Traveller's Guide: Carmarthenshire

Celebrate the centenary of Dylan Thomas's birth by visiting the Garden of Wales where he wrote 'Under Milk Wood', says Sarah Baxter

Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea, on wonderfully poetic Cwmdonkin Drive. But that doesn't stop the "timeless, mild, beguiling island of a town" in which he died claiming him as its own. In 2014, 100 years since the birth of Wales's most infamous literary figure, it is to the Carmarthenshire outpost of Laugharne and the surrounding countryside that dedicated Dylanites should make their pilgrimage.

Thomas spent the last four years of his life (1949-53) in Laugharne, living with his wife Caitlin and their three children in the Boathouse. It was from the picturesque vantage of his Writing Shed, overlooking the tidal Taf Estuary and preserved just as he left it, that he wrote Under Milk Wood.

However, he'd known the area all his life, holidaying nearby as a boy, and living here with Caitlin for a period in the 1930s. He called it "the strangest town in Wales". Yet he was drawn back to its world-removed confines again and again. It suited him. Or at least provided rich literary inspiration.

So Laugharne, like other locations linked to the writer, is celebrating the Thomas centenary this year. Three Dylan Weekends (2-5 May, 19-21 September and 26-28 September; dylanthomas100.org) will explore his works. The first sees famous contemporary poets perform Dylan in his old haunts. BBC Radio 3 has designated 5 May "Dylan Thomas Day", and will broadcast live from 13th-century Laugharne Castle (01994 427906; cadw.wales.gov.uk; £3.80).

However, the countryside that so inspired Dylan Thomas is there to see all the year round – the "pebbly dab-filled shallow", "the lamb white days", the "springful of larks in a rolling cloud".

 

Carmarthenshire is known as the Garden of Wales, a county of sparse population, fertile fields, a varied and extensive coast (traceable via the Wales Coast Path) and mountainous uplands where A-roads seemingly come to die. Wedged between the better-known Brecon Beacons to the east and Pembrokeshire to the west, it is often overlooked or driven straight through.

But there's mystery aplenty. One favourite local legend is of a fairy girl living in Llyn Y Fan Fach, a story best appreciated while making the 18km escarpment walk above the enchanted lake (start from Llanddeusant; map available at bit.ly/FanFach). It's also rumoured that the Holy Grail may have passed through the county, along the Taf Estuary, on its way to Nanteos, near Aberystwyth. The Monty Python team definitely filmed some of their Holy Grail here (look out for the Norman bulk of Kidwelly Castle at the movie's start).

Merlin was allegedly born in a cave just outside Carmarthen – you can visit Bryn Myrddin (Merlin's Hill) and find out more at the Merlin's Hill Centre (07866 880594; merlinshill.com; admission £3). The Romans were certainly active in Carmarthenshire. They mined for gold at nearby Dolaucothi (01558 650177; bit.ly/WelshGold; £7.70), the UK's only known Roman gold mine. You can take adventurous guided tours down its Roman, Victorian and 1930s shafts; new for 2014 is a self-guided audio tour of the Roman workings. There are further Roman remains in the county: an amphitheatre at Carmarthen, one of only four in Wales; Garn Goch Iron Age Hill Fort; and the fortlets of the Towy Valley, an important marching route (download the archaeological app from bit.ly/TowyValley to make sense of it all).

For more recent relics, the tourist office (01267 231557; discovercarmarthenshire.com) has launched a brocante trail, guiding visitors around its best antiques shops, flea markets and book shops, including Corran Book Shop, opposite Brown's Hotel, whose owner is well-versed in the town's literary connections (bit.ly/BrocanteT).

So Carmarthenshire is a place of stories and characters – walk round Laugharne today and, some say, you can still spot the dramatis personae of Under Milk Wood. Perhaps that's why Dylan Thomas liked it here so much, and why – for all his grand American tours and London living – it was to Carmarthenshire, his "fields of praise", that he returned.

Historic hills

Carmarthenshire is not short of castles. Many have free entry: the 13th-century ruins of Newcastle Emlyn; Dryslwyn Castle, lording over the Tywi Valley; Dinefwr, which shares its walking trail-laced estate with a 17th-century manor (01558 824512; nationaltrust.org.uk/dinefwr; house entry £4.40); and the coastal stronghold at Llansteffan. If you're happy to pay, head for Carreg Cennen near Llandeilo (01558 822291; carregcennencastle.com; £4). This romantic ruin sits atop an explorable cave (bring a torch) and amid a working farm; walk to the castle to see resident mountain sheep and longhorn cattle.

A dose of Dylan

In Laugharne, take a self-guided stroll with Dylan. The Birthday Walk (dylanthomasbirthdaywalk.co.uk) follows the 3km route that Thomas immortalised in "Poem in October". It leads around the harbour to Sir John's Hill. For a stroll around town, start at the church, where a white cross marks the poet's grave, then tick off the sights: Brown's Hotel, where he drank (a lot); the Pelican, where his parents lived; the Corran Book Shop, owned by George Tremlett, Dylan expert; Sea View, where he lived 1938-1940; his Writing Shed and the Boathouse, now a heritage centre (01994 427420; www.dylanthomasboat house.com; £4.20). The tourist office also has a recommended amble (bit.ly/DylanCrawl).

