Travel: Poet's corner

Patrick Ellis reports on events in Swansea this summer to celebrate the life of its famous son, Dylan Thomas
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The Independent Online
Swansea sees the return of Dylan Thomas this summer. Between 24 July and 24 August the first Dylan Thomas Festival to be run by the city will be held in the newly dedicated Dylan Thomas Centre. The event will culminate in a four-day international conference on "Dylan Thomas and his Contexts", held in association with University of Wales Swansea. It is open to academics and non-academics alike. The bonus for committed fans of Thomas is the possibility of staying in what remains of the old Swansea Grammar School, where the poet edited the school magazine.

The young Thomas would certainly recognise the festival venue that has recently been dedicated to his memory. Set squarely in the centre of what was then Swansea's commercial hub, the Municipal Offices and House of Correction with their elegant arched windows and columns of honey-coloured granite were built in 1829. Since being replaced by the Guildhall farther to the west in the Thirties, the building has seen some changes. For many years it served as a college of further education before sliding into disuse and dereliction in the early Eighties. After being rescued and renovated it was reopened in 1995 to host the International Year of Writing and Literature. Currently the centre houses the Dylan Thomas exhibition, "I, in my intricate image", as well as promoting varied and lively poetry, theatre and musical events throughout the year.

Thomas, who was born in 1914 in Cwmdonkin Drive, would have known every hiding place and climbable tree in nearby Cwmdonkin Park where Swansea's pride in its famous, if somewhat prodigal, son is further marked by a garden dedicated to his memory. From the top of the park the views over the broad sweep of Swansea Bay would still be familiar to him. The twin islands of Mumbles Head, reputedly taking their name from mumbus, the Latin word for breasts, were to call him westwards, away from the safety of his childhood home to the beautiful Gower Peninsula, to West Wales and ultimately to America.

And in true vagabond poet fashion, Thomas answered that call - first on his own and then with his wife and family. But however restless his spirit, he still seemed unable to cut his links with the quiet, coastal Welsh towns of his youth.

The accommodating peace of Newquay, where the A486 finally comes to rest beside the waters of Cardigan Bay, held him for a while. Though it throve in the 18th and 19th centuries as a ship-building town, Newquay has long taken its foot off the gas. Shipbuilding has been replaced by fishing and tourism and, more recently, the town has been promoting its Atlantic bottlenose dolphin population, which can often be seen in the bay. Between 1944 and 1945 the Thomas family rented the bungalow Majoda from a local doctor. This was a productive period for Thomas. While he was here he wrote the heart-breakingly beautiful "Fern Hill", in memory of childhood holidays at his aunt's Fernhill Farm near Carmarthen.

They didn't stay at Newquay very long. Allegedly one night the bungalow was visited by a military man recently returned from active service, who was armed with a machine gun and a hand grenade. He had apparently drunk a considerable amount of alcohol and was concerned about the close ties that his wife seemed to have formed with the poet. The soldier fired into the ceiling, but Thomas coolly managed to persuade him to hand over his weapons. At the ensuing court case a lenient view of the soldier's actions prevailed. He got off. By this time the Thomases had moved.

With its usually unhurried tranquillity it has been suggested that Newquay was the model for Llaregyb, the fictional coastal setting for Under Milk Wood. Llaregyb, whose spelling was slightly modified to disguise Thomas's little joke (the reversal of the phrase "bugger all") probably draws on many of the towns and villages he knew - places such as Ferryside, Fishguard, Mumbles and of course, Laugharne where, according to his friend Vernon Watkins, he spent some of the happiest days of his life.

Almost feminine in its gentle undulations, Laugharne today seems to be pervaded with a soft permanence in its slow streets as the town reclines along the shore where Corran Brook meets the River Taf. Laugharne Castle still dominates the place. It was originally built as a Norman defence of the mouth of the river. In today's somewhat calmer political climate it is maintained at public expense and defended by a charming and informative ticket lady who collects the pounds 2 entry charge. The money is well spent. The views from the castle tower over the flat estuary leading into Carmarthen Bay can't have altered much since the days when Thomas used the gazebo built into the east wall to compile the short stories that were to become Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.

Whether it was the proximity to the sea, the quiet maturity of the town or just the absence of gun-toting husbands is open to debate but Thomas certainly felt comfortable here. And here he chose to live. His last home, the Boat House, perched on the edge of town, almost overhangs the estuary. From his writing den in the cycle shed, he could gaze out over the water searching for inspiration; or, alternatively, he could sneak off up to the pub. After Thomas died in New York in 1953, his body was brought home. It is buried in St Martin's Church in the town, with a simple white wooden cross marking the grave.

Back in Swansea, the spirit of Thomas lives on at the Dylan Thomas Theatre, home of Swansea Little Theatre, of which the young Dylan was a member. In the nearby maritime quarter his statue half rises from its seat. As he gazes over the Maritime Museum's collection of boats and the private yachts moored in the old dock basin, is the poet making for the bar, or has he been inspired to write one last poem?

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