Explore Dylan Thomas's West Wales
One of Wales' most famous sons, poet Dylan Thomas had an enduring relationship with West Wales that continued throughout his extraordinary life. Trace his story through the places he lived, visited, and drew inspiration from.
To begin, at the beginning…
On the 27th of October 1914 in Cwmdonkin, Swansea, teacher David John Thomas looked down at his newly born son and decided to name him ‘Dylan’. Borrowing the name from the Mabinogion ‘Dylan ail Don’ this literary inspiration for the naming of his child would be a precursor to the life that his son, Dylan Thomas, would go on to lead.
One of the literary world’s most original and enduring voices, Dylan Thomas burned bright as an artist that produced work that was as volatile as it was vulnerable. Much of his work was intrinsically linked to the places in which he spent his life, and one such place that had an indelible impact on his writing was West Wales.
Thomas began writing in his teens after leaving his job as a Junior Reporter with the South Wales Daily Post. Notoriety followed shortly thereafter when his seminal work And Death Shall Have No Dominion was published in the New English Weekly, which attracted the eyes and ears of his literary contemporaries and publishers alike. What followed was a life of inspiration and drama, that was cut short at the age of 39 whilst on tour in America. His time in his home country of Wales however were some of his most formative and important, and there are many spots that left their mark on him and feel his presence to this day.
Despite objecting to being labelled as a 'Welsh poet' it was in West Wales, where Thomas's ancestors had lived, that throughout his life he would seek refuge, find peace, and the quiet to write. Calling it "a strange Wales" in Reminiscences of Childhood, he drew inspiration from his family ties, but also the land, its people, and history, and is where he wrote some of his most famous works.
The Early Years
While born in Swansea, Dylan's parents hailed from rural Carmarthenshire, and growing up he spent holidays roaming the countryside along the beautiful coastline where the River Taf and River Towy estuaries meet. Thomas has become synonymous with Laugharne, but it was from the villages of Llangain, Llansteffan, and Johnstown that his family hailed and where he spent time as a child, enjoying visits with his relatives.
These formative years would go onto inspire some of his best-known poems including Fern Hill, which captured experiences at his maternal aunt Annie's dairy farm on the outskirts of Llangain. Written in 1945 when he was well into adulthood, Fern Hill is a positive and joyous poem, evoking an idyllic image of childhood with mentions of haymaking and green fields and perhaps represents a longing for more innocent times as he looks back with rosy retrospection. Thomas spent extended stays with his aunt and her husband Jim Jones and wrote about Fern Hill Farm in the short story, The Peaches. Often said to be his favourite aunt, Anne appeared as the subject of another of his poems, After the funeral (in memory of Ann Jones). She died in 1933 and is buried at Capel Newydd in nearby Llanbri.
Thomas sought inspiration from his father's family as well, detailing his childhood memories in the short story A Visit to Grandpa's in which a young Thomas and his friends from Johnstown go in search of his paternal grandfather in nearby Carmarthen.
His mother's family were sixth-generation farmers, and his tie to this corner of Carmarthenshire and its community endure into adulthood. He returned to Llangain for a month in 1933, staying in cottages owned by his mother's family, known as Blaencwm, where he wrote early drafts of poems for his book, 18 poems. His parents moved to the cottages in 1941 and Thomas and his wife Caitlin followed, spending the summer of 1944 with them, before moving to New Quay, and returning the following. In nearby Llansteffan, where sunny days were spent on the beach, you'll find the Edwinsford Arms, one of Thomas' favourite pubs.
The Market Town
As the largest town in the area, it's not surprising that Thomas was a frequent visitor to Carmarthen and spent time there throughout his life. It is mentioned in several of his works including A Visit to Grandpa, where he and his friends go to look for his grandfather and eventually find him on Carmarthen bridge.
When living in Laugharne, he and Caitlin would visit the weekly farmer's market in Carmarthen and often enjoy trips to the cinema and The Boars Head pub, on Lammas Street which was his drinking house of choice. Thomas was also associated with the college, giving talks and becoming friends with the lecturer, Rev. Professor Stephens. In spite of the passage of time, the town has retained much of its charm and traditions, and you can visit both the Boars Head and the weekly mart, which still takes place every Wednesday.
Thomas appeared to be drawn to the Welsh coastline, moving from Llangain to New Quay in Ceredigion in 1944 where he lived in the cliff-top bungalow Majoda on the outskirts of the village. Thomas drew inspiration from the sea views for his work, and his radio piece Quite Early One Morning, believed to be a precursor to Under Milk Wood, was written here, as well as The Conversation of Prayers and This Side of the Truth. New Quay is also considered one of the inspirations for Llareggub.
It was also the location of one of the more infamous moments in Thomas' life, when his neighbour, Captain Killick fired a machine gun on Majoda. The Captain was married to Thomas's childhood friend from Swansea, Vera Killick, who had moved next door while her husband was fighting in the war. On his return, he didn't seem to take to his wife's bohemian friends and after a fight in a pub with Dylan and some of his London associates, he opened fire on his neighbour's home. He was tried for attempted murder, with Thomas giving evidence at the trial, but was acquitted.
The family returned to London sometime in 1945, but the poet left an indelible mark on the village. The Black Lion Bar was a favourite of Thomas’ and is still open to this day as a hotel where you can visit and raise a drink in his honour. The Dylan Thomas Trail is also a must explore for any of his ardent fans. Opened in 2003 by his daughter Aeronwy the trail stretches from Llanon in Ceredigion all the way to St. Dogmaels. It explores various locations that Thomas would have visited and provided inspiration for his work and offers an informed understanding of his relationships with the area, whilst experiencing the beauty of these places first-hand.