For a different vantage, do a Dylan trail on horseback. Hill Farm Stables runs a two-hour Centenary Ride (01994 427375; hillsfarmridingholidays.co.uk; £40). It's a leisurely hack through Laugharne up Ants Hill and the Uplands.

Outside Laugharne, take a Dylan Thomas drive, from Carmarthen to the Llansteffan Peninsula (bit.ly/DylanCarm). This links his favoured pub in the county town (the Boar's Head Hotel) with Fern Hill (his aunt's farm) and Llanybri, below which ferries once puttered over the Taf to Laugharne – there are lovely views of the Boathouse.

Outdoor adventures: Pendine beach Outdoor adventures: Pendine beach (Getty) Outdoor adventures

Dylan Thomas liked to travel by bus, but these days there are more thrilling ways to explore Carmarthenshire. Run by a welcoming biker/cook couple, Mudtrek (01267 202423; mudtrek.com) offers mountain-biking breaks at its chalet-style hideaway near Brechfa Forest. The views are spectacular and the riding options varied, from Brechfa's marked trails to owner Jason's gentle-to-white-knuckle off-piste routes.

Two-night breaks, including one day's guided riding and all meals (hearty fuel, homecooked by Nikki), cost from £135pp, depending on group size.

West around the coast from Laugharne, on the 11km of Pendine Beach, Pendine Outdoors (01994 453659; pendineoutdoors.co.uk) hires a range of kit for water fun, including sit-in kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.

It can also organise activity days, from coasteering to bushcraft and archery (from £15 per half day).

A Laugharne tour followed by a paddle up the Taf in Canadian canoes (look out for otters) costs around £100 for a family of four.

Still growing strong after 400 years

As the Garden of Wales, it's appropriate that Carmarthenshire is home to the National Botanic Garden of Wales (Llanarthne; 01558 668 768; gardenofwales.org.uk; £8.50). Opened in 2000, this evolving garden – the centrepiece of which is the striking Norman Foster-designed Great Glasshouse – occupies 225 hectares of 400-year-old parkland, its 8,000 plant species thriving amid the remnants of the Regency water park.

There's easily enough to fill a day's visiting here, from the dipping pond and lakes to the atmospheric Ghost Trees; the whole estate is riddled with walking trails.

The gardens at the Tywi Valley's Aberglasney House (01558 668 998; aberglasney.org; £8) were beloved of poets in Tudor times, well before Dylan.

Extensive restoration in the 1990s revealed rare treasures – including an Elizabethan/Jacobean cloister and a parapet walk – and the gardens continue to flourish.

The indoor Ninfarium, built within the ruins of the mansion, contains a colourful collection of exotic plants.

Raise the bar: Brown's Hotel in Laugharne was a favourite of Dylan Thomas Raise the bar: Brown's Hotel in Laugharne was a favourite of Dylan Thomas Where to stay

Dylan Thomas's favourite haunt for a tipple, Brown's Hotel in Laugharne (01994 427688; browns-hotel.co.uk) has double rooms from £95, including breakfast. The whole place was refurbished in 2013 and now offers comfortable accommodation with a Forties and Fifties feel; in-room oddments, such as vintage cameras and suitcases – as well as books on Thomas – create a literary-luxe feel. It actually describes itself as a "bar with rooms".

Alternatively, you could try a slice of unexpected opulence by staying just outside Laugharne at a 16th-century dairy which has now become the Corran Resort (01994 427417; thecorran.com). Here, B&B doubles start at £200, but the rooms are high-spec and characterful and there's a spa in the old cow barn along with a restaurant serving regional dishes – its salt marsh lamb can be seen grazing just outside.

Elsewhere, the Dolaucothi Arms in Pumsaint (01558 650237; thedolaucothiarms.co.uk) is a lovely former 18th-century coaching inn, with B&B doubles from £75. The 17th-century Drovers B&B in Llandovery (01550 721115; droversllandovery.co.uk) has William Morris-inspired interiors and doubles from £83.

To be at one with the county's great outdoors, camp in the Towy Valley at Ty Cefn Tregib (01558 823830; tregib.co.uk).

The site has yurts and a refurbished 1970s Airstream caravan. Three-night stays start at £255.

Getting there

Carmarthenshire is easily reached by road. The M4 leads into the county from London, Bristol and Cardiff to the motorway's end at Pont Abraham. From there, Carmarthen is 24km along the A48. A much more scenic approach is on the A483 to Llandovery from Chester, which is itself accessible from across northern England.

Rail access is tricky. Most journeys (08457 48 49 50; nationalrail.co.uk) require a change at Swansea – accessible from London Paddington and Manchester Piccadilly. An onward train to Carmarthen takes an hour. The most scenic railway is the Heart of Wales line (01597 822053; heart-of-wales.co.uk), which runs from Swansea to Shrewsbury through eastern Carmarthenshire.

National Express (08705 808080; nationalexpress.com) serves Swansea, Carmarthen, Llanelli and St Clears (near Laugharne). Megabus (0900 1600 900; megabus.com) serves Carmarthen. Local buses connect smaller villages (sirgaerfyrddin.gov.uk).

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