It is winter, sunless lunchtime in the small town, sunless / and (almost) bible-black, the rainslick streets silent and the hunched, / courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the / sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea …
(With apologies to the poet)
Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’s famous radio play about a fictional Welsh fishing village, might have begun with those lines had it opened on a day like this. Hannah Ellis, granddaughter of the great Welsh poet, and I are in Laugharne, standing below the 11th-century castle that dominates the small town where Thomas and his family settled in the 1930s. As we look over the salt marshes that stretch to the River Taf, veils of rain blow in from the sea, obliterating a view that by all accounts is rather lovely. Within seconds we’re drenched and the walk looks like it might end before it begins – ideally in the recently reopened Browns Hotel, where Thomas downed many a pint.
Ellis lives outside Oxford with her husband and son, but was in Wales to attend the annual University of Wales Dylan Thomas Prize, of which she is a patron. Later that night Maggie Shipstead would pick up its £30,000 award to a published author under 30, for Seating Arrangements, but Ellis had agreed to join me for a walk before the ceremony. It’s fitting that today we plan to explore the green lanes through the “courters’-and-rabbits’ wood” that Thomas wrote about so many times; it is November 9, the anniversary of the poet’s untimely death in New York in 1953.
From the car park we make swift work of the exposed paved walkway that leads us beneath the castle ramparts (and the incongruous gazebo in which Thomas once wrote). We then tiptoe over some slippery rocks, head up a steep set of steps and along the little coast path that runs towards the Boathouse – one of a handful of houses in which Thomas and his wife Caitlin lived along with their three children Llewelyn, Aeronwy (Ellis’s mother) and Colm.
Just before the Boathouse we pass Thomas’s writing hut. It’s little more than a garden shed perched on the edge of the cliff with spectacular views of the river and the sea beyond. It’s here, Ellis tells me, that her mother would run back and forth on the path outside making as much noise as possible in an attempt to distract her father from his work. A short distance on, we take refuge in the Boathouse, now a small museum to Thomas where they serve tea and home-made Welsh cakes. We settle down for tea as if after an epic trek. We’ve walked perhaps half a mile.
Aeronwy’s ashes were scattered in the garden and the river beyond after she died in 2009, and there’s a bench in her honour. “Because my mum’s here and my grandparents are buried here, Laugharne means an awful lot,” says Ellis. “I visit at least six times a year.”
We can’t avoid the walk (or the weather) any longer. The path from the Boathouse becomes a muddy, leaf-strewn track as it runs through a copse of sycamore and beech with glimpsed views across the river. There was once a ferryman who lived next-door to Thomas and would take passengers across to the other side where Thomas could walk out to the headland towards Llansteffan. We tramp on, protected from the rain by the last of the leaves, then pass into fields before joining a deeply cut green lane.
Thomas died young, at just 39, and, as we loop back into Laugharne, we cut into the yew-shaded graveyard of the imposing St Martin’s church. Across a small bridge there’s a further graveyard and we walk over to pay our respects. The grave is marked by a white wooden cross. On the uphill side is Dylan Thomas’s name, on the downhill side Caitlin’s. Despite the tumult of their relationship they’re joined here for good.
You must wish you’d met your grandfather, I say to Ellis. “The question I’d probably ask was: ‘Who was the real Dylan Thomas?’ There can be one event and five different accounts of it. I’d really like to meet him to see which side is true,” she says. “Some say he was incredibly empathetic, others say he wasn’t very nice to women and others say he was very gentle. I think he was probably quite an eccentric, welcoming person – one of those people you’d have liked to be in a room with, who would have brought it alive.”
We’ve returned to the car park, but we don’t stop. Instead, we head in the opposite direction, snaking up through more woodland on what is called the Birthday Walk. It was here, on his 30th birthday, that Thomas composed “Poem in October”, celebrating Laugharne.
The walk he followed on October 27 1944 climbs through the moss and lichen-smothered boughs of sycamore where ferns nestle in the crooks of branches, a testament to the air quality, towards Sir John’s Hill. Through gaps in the trees there are stunning views out across salt marshes to the eight-mile beach at Pendine and the sea.
Ellis grew up with Under Milk Wood and A Child’s Christmas in Wales, but has since discovered her grandfather’s poetry, short stories and broadcasts. Coming to Laugharne cements her understanding of his writing. “As you do the birthday walk, you can see exactly what he saw,” she says. “I’d like to revitalise the work. I think he’s appreciated more abroad in some ways. I think in Wales they’re beginning to embrace him, but before people were connecting him with his behaviour. I think he was probably the first rock’n’roll celebrity. Now people are realising that if you forget about the behaviour and let the work speak for itself, that’s the key.”
She is gearing up for the Dylan Thomas centenary in 2014 when a host of events in Wales and further afield is planned. And it will be the work that takes centre stage. To that end we stop to read “Poem in October”, which begins: “It was my thirtieth year to heaven / Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood / And the mussel pooled and the heron / Priested shore.” We stride up on to the hill and then back into the town. The poem stays with me; it is an acutely observed marvel, full of the joy of the landscape here that, even on a rain-soaked day, feels as true as it must have almost 70 years ago.