Dylan Thomas, the flamboyant poet and playwright who was born and raised here, called it “an ugly, lovely town.” And so it was: an ugly port city of sprawling, squalid brown dockyards, a lovely city ringed with hills, wrapped around a sparkling blue-gray bay.
The dockyards are gone now. Where once “the smoke of the tinplate stacks” fouled the air and seared the lungs, a bustling marina stands, filled with sidewalk cafes and wine bars. In Dylan Thomas Square in the heart of the marina, the apple-cheeked children of weekend sailors clamber merrily over the poet’s statue. This once-grimy port has become Swinging Swansea, the heart of the Welsh Riviera.
My wife and I arrived in Swansea on a Saturday night last August after a three-hour train ride from London. We were carrying Thomas’ “Collected Letters,” and we were utterly, utterly clueless. We decided to have dinner on Wind Street, for example, because Thomas once wrote, “I want to have smuts in my eye on Wind Street.” We opened the door to La Braseria, the first pub we found, expecting to find morbidly drunk Welshmen inside, musing about death and spitting up blood.
A crush of bodies trapped us at the entry and . . . Hello, where are we? Jewels and cleavage and bronzed bodies and hundreds of people drinking white wine? This was no pub, it was a bodega, with dark wood-beamed ceilings and black wrought ironwork cradling wooden crates of wine. Heads turned toward us, blue eyes staring.
“Too bloody crowded down here,” said a big, grinning teddy bear of a regular named Peter Mainwaring, shaking my hand. He led us up the stairs and introduced us to the maitre d’, Maurice.
We milled around with the crowd for a few minutes, sipping from oversized glasses of chilled French white burgundy. Everyone, it seemed, had been out on their boats that day, and everyone had been to Los Angeles recently. Maurice found us and sent us over to a display case filled with beautiful cuts of beef and lamb as well as fresh prawns, bream, salmon, mullet, haddock, halibut, hake and lobster, all on a bed of ice and priced by the pound. We picked out a sea bass and a rack of lamb, to be grilled by a team of chefs. We helped ourselves to a seafood and salad bar, drank a lot more wine and ate a whole loaf of French bread. By the time we left at midnight, we had a pocket full of phone numbers, and we were as happy as clams.
Well, except for the fact that our mission was unaccomplished. We had been fans of Dylan Thomas since the ‘60s and ‘70s, when he became a cult figure throughout the English-speaking world, when a folk singer named Bobby Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan, when thousands of American newborns were named Dylan, a name that was previously rare even in Wales. Dylan Thomas himself had to tell his teachers how to pronounce it. Just before we left for Europe, we saw signs that the cult was alive and well: Bill Pullman, playing the American president in “Independence Day,” told the world, “Do not go quietly into that good night,” slightly mangling a Dylan Thomas poem, and the heroic black airman’s girlfriend’s son in the same movie was named Dylan.
In the morning, we walked to Dylan Thomas Square in the heart of Swansea’s sparkling marina. Little girls were climbing over the statue of the poet looking much more cherubic than he did in life. ‘A tune on an ice-cream cornet. A slap of sea and a tickle of sand. A fanfare of sunshades opening. . . .’
describing The Mumbles
Yachtsmen were swabbing their decks. Under Martini & Rossi umbrellas, young women in pastel dresses and chic shoes were drinking cups of espresso with earnest-looking young men in tweed suits.
Dylan Thomas wouldn’t recognize the festive-looking square that bears his name. In 1944, Nazis bombed Swansea’s dock lands and left them in ruins. When southern Wales boomed in the years after the war, city planners decided on a mix of commercial and residential rebuilding for a new marina, which was finished in 1981. The Swansea Marriott was built at one of several entrances to the marina. We stayed there, and the view from our room was spectacular.
Later that morning, we resolved to see the real Wales. We were going to walk to The Mumbles, a Victorian village described this way by Thomas: “A tune on an ice-cream cornet. A slap of sea and a tickle of sand. A fanfare of sunshades opening. A wince and whinny of bathers dancing into deceptive water.”
The tram that Thomas took from Swansea to The Mumbles is in a museum on the marina now. Its five-mile track bed has been paved over into a wide path along Swansea Bay, with one lane for bicyclists and another for walkers and runners, a perfect spot for our morning walk. The locals were law-abiding. No bicyclists strayed into the walking path. And there were no roller-bladers.
Red balloons soared into the air from an open-topped bus passing by on Oystermouth Road. Small boats with big sails breezed across the horizon. Young couples wearing sandals and socks pushed prams on the promenade, and little blond children chased after seabirds. A gray-haired woman in a maroon cardigan counted out shells from a pail for a giggling little girl in a very dirty dress. From white paper baskets, bloated old salts in undershirts ate French fries with squirts of brown mustard. Slow-moving men in plaid pitched grapefruit-size balls across a lush bowling green. Laughter rang out from the carousel, and mock cries of anger from the bumper cars. A man in a too-large tan suit held a parasol over a woman in a wrinkled shirtwaist, and together they stood silently in front of the gardens beside the walkway. Out on Mumbles Pier, a red-bearded fisherman in overalls smoked a pipe and dangled a line into Swansea Bay.
But where was the Mermaid Bar, where Dylan Thomas learned to drink at 16? “Burned down just this year,” a jolly woman at The Mumbles Tourist Information Centre told us. The rest of the Mumbles Mile, as the strip of bars and fish mongeries beyond the promenade from Swansea is called, was alive and thriving, with more pubs cheek by jowl than we had ever seen.
As afternoon moved to evening, the tide went out, Swansea Bay turned into a mudflat filled with landlocked sailboats, and we took a bus back to town. We were still seeking a real Welsh pub, not a wine bar filled with people a lot like us.
