Diane & Paul Return to the UK Day 5 - Swansea, Wales

Dylan Thomas' childhood home

DAY 5, Friday – We See Swansea & So All Things Dylan (Thomas)

Today, we slept as late as we could, which was maybe 7:45 a.m. as we hadn’t booked the train ahead this time. We arrived at Cardiff Station about 10 and found we’d have a train in half an hour. We sat on the platform next to a woman from Glastonbury. “Ah, the mud!” said Paul. “Are you leaving?” (The four-day rock festival begins in about a week) “I’ve left already,” she said drily. 

On the train were four college-aged guys toting boxes of beer—one group of a type we saw several of in Swansea, clearly there to drink and party. We got off, found some tourist info at the station and used the map to wend our way to the downtown shopping mall, where a fairly large group sang back up for a Christian street preacher with a big PA system. We found a street of pubs, and decided on one called “The No Sign Wine Bar”

because it had a long narrow sign, saying, at length, basically, “Thomas drank here.” There, I had a wonderful dish of cockles “with laverbread gratine” and bacon. The cockles were like tiny mussels in a thick white sauce where the laverbread hid out with the bacon, all topped with slices of cheese, not what I’d think of as “gratine,” but it was very good and no doubt more calories than usually I get in a day. Paul had a local lager, as usual, good but warm. A Welsh couple seated near us, who’ve been on a Caribbean cruise, said Gower is a good beach town to visit, and I see in the books, it has both beach and historic buildings to see.

But what is to see in Swansea is the life and times of Dylan Thomas, and we set off first for The Dylan Centre. Their exhibition theme is “The Man & the Myth,” and it treats discrepancies of whether Thomas was a sickly person whose alcoholism was a stance or an alcoholic who drank himself to death. On the one hand were quotes and clips of friends saying they never saw him drink much or that he’d have one drink and go out acting as though he were stewed. On the other, we have his last bill for one day at the Chelsea where he had more than 40 drinks, 18 bottles of Bass Ale among them. Maybe he had a LOT of company. But the exhibit had a lot of information too on his composing habits (lots of revision, years after the fact, of early drafts),  his family, and his acting and directing. There was a marvelous video with two 92nd Street Y employees who were in his first Under Milkwood and a long interview with Robert Lowell, who hosted Thomas at Iowa. A lot on his influence and a lot of tchotchkes, including a huge double door to his house that someone rescued and a children’s book of Strawelpeter, a very early Edward Scissorhand character.

Geoff Haden, owner of the house,
was our terrific guide.
Then we caught a taxi up to the Dylan Thomas Birth House at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive. (I’ve long wondered how that’s pronounced: it’s “come-DONg-kin.”) I had read some disparaging remarks on Trip Advisor about this and didn’t get my hopes up, but what we found here was quite good, excellent, showing once again what idyots many T.A. commentators are. We were met by the owner, Geoff Haden, and though he is a bit self-effacing, we got him to talk first about himself. A retired structural engineer who was born and raised in Swansea, he was distraught to tour the house and find it in terrible condition, rented for years to groups of students who had painted over and over in garish colors. Then for a solid year, he and his wife Anne had the walls and baseboards and fireplaces stripped down layer after layer to their original colors, which they got matched by a paint company. And they found a 92 year old woman who had been a servant in the house and led them around telling them how it would be, after warning them, “You mustn’t say anything bad about the Thomas family. They were wonderful people.” Not much had been changed structurally, so they then set to work gathering furnishing of the period, including a big Swansea grandfather clock.

He gave us an excellent tour, interweaving biography and writing and a few of his own experiences. His most recent was having Prince Charles visit in preparation for the 2014 centenary celebrations of Thomas’ birth. My favorite part was that Prince Charles wasn’t to be served any food, but they had tea there and so of course he had to take it, and when he saw the food, he ignored the biscuits and mentioned he LOVED Welsh cakes, and he ate a Welsh cake then and there as his “Minders,” who’d been pointing to their watches for a half hour, were dying. (I mean, food is supposed to be vetted.) Can’t imagine how he managed to have only one.

Haden even pointed out to us how the neighborhood would have been when Thomas lived there, and told us about one of his favorite Thomas short stories where Thomas returns to Swansea decades after leaving, looking for himself. I told him I knew the feeling. We mentioned we had lunch at the No Sign, and he said it the best place in the city for authentic good and a place Thomas really did go. He also suggested a pub just down the hill as a favorite
Thomas drinking spot. Before we left, I asked him about getting to Cwmdonkin Park, the setting for Thomas’s poem, “The Hunchback,” one of the many he wrote in the prolific 5 years of his youth and then revised years later for publication. We walked to the park, quite an uphill climb, and watched families with children and couples with dogs play and play.

If you are going to South Wales, I highly recommend this terrific heritage spot, especially if you know Thomas’ poetry (See “Do Not Go Gentle into That Goodnight.”) or A Child’s Christmas in Wales. The Hadens are extremely gracious hosts, who have done a lot of work to bring this site up to excellent historical and enjoyable standards.

As for us, we grabbed a taxi back to the train station with the most jolly Welshman I had met so far with two arms filled with tattoos that go way back to before the latest tattoo craze, 30 years old they were, he told me.

We got the train back to Cardiff and with enough culinary adventures for a day, ate at the hotel, which had just recovered from a kitchen disaster and were mostly serving salad (which I had) and jalapeno pizza (which Paul had).

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