Mine's a large makeover

Dylan Thomas's drinking and womanising used to embarrass the Welsh. Now they are just part of his appeal, writes Robert Verkaik
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The Independent Travel
To begin at the beginning. So welcomes the Welsh brewery's giant advertising hoarding hung high above the A4067 which leads into Swansea city centre. These famous five words, the opening line to Dylan Thomas's quintessential Welsh play, Under Milk Wood, are now posted to sell pints of beer. Dylan Ale may not be to everyone's taste but the advertisement illustrates how far the city has come in reconciling itself with its hard-drinking poet.

It was only last year that Swansea hosted its first Dylan Thomas celebration. This year the City and County of Swansea is organising a series of Dylan Thomas literary trails.

The tour, which can be arranged throughout the year, is best begun at Thomas's birth place in the Swansea Uplands at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive and takes in a number of buildings - mostly pubs - made famous by their association with the poet. There are also plans to link up with the small fishing town of Laugharne, 35 miles away, where Thomas wrote and set Under Milk Wood and lived with his wife Caitlin and their three children.

What the great Welsh bard would have made of all the fuss is still the subject of controversy among the locals. Many of them knew Thomas personally. Long-standing Thomas aficionados have been observing their own pilgrimages for many years.

Some say that Thomas would not have approved of his life becoming the subject of corporate tourism, especially in the city he described as "ugly", though he did call it "lovely" too. Conservatives argue that his reputation as a drunkard and womaniser makes such public veneration unseemly.

But Jeff Towns, who owns Dylan's Book Store and whose personal collection of Thomas's work and memorabilia is the centrepiece of Swansea's Dylan Thomas Centre, disagrees. "He was quite happy," he told me, "to sell copies of his poems knowing they were worth more if he wrote them out himself." He knew his own commercial worth all right.

As for Thomas's views on organised bus tours, these seem to be revealed in his short story, The Outing, which follows the adventures of a group of old men and a young boy on a charabanc pub crawl to Porthcawl which - due to the effects of alcohol - they never reach.

Pubs are, of course, a feature in the new literary trail, which includes a number of Thomas's favourite drinking dens. "I liked the taste of beer, its live, white lather, its bright-brass depths, the sudden world through the wet brown walls of the glass, the tilted rush to the lips and the slow, swallowing down to the lapping belly, the salt on the tongue, the foam at the corners." That was Dylan's own take on the subject of beer, as recounted in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. The Singleton Hotel, in Singleton Street, was his preferred haunt when he worked briefly as a reporter for the then South Wales Daily Post. He was often seen at the bar chewing the cud with locals. Locals remember him in an oversized overcoat and trilby with a Woodbine hanging from his mouth.

Thomas also used a number of pubs in Castle Street when he was working as a scriptwriter for the BBC. The Kings Arms was near enough to the BBC studios for a "quick one" before broadcasting. The Bush was where he stayed the night before he left for his fateful American tour which ended in him being admitted to a New York hospital after allegedly downing 18 whiskies.

There are plenty of other pubs along the way, some even named after Thomas's work, like the Eli Jenkins (the preacher in Under Milk Wood). But the truth is that virtually any pub in existence during Thomas's lifetime would have enjoyed his patronage.

Not that this is a coach tour for lager louts. To really begin at the beginning is to start at the Dylan Thomas Centre, on the banks of the River Tawe, in Swansea's maritime quarter. It is home to the Dylan Thomas Exhibition which was opened last year and includes examples of his work, as well as rare photographs and an extensive collection of memorabilia.

Among the collection is a love letter written on the verso of a bank paying-in stub which he sent to Caitlin apologising for being late in posting her cheques from London. There is also a press cutting reporting an incident in which Thomas and friends were machine-gunned, but not seriously hurt, by a drunk British commando traumatised by fighting the Germans in occupied Greece.

Down the road in Laugharne the Dylan-associated sites come thick and fast. The famous boat house near the mouth of the River Taf, where Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood, is now open to the public, as is Thomas's own writing shed - this precariously positioned garage with views across the estuary has been left as if still expecting the poet's return. Over the years a great deal of money has been spent on preventing the structure from tumbling into the sea.

In Laugharne town centre it is possible to return to the drinking trail. Thomas was a regular at two of the town's pubs, the Cross House Inn and Brown's Hotel; by this time he had become religious in his approach to work, spending seven hours a day to produce exactly five lines of poetry, after which at 7pm sharp he would set off for one of the two pubs. Then there's the inn that goes by the name of Under Milk Wood.

And finally there's St Martins Church where a simple white cross in an overspill cemetery marks Dylan Thomas's final resting place. From the cemetery there are views across the valley and down on to Thomas's "timeless, beautiful, barmy town", where he lived his last years in a bibulous tranquillity.

DYLAN THOMAS'S WALES

THE GOWER PENINSULA

Dylan Thomas spent his happy childhood holidays on Gower and it remained an important place for him during his many return visits to Swansea. Its expansive beaches and breath-taking cliff-top views also feature in his short stories and poetry. The peninsula was the first part of the UK to be designated an area of outstanding natural beauty. There is plenty of b&b and hotel accommodation.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Details of the festival and the proposed Dylan Thomas literary trail are available from the Dylan Thomas Centre, Somerset Place, Swansea SA1 1RR (tel: 01792 463980).

The Boat House, Laugharne (tel: 01994 427420).

Swansea Tourist Information, Singleton Street, Swansea SA13QG (tel: 01792 468321).

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