There’s not an original plot in the world… nor, it would seem, an original idea.
Sometime last summer, we decided to devise a book of walks based in and around the towns and villages in West Wales where the poet Dylan Thomas lived, the places which had influenced his writing.
Harri, who actually lived in Dylan’s childhood home at 5 Cwmdonkin Road when he was a post-graduate student (long before it was restored), got to work and came up with eight routes of various lengths.
We took ourselves off to the quirky town of Laugharne where Dylan lived for seven years and is buried and to New Quay where the infamous shooting took place at Majoda. We stood outside the now closed Antelope pub in the Mumbles and we strained our necks to get a better view of the abandoned Fern Hill. We yomped across Rhossili beach, staring across at Worm’s Head which featured in one of Dylan’s short stories.
We were therefore intrigued when we heard Wales’s favourite weatherman Derek Brockway would be presenting two Dylan Thomas-themed episodes for his popular series Weatherman Walking. As he followed in Dylan’s footsteps, we wondered, would Derek be close on the heels of our own? After all, there are only so many walks around Laugharne and only one beach in New Quay.
We haven’t had a television for years so we downloaded the episodes from BBC iPlayer and, full of anticipation, we settled down to watch.
For those who haven’t seen Derek in action, the first point to make is that he’s eminently watchable; a really nice man who loves being outdoors and genuinely enjoys meeting people. Derek is the reason Weatherman Walking is so popular, even among those who don’t actually hike.
His first stop was Swansea where he was guided around by actor Adrian Metcalfe, whose one-man show about Dylan Thomas – Reminiscences of Childhood – has won international acclaim.
Derek and Adrian’s 3.7 mile route stuck firmly to well-known Dylan Thomas landmarks within the city like his Cwmdonkin Park, the present-day Kardomah café and the Queen’s Hotel. While the various stops were valid and interesting landmarks, there seemed to be a lot of road crossing and traffic dodging, something Harri and I prefer to avoid as much as possible
Dylan’s Welsh Walks doesn’t feature a walk in the centre of Swansea; instead, we focussed on the Mumbles area and the popular bays of Langland and Caswell beyond. Dylan spent many evenings in the Mumbles as a young man, rehearsing at a local amateur group (Swansea Little Theatre) and drinking at the Antelope (now closed), the Mermaid and the Marine (now the Village Inn).
Next it was off to Llansteffan, a lovely little seaside town we visited several times while Harri was writing his Wales Coast Path Top Ten Walks and the official Wales Coast Path (Carmarthenshire and Gower) for Northern Eye Books.
On this occasion, Derek’s guide was artist Osi Rhys Osmond who made an equally entertaining and knowledgeable companion. Derek’s second walk involved first catching a bus to Fernhill from Llansteffan and then walking the twelve miles back.
Public transport – and even the occasional taxi – is an inevitable part of coast path and long-distance hiking, however Harri chose to make the majority of the walks in Dylan’s Welsh Walks circular as a safeguard against further cuts in already-dismal rural bus timetables. Consequently, our Llansteffan route is only 4.3 miles and we visit Fernhill on a separate 5.6 mile walk from Green Castle Woods Nature Reserve near Llangain.
As the closest we got to seeing Fernhill was pressing our noses against the locked gates, we were really envious to see Derek and Osi gain access to the gardens (though not the house itself). That’s the advantage of being a Welsh celebrity, I suppose. We did feel there was a missed opportunity when Derek and Osi called in on Dylan’s ageing second cousin Mrs Thomas but then failed to ask her anything interesting about the great man. Given the same opportunity, I’d have got her talking the hind legs off a donkey.
The famous duo also encountered one of the other problems that frequently face walkers in Carmarthenshire… cows. ‘It’s a bit like a ranch,’ Derek exclaimed at one point, as they attempted to get past a herd of curious young heifers.
Unfortunately, the one thing BBC Wales can’t control is the weather. As the autumn day progressed, the West Wales weather deteriorated and by the time our energetic twosome reached Wharley Point the light was dimming and the estuary looked decidedly grey and miserable. For whatever reason – we guessed it was becoming too dark to film – we never actually saw Derek and Osi returning to Llansteffan and there was no mention of the magnificent castle which overlooks the estuary.
Our overall verdict on the first two of Dylan’s Walks, Derek-style?
Well, the programme was highly entertaining, as we had expected. As a broadcaster, Derek was able to gain access to places and people who added interest to his routes. Most people, however, will not have the advantages of expert companions; neither will they be able to talk to Dylan’s contemporaries or look around the gardens and outbuildings of Fernhill (although 5 Cwmdonkin Drive is open to the public). There is also the issue of making sure you don’t miss that two-hourly Carmarthen bus (our experience has taught us that early starts are not always compatible with bed and breakfast establishments).
When Harri devised the routes in Dylan’s Welsh Walks he focused on scenic quality and the ease of walking in terms of transport, parking, etc. Each walk features a section called The Dylan Thomas Connection and a suggestion of what Dylan-themed activity you can do in the area.
He – both of us – felt that most walkers demand more than just a route that links up several landmarks. Yes, that’s important, but so is avoiding major roads and getting the opportunity to see really special places off the beaten track.
In Part 2, Derek visits New Quay and Laugharne. And we’ll be there alongside him.