To the Boathouse

Dylan Thomas

I awoke to the sound of a Welsh summer holiday, the patter of rain on my tent and the whipping of the wind around me. I have been holidaying in Tavernspite, on the border of Pembrokeshire and Camarthenshire, for four years now, and only once have I got sunburned.

In those four years I have never been the ten miles down the road to Dylan Thomas’s boathouse, in Laugharne. I have hinted that I wanted to go, from the subtle (“Oh look, a sign for Dylan Thomas’s Boathouse”) to the less subtle (“I’d actually really like to go”, “Seriously, I really like Dylan Thomas”) but for one reason or another we’ve never made it there. But as the storm woke me up I thought today I would finally get there.

We camp with my partner’s family, in the shadow of his Aunt’s caravan, but this year my parents had joined us in their new campervan. My mum volunteers at the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, so I knew she’d want to see how our Cymric cousins treat their literary artefacts out of professional (or amateur) curiosity.

At breakfast my niece made a cogent argument for going swimming (by shouting “I want to go swimming!” repeatedly) so we split into two groups – my partner’s aunt, brother and the kids went to the big swimming pool at Bluestone and my parents, my partner and I went to Laugharne.

The boathouse itself is small, it must have seemed tiny filled with three children and two drunken parents. The parlour is approximately as it was in Dylan’s day, upstairs where the bedrooms were there is a small museum with artefacts such as Thomas’s deathmask and his only pair of cufflinks. Downstairs in the basement is a cosy little tea room where the poet in residence offered to read one of his poems while we ate our welshcakes. On the walk from the castle to the boathouse you go past the shed where Thomas wrote, perched on the cliff overlooking the estuary.

Laugharne is in what is known as little England, the south west corner of Wales below the Landsker line. As a general rule, Welsh speaking increases as you go west. But south Pembrokeshire and the little patch of Carmarthenshire where Laugharne is are Anglophone, the genetic makeup of the inhabitants has more in common with southern England than villages twenty miles away (of course Thomas was born in Swansea). If you drive 50 minutes north to Cardigan you will hear Welsh as an everyday, living language: used to gossip or to scold naughty children in supermarkets.

A map showing the proportion of Welsh Speakers in Wales,
Welsh speakers in the 2011 census

Dylan Thomas was not a Welsh speaker (although his father taught Welsh), and rejected the bardic traditions of Welsh poetry such as cerdd dafod (literally “tongue craft”). But there is Welshness running through his work like the letters in a stick of Tenby rock. I don’t mean his meter, which (in his later work) counts syllables (as is traditional in many Welsh poetry forms) rather than feet, I mean in his subject matter. English speaking Wales is still Wales, and although it is smaller geographically it is more populous. Llareggub could be one of any number of rural, coastal Welsh towns.

We joke about the Welsh weather – I call rain “little drops of Welsh sunshine” – but it was a particularly nasty day, when we parked in the car park by the castle with its warning that at high tide your car might be washed away you could barely see the other side of the Taf estuary. The town was eerily quiet. I’ll leave it to Thomas scholars and Tourist Boards to battle out whether Laugharne was the model for Llareggub, the setting of Under Milk Wood, but for me the town with its squat, square houses, candy painted like rows of coconut ice, was how I always imagined the home of Captain Cat and Polly Garter. Driving around west Wales we encounter several Bethesda chapels, sitting grey and judgmental, even as they are converted to flats. While some characters, Mr and Mrs Pugh, for example, could be transplanted anywhere, others, like the Reverend Eli Jenkins, could only exist in Wales.

I read Under Milk Wood in 1994, during my English Literature GCSE. In the outdoor, temporary classroom (that had already been there for twenty years, and is probably still there today) we took turns at playing the parts, reading the play aloud. We were allowed to watch the 1972 film version with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole (and some nudity). Under Milk Wood was different to the other texts we’d read. The words are chosen for their loveliness and playfulness. Little really happens in Under Milk Wood, but what happens happens beautifully.

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 to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea”

It is impossible to read that without the rhythm, the tidal cadence, of a south Wales accent. It is impossible to read that indifferently. Thomas’s sentences are sensual structures, made to be read aloud. Under Milk Wood opened my eyes to the lovely potential of words. A writing circle colleague said that when he read Thomas’s work he despaired, as a writer Thomas has set the bar unattainably high.

Today, 14th May, is Dylan day (or Dydd Dylan if you are north of the Landsker line). It celebrates the anniversary of Under Milk Wood being first performed in New York in 1953. Take an hour and a half out of your day to go to Llareggub, listen to Richard Burton’s recording or better still, if you have the script read it aloud yourself and lose yourself in the rhythm of the words.