Across from the downtown Swansea bus station, near the old covered market where they sell cockles and black seaweed, we found the Potter’s Wheel Free House. Posted on the walls were photographs of Old Swansea, not looking a 10th as good as the New Swansea. At least 200 people were drinking there, many at the 40-foot bar. Four bartenders were on duty. Quite sure that I had found an authentic warm-beer establishment at last, I asked one of the bartenders if by any chance they served wine. She handed me a long wine menu, listing wines from six countries.
In the morning, we took the train to Carmarthen. The tracks ran beside the gently curving shore of Carmarthen Bay. We rolled past pastures where plump black-and-white cows grazed, past fields where hay neatly packed into bales dotted the landscape, where hedges separated one man’s land from another’s.
It was a one-car train, a one-hour morning milk run. The older male passengers quietly sipped tea and read the rugby pages, while several of the farm wives knit thick sweaters. Through this sea of calm, two Japanese women with tags from Tokyo’s Narita airport on their overnight bags ran frantically from one window to another, videotaping the countryside.
At Carmarthen’s railway station, villagers speaking in musical Welsh accents led us to the bus for Laugharne (pronounced LARN), where Dylan Thomas spent his last four years and where he is buried.
On the bus, passengers greeted each other cheerily and promised to show us where to get off in Laugharne. The Japanese women were on the bus too, videotaping dappled horses and freshly painted farmhouses. After half an hour, the road narrowed and curved, and we were in Laugharne.
Thomas called Laugharne “the strangest town in Wales. Laugharne, with a population of 400,” he wrote in a letter, “has a town hall, a castle and a portreeve [an archaic word for mayor]. The people speak with a broad English accent, although on all sides they are surrounded by hundreds of miles of Welsh country.”
As we walked to Thomas’ cliff-side Boat House--"my seashaken house on a breakneck of rocks,” the Japanese women explained that they were shooting an educational videotape to accompany a textbook they were writing on the life and works of Thomas, who they said is a cult figure in Japan.
On the path to the main Boat House we paused by the converted bicycle shed where Thomas wrote “Under Milk Wood,” a critically acclaimed play in its day, shown on American television with Richard Burton in the lead. The play made fun of the peculiar residents of a peculiar town, and everyone believed it was Laugharne. The shed was a dilapidated shack, but the view of the Taff River estuary was spectacular.
The Boat House, four rooms and a huge terrace high above the water, was crowded with at least 40 visitors. One of the Japanese women cornered me on the terrace, opened a volume of Thomas’ poems and pointed to one. “I would like you to recite this,” she said. “I want to videotape you with the Boat House in the background.”
Now, Dylan Thomas was very particular about who performed his poetry. I wondered how he would feel about having a generation of Japanese schoolchildren learn it from a tourist from the San Fernando Valley in shorts.
“Here?” I asked. “In front of all these people?” But I did it anyway.
And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may be a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain.
My wife and I stopped in Brown’s Hotel, midway between the Boat House and the churchyard where Thomas is buried, for a spot of gin. Thomas was a regular here. Paintings and photos of him adorn the walls. Ten men were drinking pints of beer, and two little girls were eating potato chips. Copper discs hammered with medieval scenes hung from the half-timbered walls. On the door a plaque read, “Do not drop cigarette ends on the floor, as they burn the hands and knees of customers as they leave.”
As the conversation turned to the previous day’s weather, one man said it had been “damp as the wimple of a winter-widowed nun.”
And then we knew we were in Dylan Thomas’ Wales.
In the churchyard of St. Martin’s, Thomas is buried under a simple white cross, beside his wife, Caitlin Macnamara, whose grave is unmarked. He died at age 39 on Nov. 9, 1953, in New York, where he was enjoying a wildly successful coast-to-coast American tour. He had stepped out of his room in the Chelsea Hotel for a couple of hours, returned to his room and announced, “I’ve had 18 straight whiskeys. I think that’s the record.”
He slipped into a coma and died four days later. The press quoted an anonymous doctor at St. Vincent’s Hospital as saying he died of “a severe insult to the brain.”
Thomas’ beloved schoolmaster father had died only 11 months earlier of heart disease. While living at the Boat House, Thomas learned that his father was gravely ill, and he wrote his best-known poem there to implore him to fight for life:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
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GUIDEBOOK: While in Wales
Getting there: American, Delta, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways or United offer nonstop flights from LAX to London (advance purchase, round-trip fares currently start at about $860), from where travelers can get to Wales by rental car, train or bus. We used BritRail’s first-class Flexipasses, good for eight days’ travel in a one-month period (cost: $439 per person, $375 for those 60 and over; for second class, $305 per adult, $245 for those 25 and under; telephone Rail Pass Express,  722-7151). There is also regular National Express bus service from London; tel. (540) 298-1395 for information. Where to stay: Swansea Marriott, Maritime Quarter, Swansea, West Glamorgan, South Wales SA1 355; in August high season last year, we paid $114 for our double room with king bed and view of the marina; tel. (800) 228-9290, 011-44-1792-642020, fax 011-44-1792-642020.
Where to eat: La Braseria (28 Wind St.; local tel. 469683) specializes in meat and fish grilled to order; dinner for two about $40 with wine; closed Sundays. Eleo’s Brasserie (32/33 Kingsway, tel. 648609) is a bodega much like La Braseria, but less crowded and open Sundays; dinner for two, $50 with wine. Rendezvous (Princess Way near St. David’s Shopping Centre, tel. 467113) offers French and Chinese cuisine in a beautiful room, with a piano player; dinner for two, $50 with wine.
For more information: British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10176; tel. (800) 462-2748 or (212) 986-2200, fax (212) 986-1188.