We were back in Laugharne this week.
It’s a place we’ve visited several times over the past year or so, but this time round you could sense excitement in the air as this small Carmarthenshire town on the Taf estuary gears up for what it hopes is its biggest influx of visitors for years.
For 2014 marks the centenary of Dylan Thomas, the Swansea poet with whom Laugharne will forever be associated.
It was here, between 1949 and 1953, that he and Caitlin lived at The Boathouse (now a museum) and Dylan would walk the short distance to his writing shed (and it really is an 80-year-old shed) balanced so precariously above the estuary on cast iron pillars… so precariously in fact that a few years ago the legendary building was on the verge of crumbling and toppling into the fast-flowing waters below.
It was in these impecunious surroundings overlooking the salt marshes that Dylan sat at a table and wrote Poem on his Birthday in 1949 and started working on Under Milk Wood. Apparently, on the day of Dylan’s funeral the shed was raided and scraps of his writing were taken and later sold on.
It’s an unlikely tourist attraction, yet each year thousands of visitors to Laugharne press their noses against the glass door and peer into the tiny space to view the room as it would have looked in the 1950s (entry is not allowed).
Something had to be done before it toppled into the water and so, in 2002, it was dismantled and taken away to be restored by local contractor, David Siggery of Llangain, as part of a £100,000 programme of restoration work on The Boathouse, funded by Carmarthenshire Council, CADW and the Wales Tourist Board.
In his lifetime, Dylan Thomas enjoyed Laugharne and, ever since his death, this quirky West Wales town has idolised Dylan Thomas.
We parked, as always, on the free parking area on The Grist, at the edge of the salt marsh and just a stone’s throw from Laugharne Castle. The tide times were prominently displayed together with a stark warning that the area would flood at high tide just after 8pm; an abundance of large puddles and damp hay-strewn paths further emphasised the danger.
All around us, it seemed, there were workmen sprucing up the area and putting the finishing touches to various sections of stone paving. No stone unturned and all that…
Just opposite the car park is an impressive wooden sculpture of Dylan Thomas by Simon Hedger. We stopped, as always, to admire this weathered bust of the poet and marvel at the amazing likeness the sculptor has achieved, before wandering up the main street.
Laugharne has always been a rough, no-nonsense sort of place, which is probably why Dylan Thomas, a notorious boozer, felt so at ease here.
It’s reassuring to see that the present-day town, through popular with literary types, has not been ‘gentrified’. While there are plenty of decent-sized houses, few look overly grand and many look decidedly scruffy. Sadly, Sea View, the Victorian house (and more recently hotel) where Dylan lived for a time, still appears to be empty and unloved, which is a shame as it’s a rather nice property in a lovely spot.
A stroll along the main thoroughfare reveals a mixture of elegant three-storey Georgian houses, quaint terraced cottages and aesthetically unpleasing modern additions, like a dreadful dilapidated brick garage (how on earth did that ever get the go-ahead?). Head off the beaten-track and the narrow streets are delightfully hickledy-pickledy and a pleasure to explore on foot.
Laugharne is an interesting little town in its own right. The town’s charter dates back to the time of the de Brians, who were responsible for establishing Laugharne Corporation in 1291 and granted the burgesses – who were mainly English – with a range of special privileges to ensure their loyalty against the Welsh. The tactic worked: although only a few miles from areas where the everyday language was Welsh, Laugharne has always been an English-speaking town, with customs and traditions that set it apart from the rest of Carmarthenshire.
That medieval corporation still exists today, the only one in the UK, and is led by the Portreeve, who is appointed annually. As well as managing many of the town’s affairs, the corporation is also responsible for maintaining some of Laugharne’s more colourful customs like the Laugharne Common Walks, which takes place every three years and involves bread, cheese and ale, and some bottom-smacking!
Of course, no-one can visit Laugharne without popping into Dylan’s favourite drinking hole, Browns Hotel. Browns was famously bought by Boys Behaving Badly star Neil Morrissey back in 2004 but only remained in his hands for a short time. More recently the hotel has been transformed into a swish boutique hotel which reflects its glory days of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Browns is a rather nice place to stop for a quick half and salute Dylan Thomas so we headed there once again.
The first thing we noticed as we approached was that the distinctive pub sign with the poet’s face had disappeared; I’m hoping it’s been taken down for cleaning/repainting and isn’t being replaced with something less interesting.
We bought our drinks, me wondering if my favourite Aspalls cider was around in Dylan’s day, and retired to the window seat.
There’s a great picture hanging in the bar… at first glance, it appears to be an old photograph of Dylan Thomas and Ivy Thomas, the landlady of Browns, enjoying a pint in the window seat. But look closer, and those soft furnishings bear a close resemblance to the current-day seats and cushions. And they say the camera never lies!! Elsewhere, there are several photographs of Dylan and Caitlin, drinking in Browns and looking poignantly vibrant and youthful.
There’s a really nice atmosphere at Browns Hotel, what with the friendly bar staff and old photographs everywhere; had we not been heading back to the Travelodge at St Clears, we’d probably have stuck around for a few more hours (and pints!).
Sadly, Dylan Thomas died prematurely in New York, just two weeks after his 39th birthday. At the time, it was rumoured that alcohol and hard living had been the cause of his demise but a post mortem found the primary cause to be pneumonia. Dylan Thomas is buried in Laugharne, the graves of the poet and his wife, Caitlin, marked with a simple painted wooden cross.
The fictional Llareggub may or may not be based on Laugharne, but it’s very easy to understand why Dylan Thomas loved this little town so much.
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