of his writing shed, rescued from a rubbish tip, and, disarmingly, the baggy tweed suit he was wearing shortly before his death. ("It has not been established," says a careful label, "whether Dylan was responsible for the ink stain in the right trouser pocket.")

Recordings of the poet, intoning his work in his bardic boom, echo around. It gives a vivid sense of a man plagued by self-destructive "nightmares of doubt and death".

The final section is particularly poignant. A photograph shows Thomas in a New York bar six days before his death: whisky in one hand, fag in the other, pie-eyed like a bilious bullfrog. Three weeks later, mourners in coal-black overcoats carried his coffin up the hillside cemetery in Laugharne.

Sixty years on, that hillside has filled out with grey marble gravestones but the plain white cross marking the grave of Thomas and his wife Caitlin (who died in 1994) stands out. At the other end of the village are the writing shed, theatrically recreated with clutter and discarded drafts of poems (he sometimes ran to 100 revisions) and the Boat House, the "sea-shaken house on a breakneck of rocks" where the couple lived and dependably argued.

Laugharne as a whole underplays its Dylan Thomas connections. "You won't find an Under Milk Wood Tea Room or an Organ Morgan Burger Van," says Tregenna, the Boat House's ebullient curator and author of a play based on Dylan's work.

"I was brought up 25 miles from here and he wasn't taught in school. There was a stigma. It was a very repressed country and he portrayed everyone as drunken nymphomaniacs. Then there was his vagabond bohemian life; he died a rock'n'roll death."

My eyes are drawn through the windows to the estuary - shining, gleaming, in the thin afternoon sun. I take a real stride-out of a walk past the town's gaunt castle and up the headland.

That night, in the bar at Browns Hotel, I sit at a corner table, Thomas' favourite place. Behind me is a framed photograph of him sitting there with Caitlin, both smiling.

Men stand at the bar discussing the progress of a local character's bronchitis and a car badly damaged one night.

It could be the Sailors Arms in Under Milk Wood.

Telegraph, London

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

KLM has a fare to Cardiff for about $1920 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including tax. Fly to Kuala Lumpur (about 8hr), then to Amsterdam (13hr 10min) and finally onto Cardiff (80min); see klm.com/au. See klmgroup.com.au.

Laugharne is just under an hour's driving time from Swansea, which is about three hours from London by car or train. There is a bus service from Swansea to St Clears and then a taxi taking about eight minutes to Laugharne.

STAYING THERE

The boutique-style Morgans Hotel, in Swansea's city centre, has doubles from about £65 ($110) a night, including breakfast, in the main hotel. There are doubles from £125 in the hotel's Townhouse, a former Regency house, across the road. See morganshotel.co.uk.

The 18th-century Browns Hotel in Laugharne, renovated with vintage bric-a-brac and scattered Dylan Thomas tomes, has doubles from £105, including breakfast. See browns-hotel.co.uk.

MORE INFORMATION

dylanthomas100.org

laugharne.info

visitbritain.org

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