Dylan Thomas one of the best-known poets of the twentieth century, was born in 1914 in Swansea, and over the years most people tend to associate him with that city, and of course with the township of Laugharne in West Wales. Indeed such an industry has grown up around Dylan’s relationship with Laugharne that one could be forgiven for thinking that the township was Thomas’ only link with Welsh West Wales.
But Dylan only lived in Laugharne for two relatively short periods – from 1938 – 41, and from 1949 until his death in 1953. The real reason for Dylan choosing this part of West Wales may have been far closer to his heart, and a reason to suggest that the proximity of the villages of Llansteffan, Llangain, and Llanybri to Laugharne were the real deciding factors in his choice of location.
Dylan’s father, D.J. Thomas was born and raised in Johnstown in a Welsh-speaking family. His father, who worked on the railways, came from Brechfa and his mother from Llangadog. David John Thomas managed to get educated and went on to University College, Aberystwyth, where he got a first class honours degree in English. He then took up a teaching career in Swansea and settled into a middle class suburb. But Dylan visited Llansteffan regularly from the age of 4 right up until the day before he sailed for America. All his mother’s family came from the farming communities of Llangain, Llansteffan, Llanybri and Llangynog.
A Map of Dylan Thomas’ Relatives Farms
Between 1919 – 22 Dylan’s parents took him to stay at Rose Cottage, Llansteffan, the home of his mother’s half-sister Anne Williams. Summers were spent on farms like Fern Hill (Llangain) where Aunt Annie, Dylan’s mother’s eldest sister, lived with her husband Jim Jones, or at Pentrewyman, Jim’s sister’s farm. It was here as a boy that Dylan would come and stay for the school holidays with his Aunty Rachel Jones who later appeared in The Peaches as Auntie Rach. In his later life Dylan liked to play up his “poor agricultural background” to American audiences, but in reality, although tenant farmers, all his family’s farms were of considerable acreage – Penycoed, 128 acres; Pencelly Uchaf, 93 acres; Maesgwyn, 132 acres; Pentrewyman, 110 acres. Fern Hill would later inspire two of Thomas’ greatest poems.
‘Fern Hill‘ is a joyous celebration of childhood innocence and its inevitable loss, a poem which Dylan described as a poem ‘for evening and tears’. It begins’
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, Time held me green and dying Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
The other great poem inspired by this place is ‘After the funeral (in memory of Ann Jones). In the poem, which Dylan began in 1933 but abandoned until 1938 when he returned to it and completed it – Dylan tries to come to terms with death and bereavement. The poem also gives us an accurate description of the front parlour of the house.
In a room with a stuffed fox and a stale fern I stand, for this memorial’s sake, alone in the snivelling hours with dead, humped Ann……
Fern Hill Farm is also the setting for a fine autobiographical story “The Peaches” which is the first story in ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog’.
“I saw the plates on the shelves, the lighted lamp on the long clothed table, ‘Prepare to Meet thy God’ knitted over the fire place, the smiling china dogs, the brown-stained settle, the grandmother clock, and I ran into the kitchen and into Annie’s arms.’
Where better to read and contemplate ‘After the Funeral’ than beside Ann’s grave at the Capel Newydd in nearby Llanbri, where she and her husband are buried. The gravestone is towards the far left about six rows back from the left hand corner of the Chapel. Although it is carved in Welsh, and covered in lichen, her names, and her husband’s, are visible.
From 1927 – 37 Dylan stayed at No. 1 Blaencwm with his aunt Polly and uncle Bob Williams. Dylan stayed here for a month in 1933 and wrote early drafts of at least two of the poems which made up his first book, ’18 Poems’, published in 1934. Later in 1941 his parents moved here and Dylan and Caitlin stayed with them during the summers of 1944 and 1945. Although he probably enjoyed the time he spent here, and it was a refuge away from war ravaged London, he was critical of the place when writing to his scriptwriting colleagues describing it as a ‘rat infested cottage‘ and ‘a breeding box in cabbage valley‘.
Thomas’ favourite pub in the area was the Edwinsford Arms, Llansteffan, run by relatives, Thomas and Catherine Thomas, and now a restaurant “Yr Hen Dafarn”. Dylan enthused about its ‘.…….sabbath-dark bar with a stag’s head over the Gents‘. The Edwinsford Arms, Llansteffan was of course to feature in Dylan’s short story ‘A Visit to Grandpa’s‘ which also mentions the nearby woods called The Sticks.
