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On the Sylan Thomas Trail

by Hilary Macaskill

Guided walks, an arts festival and a sea cruise are among the events planned this year in Wales to mark the 50th anniversary of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s death. It is an ideal opportunity to visit other literary locations in this beautiful land where music, poetry and the Celtic heritage are given due importance in everyday life.

When Thomas collapsed at New York’s Chelsea Hotel a few days before his death, aged 39, in November 1953, he was on his fourth tour of America, holding audiences spellbound by his readings in his famously mellifluous voice. He was at the height of his literary powers: he had completed “Under Milk Wood”, his “play for voices”, first broadcast by the BBC in 1954, and his lyrical poetry, so rooted in his home country, was known around the world.

Even he might have been surprised by the longevity of his fame and by the extensive preparations for the 50th anniversary of his death. The highlight will be this year’s Dylan Thomas Festival, held annually in his home city of Swansea (also known as the birthplace of actress Catherine Zeta Jones) between the dates of his birth on October 27 and his death on November 9. There will be exhibitions, film shows, guided tours encompassing tableaux from “Under Milk Wood” and readings from his short stories and poems – and more. Swansea is 40 miles from the capital, Cardiff, and reached by train from London in three hours.

Focal point for many anniversary events is the Dylan Thomas Centre – opened in 1995 by former US President Jimmy Carter – in the city’s maritime quarter. Guided walking tours (weekends in July and August) start here, taking in the scenes of his childhood and youth, such as his home at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, from whose window he could see the “long and splendidly curving shore” of Swansea Bay; and The Little Theatre (now named after him) where, after a brief stint as a journalist on the local paper, he was an actor. Up the coast is the tiny sailing resort of Mumbles, where he spent hours drinking in the pubs.

A Dylan Thomas Sea Cruise, run by Euphoria Sailing, will provide the maritime perspective of Swansea and of Thomas’s beloved Gower peninsula, “one of the loveliest sea coast stretches in the whole of Britain,” culminating in a view of the “great rock of Worm’s Head....a sea-worm of rock pointing into the channel.”

From 1949 onwards, Thomas and his wife Caitlin lived at The Boathouse, an atmospheric home overlooking the beautiful Taf estuary at Laugharne (pronounced ‘Larne’) and now open to the public. The simple shed where he wrote some of his greatest poetry (such as “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, composed as his father was dying) has been restored in time for the anniversary.

Further inland in Carmarthen is Johnston, the small village where his grandfather, a railway worker, was known as Thomas the Guard, and Llangain, where his uncle and aunt worked Fern Hill Farm, inspiration for the poem “Fern Hill”.

Dylan Thomas’s love for the seaside of this part of Wales is well-known and rightly so. Pembrokeshire contains Britain’s only coast-based national park and one of Europe’s finest stretches of coast, renowned for its walking routes and sea birds. Looming behind are the Preseli Hills, from which the stones of Stonehenge were mysteriously transported to Salisbury Plain 4,000 years ago; intersected by pilgrims’ ways and Celtic crosses. This coastline encompasses the small-scale Georgian splendour of steep-streeted Tenby, which holds an annual arts festival each September (20th-27th), as well as the smallest cathedral city: St David’s.

Wales is a land of festivals: others include the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod (July 7-13) and Bryn Terfel’s Faenol festival, the internationally known opera singer starring in a series of evening performances at the Faenol Estate, Bangor (August 23-25). Most famous is the National Eisteddfod, held in different parts of the country (this year at Meifod, mid Wales, August 2-9) - the largest and oldest celebration of Welsh culture and language, with ceremonial, choirs and concerts, a poetry competition and the crowning of the bard as its centrepiece.

Behind these celebrations of Wales’s rich literary heritage is the magical, mystical Wales, so well described by another poet who captured the spirit of the country, R.S Thomas in “Welsh Landscape”, which hints at a past history “Brittle with relics, Wind-bitten towers and castles”. There is a rich seam of bardic Welsh literature, myths - the legend of King Arthur is said to have originated here - and stories going back to before the Romans, and written down in the middle ages. Some of these writings are preserved in the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth, with its outstanding collection of ancient Welsh books and illuminated manuscripts. In nearby Machynlleth, Celtica employs the most modern of technology to explore 2,000 years of Celt history, legend and culture.

There is another, more recent, aspect of Welsh history which is commemorated at Blaenavon, whose industrial landscape of now silent coal-mines and iron-works has recently been declared a World Heritage site. This world of mining, the world of “How Green was My Valley” by Richard Llewellyn (the most popular novel in English by a Welshman) is also recreated at the Rhondda Heritage Park, in mid-Glamorgan.

But this year the spotlight is firmly on Dylan Thomas: many local theatres are staging performances of his works, often in the Welsh language.