Dylan Thomas and Swansea (An armchair trail)

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Dylan Thomas is always difficult for Swansea people. Dylan enthusiasts usually come from elsewhere, in fact anywhere except Swansea. The fact that two American presidents are Dylan enthusiasts is a remarkable endorsement of a local poet who seemed to enjoy limited success and had a very sad life. Regardless of what people think, and opinions are always mixed, Dylan Thomas has helped put Swansea on the map for generations of people around the world who have come to love his poetry and writing.

Like Dylan, I was born in Swansea, went to school on Mount Pleasant, played football and cowboys and indians in Cwmdonkin Park, and have even drank the horrible water from the fountain that he floated his boats in (although I don't see how he could have got it to fill with water! We never could.). The funny thing is that although I went to Terrace Road, Townhill and Dynevor Schools which are all close to Dylan's home in Uplands, Dylan was rarely if ever taught or mentioned by the teachers. So, most people of my generation who grew up on the Hill know nothing about him. My information on Dylan was given to me by the local people who knew him or had come across him, and most of that is not flattering mainly because of his drinking. In fact, a standard Swansea joke is the incredible amount of money we'd have to spend if we put a 'Dylan drank here' sign on the surviving Swansea pubs.

Dylan's statue in the Marina.'Quite early one morning', June 21 2003 ;)

The county council have shouldered the difficult task of increasing the number of annual tourist visits to Swansea to a figure approaching 3,896,250 by 2005. This is in keeping with the city's status as a Strategic Tourism Growth Area. Dylan has been identified as a prime asset in this growth target and there is no doubt that the poor guy will be worked far harder now he's dead than he ever did when he was alive! This also all fits in beautifully with the aim to get Swansea into the top 50 best UK shopping centres (as measured by the Experian Vitality Index). This has to be one of the toughest challenges outside of the Welsh Rugby Union. Ambition is critical!

Nevertheless, genuine interest in Dylan Thomas continues to grow and central to this interest is the early twentieth century Swansea that Dylan knew in his youth. Certainly some of Dylan's writings have helped, and many scholars have noted that much of Dylan's later writings and feelings were fostered by his experiences of living and working in interwar Swansea. Dylan's Swansea was certainly an interesting place for an impressionable writer. It was a town coming to the end of its industrial glory and entering a period of uncertainty and decline ending in the dreadful punctuation of World War Two and the Blitz.

Once his schooldays were past, Dylan spent much of his time getting to know the pubs and drinking dens of Wind Street and the Strand. This was the area that reflected the true spirit and flavour of the port of Swansea honed over four centuries of trade, multiple cultures and languages, drink, drugs, violence, and prosperity. Wind Street was traditionally the place where townspeople came to gather news and gossip, where newcomers used to arrive, look for hotels, or the more basic accommodation of the Strand. It was an area that would have fascinated anybody and I can understand Dylan's passion for meeting his friends in these dark smoky winding bars, rooms, and passageways that offered so much in friendship, fun, stories, and conversation.

Dylan would have been intimately familiar with the passageway down to the Cornish Mount, the one where local sailors had fought a bitter battle with a vicious press gang in an earlier time, or the path through the Adelphi past the toilets and down to the Strand which had been a shortcut since medieval times, or the strange walk to the toilet at the end of the garden in the Borough Arms. In fact, Salubrious Passage was such a popular place for drunken men to relieve themselves that the council built Swansea's first public toilet there which, in an act of hilarious coincidence, later became Dylan's Bookstore.

Left: The alley down to the Cornish Mount. Used by generations of Swansea seafarers...and drinkers.

It is now very hard to imagine what the town was like in the twenties and thirties, nowadays it is far cleaner, much more open and plagued by almost constant traffic jams. I can remember being present in the Strand in the 1980s when some roadworks exposed the sandstone and granite blocks that formed the road surface in Dylan's time. The pile of spoil from the excavation was a harsh and dirty mix of coal dust and brown glass from beer bottles which gave some indication of the local environment in the early 1900s. Dylan grew up in a Swansea that was much darker and closed in than we see today. The railway viaducts and bridges dominated the landscape and kept large parts of the Strand in permanent shade. The streetlights would rarely have been strong enough to cut through the murk of the smoke, dust, and dirt that frequently covered the area, and the gutters would have twinkled with the fragments of brown glass from the countless beer bottles that were ground into the road by the iron rims of the wagons and carts that still plied the streets.

Here's an armchair look at some of the best surviving buildings and places that Dylan Thomas would have known...

1. Swansea's Old Guildhall; 2. Gloucester Place and the Queen's; 3. Royal Institution of South Wales (Swansea Museum); 4. Wind Street; 5. Salubrious Passage; 6. The lane down to the Cornish Mount; 7. Castle Square; 8. The Mountain Dew; 9. Swansea Central Police Station; 10. The Bush; 11. The No.10 pub

 

Right: Dylan's Kardomah cafe was in Castle Street and was destroyed in the 1941 Blitz. This was where Dylan spent many hours with Vernon Watkins, John Pritchard, Charlie Fisher, Daniel Jones and Alfred Janes.

 

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