It is said that Dylan Thomas spent so long drinking at the bar of Browns Hotel in Laugharne, south Wales, that he gave out its phone number as his own. He would sit in the corner “mouldering”, as he called it, writing at a wrought-iron table, and listening to others’ conversations – the raw material for his play Under Milk Wood.
The hotel stopped taking guests in 1959, six years after Thomas’s death, and the bar finally closed in 2006. But last month Browns reopened its doors as a boutique hotel after a £2m renovation, funded in part by a grant from the Welsh Assembly. Wales’s most famous literary watering hole is finally back in business.
“Browns was one of the reasons I first moved to Laugharne in the 1970s,” says George Tremlett, whose antiquarian bookshop, Corran Books, is across the road from the Grade II-listed hotel. “It was unlike any other pub I’d ever been to. Licensing laws didn’t exist here and I loved the sense of anarchy. But I also loved the fact that so many people still drinking at the bar remembered Dylan.”
The new-look Browns is a far cry from the rough-and-ready boozer of Thomas’s day. When I check in a few days after the low-key opening, there is little sign of anarchy. Instead, local real ales and plates of Welsh charcuterie are being served in the bar, while a group of regulars are tucking into a few pints at the perennially popular window seat – which was Thomas’s favourite.
The goal of the renovation seems to have been less about building a Dylan Disneyland than recreating the ambience of Laugharne in the late 1940s. In the reading room there are piles of books by Thomas and his biographers, as well as lots of vintage cameras and museum-piece record players, but outside, nods to the poet are scarce. A stark, black-and-white image of the writer in the bar, back to the camera, hangs alongside an exhibition of images of Laugharne life on the staircase.
Upstairs, just seven of the 14 rooms are ready, with the remainder, and a one-bedroom apartment, to be finished in September. My attic room is large and quirky, with a king-size bed and a cosy window seat. A large photo of two women in 1940s costume, part of a staged photo shoot and adapted to form a mural, dominates one wall.
“They have reshaped the bar but the character of the place feels intact,” says Tremlett, who wrote a biography of Thomas’s wife, Caitlin Macnamara.
The renaissance of Browns is timely. Wales will mark the centenary of Thomas’s birth in 2014 with a major cultural programme, co-ordinated by his granddaughter, Hannah Ellis. The Laugharne Festival, an annual arts gathering, will be expanded to run as four separate events throughout the year.
But while Browns is synonymous with tales of Thomas’s epic drinking sessions, a walk around Laugharne the next morning reveals the more gentle, nature-loving aspect of his character. The landscape inspired much of his best-known work – from the “heron-priested shore” looking towards the Gower Peninsula to the “sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishing boat-bobbing sea” of the estuary.
Thomas moved to the town in May 1949. He liked its eccentricities and called it a “legendary, lazy, little black-magical bedlam by the sea”. Laugharne provided the backdrop to his golden period, and critical acclaim finally followed with Under Milk Wood, first performed in May 1953. Six months later, he was dead.
I set out in Thomas’s footsteps, following a circular loop past the writing shed where he wrote Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and other of his later works, and on to the Boat House, his former home, which now operates as a museum. Part of the new Wales Coast Path, the trail heads briefly inland across farmland to St Martin’s Church, where both Thomas and his wife are buried in the graveyard, with eternal views across the rolling hills of Carmarthenshire. The couple shared a fiery relationship – much of it fuelled by late-night drinking sessions at Browns.
Back at Laugharne’s main square, the Grist, I join Bob Stevens, a local farmer, to tackle a second short hike: the Dylan Thomas birthday walk. Thomas’s Poem in October recounts a walk up Sir John’s hill undertaken on the day he turned 30. Stevens has installed a series of benches at key points along the two-mile trail, and inscribed each with lines from the poem that reflect the views. If you complete the walk on your own birthday, and present your driving licence at various local pubs and cafés, you can claim a free birthday pint and meal.
“A lot of Dylan’s poetry is mumbo jumbo to me but this particular poem spoke to me with its sense of simplicity,” says Stevens as we stand on the top of the hill, looking out across the salt marsh to the ruins of Laugharne Castle, which was described by Thomas as “brown as owls”.
Back at Browns, the drinkers – a mixture of locals and curious holidaymakers – will be settling in for the afternoon session, in many ways just like old times. However, for Stevens and I, it is the image of Thomas as the romantic wordsmith, rather than the hellraiser, that we cherish. He takes out a copy of Thomas’s collected works and reads aloud the closing lines of Poem in October, the words cast adrift on the breeze.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there
then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay
leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.