Even when Dylan and his wife Caitlin were settled in Laugharne from 1939 – 41 he could not keep away from Llansteffan and he was a frequent traveller on the old Laugharne Ferry. By 1941 his parents were again resident at No. 1 Blaencwm and Caitlin and Dylan would always cross on the ferry from Laugharne to help with the harvest at Llwyngwyn. Today there are still many people living locally who have very different stories to tell of one of the 20th century’s greatest poets – stories that seem completely out of kilter with the lurid tales peddled about him by the world tabloid press.
The image of Dylan that emerges from local interviews does much to dispel some of the myths that have grown around him. Apparently, he was not a heavy drinker. He loved being in pubs, chatting with the local people, but he drank beer in moderation. He did not have a reputation as a womaniser locally; in fact, it seems that he had a low sex drive. He loved walking – he did not have a car – and had been a compulsive walker all his life.
Many of Dylan and Caitlin’s closest friends had close family connections with Llanybri, Llangain and Llansteffan. His best literary friends were Glyn Jones whose family came from Cwm Celyn farm, Llanybri, and Keidrych Rhys who lived in Llanybri. He was best man at the latter’s wedding to Lynette Roberts. Another great influence on his life would have been the poet Vernon Watkins, described by the bard “as the most profound and greatly accomplished Welshman writing poems in English”. Although they met in Swansea in 1935, Vernon’s grandparents farmed Cowin Grove in Llangynog where his mother was born and spent her early life. and remained life-long friends, despite Thomas’s failure, in the capacity of best man to turn up to the wedding of Vernon and Gwen in 1944.
Laugharne and Under Milk Wood
Controversy has always raged about which village is the actual setting for Llareggub. There are only three occasions on which Dylan declared that Laugharne was the setting for the play. But we should not make too much of this because on two of these occasions Dylan was using the play to beg for money. There are also three letters, all written from Laugharne and none asking for money, when Laugharne did not feature in Dylan’s thinking at all. In these, he wrote that the play was set “in a small town in a never-never Wales”; “in a Wales that I am sad to say never was”; When Dylan gave the first reading of the play in America on May 3 1953, he introduced it as a “picture of a small Welsh town-that-never-was”. and told friends that the play was based on “the life of a Welsh village very much like Laugharne.”
Since his death in 1953 Laugharne has become a world-wide marketing opportunity to attract the devoted and the curious. After all, it has everything it takes to make a perfect shrine: the poet’s grave, his work hut, his favourite pub and a ready-priested shore, all in a magnificent estuary setting. No wonder that within weeks of Dylan’s death the News Chronicle predicted that “Now will begin the Dylan cult and Laugharne will become a shrine.” Carmarthenshire County Council believed Dylan could be a huge attraction to foreign tourists, and quickly renamed the path to the Boathouse as Dylan’s Walk, and bought and refurbished the Boathouse, now one of Wales’ most popular national monuments.
Llansteffan and Under Milk Wood
And yet the doubts remain to this day. We know that very little of the play was actually written in Laugharne. The topography of Llareggub is that of New Quay, and few of the play’s characters can be positively identified as Laugharne people. It is also particularly interesting that so few of Laugharne’s distinctive and historic features are reflected in the play. This is hardly surprising – how could a play about a “quintessentially” Welsh town peopled by identifiably Welsh characters be plausibly based on an English-cultured, English-speaking enclave such as Laugharne?
So where did Dylan’s inspiration come from? Certainly New Quay, perhaps Ferryside, but also Welsh speaking Llansteffan. With it’s long personal and familial connections with Dylan, it has at least an equal claim as a source of his poetic inspiration. Dylan was far more acquainted with it’s history and characters than any other Carmarthenshire coastal village, and he was by birthright practically a local boy. And The Stick, the famous woods above Llansteffan’s main beachs was surely the inspiration for Llareggub’s Milk Wood.
It does makes you think………..and that’s where I’ll leave it!!
As Dylan rightly said…………….”Somebody’s boring me. I think it’s me.”
Llansteffan Tourism Association would dearly like to thank Eiluned Rees and David Thomas for their invaluable help in the writing of this page.