A granddaughter remembers Dylan’s places
Hannah Ellis in a replica Dylan Thomas boat shed by Carmarthenshire County Council
My grandfather traveled widely, but he always returned to Wales. When abroad, my grandfather yearned to be back home, desperately trying to remember ‘What birds sounded like and said in Gower; what sort of a sound and a shape was Carmarthen Bay; what silence when night fell in the Aeron Valley.’ (Thomas D, Living in Wales)
Why did these places mean so much to him?
Gower Peninsula by Paula J James
The sea town that was my world...
(Thomas D, Reminiscences of Childhood)
Swansea was where my grandfather was born, on 27th October 1914, at the start of the First World War. Both wars had a profound impact on my grandfather’s imagination. When I was eleven, I had my own opportunity to get to know the city in happier times, and spent six weeks of the summer holidays in Swansea. In fact, I even had the chance to stay at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, the home my grandfather was born in, and lived, until he was twenty.
I spent my days, as he did, roaming about Cwmdonkin Park, a place he called ‘a world within the world of the sea town … full of terrors and treasures.’ (Thomas D, Reminiscences of Childhood) In the last few years, I have watched my own son play in the same park and watch him create caves, and imaginary boats and bridges.
During that summer in Swansea, I also loved to explore the beaches of the Gower where years before my grandfather had strolled across the ‘long splendid-curving shore’, (Thomas D, Reminiscences of Childhood). My mum and I also adored the Swansea coast, and we had great fun swimming in the sea. The feeling of jumping, (what appeared to me), to be the biggest waves in the world is one of my happiest childhood memories.
Rainbow over Llansteffan in Carmarthenshire by Paula J James
The influence of the Welsh speaking communities of the Llansteffan Peninsula on my grandfather’s life and work is one that is often underestimated. Yet this was the area where he spent all his childhood holidays, and continued to visit throughout his life. It is a vital place for understanding the impact of Welsh culture and language on his writing. It is also the area that connects the two sides of my grandfather’s family. It is the home of his many aunts and uncles, the people who encouraged my grandfather to write humorously about their antics, for example in the short story ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’.
Later in life, when living in Laugharne, my grandfather would travel by ferry across the estuary to Black Scar Point. He would then make the journey to the pubs in Llansteffan, absorbing the views as he walked. My grandmother, Caitlin, fully aware of the connection between the Carmarthenshire landscape and my grandfather’s poetry, even fitted windows in his writing shed to allow him to look across as he worked.
Dolau beach, New Quay on the Ceredigion coast by Paula J James
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.’
(Thomas, D, Under Milk Wood)
One of the questions people often ask me is, ‘Where is Llareggub?’, the infamous town where Under Milk Wood is set. For many years, I had assumed it was only based on Laugharne, my grandfather’s final home. However, many argue, sometimes very convincingly, that its main inspiration was New Quay, where my grandfather lived for a short period at the end of the Second World War. When I first visited the West Wales town, like my grandfather I too was struck by how beautiful it was.
As I walked through the narrow streets, saw the quaint houses, heard the rush of the sea and the energetic noise of daily activity, not to mention chatting with a few of the local characters, I realised that the town must have really caught my grandfather’s imagination.
The connection with the area ran deep for the Thomas’s, and during the early 1940s, my grandparents also stayed a few miles away from New Quay in the Aeron valley. The name of the valley had a lasting effect on our family. My mum, who was born in 1943, was named Aeronwy, or Aeron for short.
Dylan Thomas' writing shed in Laugharne by Paula J James
‘I am spending Whitsun in the strangest town in Wales. Laugharne, with a population of four hundred, has a townhall, a castle, and a portreeve. The people speak with a broad English accent, although on all sides they are surrounded by hundreds of miles of Welsh county.’ (Thomas, D, Letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson – May 1934)
The Boathouse is a very special place for my family. My mum had such magical and happy memories of living at the Boathouse as a child that, when she died in 2009, we found that she had requested that her ashes be scattered there.
When I return there, I imagine, sitting at the top of the steps, a bucket full of cockles soaking in salt water, and waiting to be fried up for lunch. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the steps, you may well have heard a small cry among the bushes, where my mum had hidden her baby brother, Colm, terribly jealous of all the attention he was getting.
The garden would be full of children, running around with the family dog, Mably. On a warm day, you may even have come across my grandmother stretched out on an old towel or coat, cooking slowly in the midday sun, or diving off the wall into the approaching tide.
This is the same wall, where sixty years later, we scattered my mum’s ashes, allowing her to join the herons, gulls and pipers that still encircle the house on stilts.
Coming back again and again
Dylan Thomas boathouse, Laugharne, Carmarthenshire by FooseMoose
As a family, we have put a bench and plaque at the Boathouse in memory of mum. On the bench it says: ‘The Funny thing is I find myself going back again and again’, (Thomas A, A Daughter Remembers Dylan) a quote from mum’s own work.
Not only did my grandfather, grandmother and mum all return to Laugharne, but now so do the next generations: my son and I keep coming back as well.
Through my grandfather’s words you can encounter the beautiful countryside, coasts and quirky villages of Wales. But it is only by seeing the places and meeting the types of people who were the inspiration for his stories will you really understand my grandfather, and why he was most productive when living in Wales.
Dylan Thomas' Boathouse, Laugharne by Paula J James
The reality is there. The fine, live people, the spirit of Wales itself.
(Thomas D, Reminiscences of Childhood)
Dylan Thomas quotes all reproduced courtesy of The Orion Publishing group.