Tenby and Augustus John
While Thomas visited Tenby, his enduring connection to the town was through his friendship with painter Augustus John, who he was close to throughout his life. John was responsible for introducing Thomas to his future wife Caitlin Mcnamara in a London pub who, despite being involved with John at the time, quickly became enamoured with the poet and the pair started a passionate affair.
It was around this time that John completed his portrait of Thomas which would become his most famous work and is now a part of the National Portrait Gallery Collection. He didn't hold the romance against his fellow Welshman, later becoming godfather to the couple's son, Llewelyn.
The Poet's Public House
As with many drinking places in West Wales, there are tales about Thomas' drunken exploits in Tenby's public houses. The Coach and Horses Tavern, on Upper Frog Street perhaps has the best, claiming that in 1953 Thomas visited the pub and became so drunk he left his manuscript of Under Milk Wood on the stool.
One of Thomas’s final performances also took place in the town. Turning up fashionably late to The Salad Bowl, a venue on The Croft that is now gone but now has a blue plaque in its place, Thomas delivered one of the only readings of Under Milk Wood. Sadly, there would be no opportunity for an encore since Thomas passed away in New York only five short weeks later.
The Salad Bowl may be gone but if you do want to raise a glass in Thomas’s memory, there are plenty to choose from. Brown's Hotel in Laugharne is perhaps the most famous, but our pick would be one not too far from Fishguard that's been open for over 500 years. Known as The Sailors Safety Inn back in Thomas’ day, the poet was a regular at the beachside bar situated in Pwllgwaelod. While it closed in the 1990s, happily it was reopened in 2006 under the new name “The Old Sailor” and is the perfect place to enjoy a tipple.
Dylan on the Big Screen
Pembrokeshire has been the place of choice for adaptations of Thomas' Under Milk Wood, the first being in 1972. Starring Welsh screen icon Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter O'Toole, filming took place in Lower Fishguard harbour. Memorabilia from the shoot can also be found in The Ship Inn in Haverfordwest.
Another production was filmed in 2014 to mark the centenary year of Thomas’s birth. This time Solva was chosen as the location to bring the classic to life, with famous faces including Michael Sheen, Katherine Jenkins, and Tom Jones lending their talents to the production.
One actor returned from the 1972 production, Sian Phillips who took on the role of Mrs. Pugh whilst Charlotte Church played the role of Mrs. Ogmoore Pritchard. A digital remaster of the original 1972 film was also released during the centenary celebrations.
The Strangest Town in Wales
Just across the River Taf estuary from where his family hailed, you'll find Laugharne, the place that has West Wales' strongest association with Thomas. Once describing it as "the strangest town in Wales", the poet felt an undeniable kinship with eccentric Laugharne that seemed happily cut off from the rest of the world. He confirmed it was the main inspiration for the fictional town of Llareggub (read that name backward to get a sense of Thomas’s sense of humour) in the drama Under Milk Wood, which had the first working title of "the town that was mad". Thomas wrote about his relationship with Laugharne in Quiet Early One Morning and despite his family being from nearby Llangain, acknowledged that after 15 years, he was still seen as a "foreigner". In the humour-filled piece, he describes its slow-moving and old fashioned pace of life, the hostility to outsiders, and its determined philosophy of "it will all be the same in a hundred years' time," that Thomas appears to admire, claiming "there is nowhere like it anywhere at all".
Returning there again and again over the years, he finally settled at the Boathouse in 1949 where he lived until his death in 1953. Many credit friend, fellow writer Richard Hughes for sparking Thomas's affection. Hughes had bought Castle House in 1934 and Thomas stayed with him in the Georgian mansion in the centre of the town while writing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog and described it as “the best of houses in the best of places”. It was situated only a short walk from the poet's favourite pub in Laugharne - Brown's Hotel, where Thomas spent so much time he gave out the pub's phone number as his own. Filled with memorabilia, it remains open and barely changed from the days when the poet would prop up the bar, his favourite spot marked with a plaque.
Opposite Brown's is The Pelican, a Georgian terraced house where Thomas's parents came to live in 1949. The poet would call on his father every day when they would chat and do the crossword. While he began writing it in 1947, it's suggested Thomas's most famous poem, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Night was written in response to his father falling ill in 1951, passing away the following year.
While Thomas's last home in Laugharne became his best known, the family lived in at least two places before settling at the picturesque Boathouse on the banks of the Taf. When he and Caitlin first moved there, they lived in a cottage called Eros on Gosport Street, before moving on to Sea View, a detached house near the castle in 1938. Caitlin later said that the two years at Sea View had been "the happiest period of our lives together", before leaving in 1940 to return to London.
They didn't have a permanent address in the town again until 1949 when one of Thomas' benefactors, Margaret Taylor, bought the Boathouse for him. Extremely pleased with the incredible property, with views out over the estuary, he wrote to Taylor shortly after saying: "This is it, the place, the house, the workroom, the time".
Now a museum and tearoom, the boathouse is where Thomas spent the last four years of his life. A writing shed sits outside the main house that has been reconstructed in the image of Thomas’s original and is where he finished Under Milk Wood.
Never staying in one place for very long, it seems fitting that Thomas's final resting place is the town he adopted as his own. After dying in New York in 1953, he was returned to Laugharne where he was buried at St Martin's Church, a simple wooden cross marking the gravesite.
Thomas is still celebrated in Laugharne and a literary and arts festival, The Laugharne Weekender, is held every year in his honour. A celebration of the rich literary history of the area, it attracts musicians, poets, artists, and writers.