A day in… Laugharne

By | Category: Travel destinations
the Boathouse

the Boathouse

A small Welsh town in west Wales might not be on everyone’s radar of a holiday destination but mention the name of Dylan Thomas with it and Americans, Australians, Canadians, French as well as we Brits become interested.

Welcome to Laugharne.

To the Welsh, Thomas borders on being the national poet despite the huge number of runners and riders that could compete for the title. But in this Thomas centenary year, this little town just off the A40 in Carmarthenshire can expect a greater number of visitors than usual.

Even before the days of Thomas though, Laugharne (pronounced Larne) had attracted an artistic crowd. Britain’s foremost painter, J.M.W. Turner, has visited the town as has the twentieth century Bohemian, Augustus John.

the town hall and Castle House ( the pink building) where Hughes lived

the town hall and Castle House ( the pink building) where Hughes lived

But it was the literary link from which the town gained its fame. Not that of Thomas’s though. In 1934 Richard Hughes moved into Castle House and stayed there until after WWII. As the author of A High Wind In Jamaica, he was celebrated and people came to stay with him; people like Robert Graves, Edward Thomas and Dylan Thomas himself.  Hughes, the man who wrote the first radio play and who George Bernard Shaw called the writer of the finest one-act play ever, attracted all sorts of artistic types to the town. Maybe it was from one of these visits that Dylan Thomas decided to re-visit the place. But Hughes is largely forgotten; there is no plaque on Castle House. The town is given over to Thomas.

Thomas lived here from 1949 until his death in 1953 having stayed here a couple of times and gradually becoming attached to the place. His preferred watering hole, Browns, was the telephone number he gave out claiming it as his own. The hotel which predates his death by 200 years proudly announces the Thomas link. The dart board he used hangs on the wall. Photographs and memorabilia are everywhere.  Such was the Thomas appeal that actors like Katharine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole and, of course, Burton & Taylor who appeared in the film of the most famous Thomas work, Under Milk Wood.Laugharne DT dartboard Today the pub/hotel has its own brand of ale but it will serve tea and coffee as well. In winter the locals still prop the bar up. For the rest of the year the visitors come even if only to stare at the walls and guiltily buy a pot of tea thinking they should contribute to this “museum” for what they are seeing. In fact Brown’s is even listed by Cadw – the Welsh heritage carers

Not far from the pub is the Boathouse where he lived and which, today,  is open as a museum but it isn’t here that he wrote. That is a garage with a spectacular view over the estuary. Peek in through the windows and you’ll see his desk facing the window and wonder how anyone facing a view could ever concentrate on writing. Wander along a little further and there is the Boathouse.  Bought for him by an admirer, Thomas seems to have been consistently hard-up and his wife sold many of the family things to pay for their daily needs. Here in the family home where, today, there is a small shop and a café, are letters and photos are other more interesting items. There is one of six death masks and newspaper coverage of his death.  Yet his death wasn’t the main story on the front page of the Carmarthen Journal – the local paper. He had one column; the disappearance of a farmer and his wife had five columns and a picture.  A few days later it records the funeral of the farming couple and Thomas. The couple had 2,000 mourners; the figure for Thomas was not given. In those days, Thomas wasn’t such big news. It is since his death that his reputation has increased.

Although he died in New York, (and weren’t there celebrationsthere on the 50th the anniversary of his death a few years ago) he is buried in the churchyard under a simple white cross. His wife, Caitlin, supposedly brought him home so that the Americans didn’t claim him!  Many do though and a strange fascination exists between Americans and Thomas. Ex-president Jimmy Carter has visited the town a few times and Bill Clinton has been as well as countless thousands more. Today though, fewer seem to come and Australians seem to be more interested.

Laugharne Castle

Laugharne Castle

Leave the Boathouse and follow the path around the bay and you walk alongside the castle, the most striking building in the town. But before you do, gaze over the estuary. On a clear day the views are stunning; in winter hurry away as the winds will sting your face with drizzle.

The thirteenth century castle is still extensive compared to many left in Wales. Open from April until the end of October, it perches high over the bay. Once defensive it became a Tudor mansion and was badly damaged during the civil wars, the English one, not the Welsh one. Was this once owned by an illegitimate son of Henry VIII? The Victorian gardens and another Victorian feature remains – a gazebo. And guess what? Both Thomas and Hughes wrote in there. You can’t get away from a literary influence in this town.

But if you want to, drive on for a few miles and you come to Pendine Sands. This holiday community which today seems to have more holiday homes than locals is next to a Ministry of Defence and NATO area that still warns you away. The influence in the ugly MoD army homes for troops can be seen as you enter Pendine. But on a good day, you can see that the beach stretches for miles and that is what attracts holidaymakers.  They stay for a weekend, a week or even a fortnight knowing that however many people come there is always enough beach.

the sands at Pendine

the sands at Pendine

It was on these seven mile of sands that many early races were run. The Welsh TT races were held here; Malcolm Campbell set a world land speed record here 90 years ago this year and Don Wales – his grandson – set the world speed record for an electric car just 14 years ago.  Today, the Vintage Hot-Rod Association holds its amateur races here.  Barely nine months ago, Guy Martin achieved a speed of nearly 113 mph for a bicycle ridden in a slipstream of a powered vehicle. Who said eccentricity is dead!

It is also here that you’ll find the Museum of Speed which records all those events that have occurred on the adjacent sands. You’ll find Babs, a car which featured in an attempt in 1926 to break the world land speed record and which was buried in the sands for over forty years and many vintage motorcycles.

The combination of Laugharne and Pendine Sands will provide more than enough for a good day out. With anniversaries in each this year, the number of visitors will swell as people come to how these two sleepy places managed to adopt two different types of attraction which both involved living life to the full.

For more of the events celebrating the centenary of Dylan Thomas, click here.

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