Memories of Dylan Thomas and chapel Wales.

Posted by Nick Hennegan on Saturday, May 21, 2016 Under: Writers

Having just celebrated the second Dylan Thomas day, we came across this on Facebook.  Written by Josh Brown, it's self-explanatory.  Nick Hennegan, our writer, really liked it and Josh gave us permission to repost it, so here it is.  Thanks Josh!


Brown's Hotel, Laugharne, Wales.


I have meant to post about my visit to Laugharne in the 70's since joining the [Dylan Thomas Facebook] group. Here it is........


I was born in a snowstorm in 1947, 6 years before Dylan died. My mother was chapel Welsh from a pit village outside Wrecsam in, as she called it, “Welsh Wales” to distinguish it from the “English Wales” of the south. Taid’s family were miners although he escaped shortly after returning from WW1 to be a carpenter. His family had come from Cornwall to Wales in the C19th and did not speak Welsh. My Nain’s family were hill farmers and Welsh speakers, refusing or possibly knowing no English.


My mother, who could reprimand in perfect Welsh, retained her lilting accent until she died aged 93. Schooled at a time when recitation was a commonplace, my treasured memory is how whenever she read out loud her accent would become stronger, the syllables almost sung. I was 14 when I first heard a Dylan recording, a school friend had an elder brother who had a couple of the Caedmon albums. There was an instant familiarity and I knew instinctively what Dylan meant by “the colour of saying”.

The heavy drinking roustabout poet was an ideal for a rebellious teenage would-be especially as Dylan was almost persona non-grata to the literary establishment (absent from my A Level modern poets anthology). Wales wanted none of him, my relatives shocked that my mother ‘allowed’ me to read “that drunkard”.

My first poems tried to emulate the word-wealthy feel of Dylan whilst copying the rambling format of his Greenwich Village namesake.


In 1970, having completed a degree in Economics, my new wife and I moved from London to Manchester holidaying for a week on route in Laugharne, a pilgrimage I had promised myself for months of study.


We booked to stay, inevitably, at Browns Hotel but they closed for redecoration and transferred us to a guest house opposite the Green Dragon on King Street. It was mid September. We took a train to Camarthen and a wonderful old Pioneer company bus to Laugharne. The tickets still the pre-war type that were punched with a hole in a machine on a leather strap around the conductor’s neck – there was still a conductor and driver.

We rumbled through the apple green country and into “the strangest town in Wales” stopping next to Laugharne Pottery. My heart sank at the sight of the ‘Milk Wood Café’ (closed now the summer season was over) but this was the only concession to the town’s famous resident.


There were only two other sets of guests, two literature students from Swansea paying homage before the start of term and Alun Davies and his wife. Davies was Cat Steven’s guitarist and collaborator. He had been busy touring and her parents had taken the children so they could have a weekend break together.


Laugharne was a different place then. Unsure of its association with Dylan, nervous of a future that might depend too heavily on it. Cockle fishing had ceased I think, certainly we saw no evidence of it, but the town was still a rural community, close knit, not unfriendly and based in farming. Despite my initial misgiving, commercialising on DT had yet to start and the only real evidence of him was the occasional afternoon coach of, mainly, American day trippers.


The Boathouse was still owned by Caitlin though she lived abroad. The furniture had been removed for storage and the place was for sale on the strict understanding that a buyer would undertake to turn it into a museum honouring Dylan. A mausoleum perhaps; I have never been totally comfortable with freezing the artist in stale replica of his or her dead existence. There is little of Wordsworth in Dove Cottage and Haworth Parsonage is cold and sad. The singer Dorothy Squires was the latest would be purchaser staying in an expensive hotel in the area whilst attempting to negotiate around Caitlin’s stipulations (which I was told were many and difficult). Whilst we were there, Caitlin was said to have come over from Italy to try to complete the sale. This did not happen and Squires abandoned her attempts to reach a compromise.


In 1970, Wales was still “dry”. Pubs were closed on Sundays and no alcohol could be purchased after Saturday evening. The Green Dragon, however, had an accommodating landlady, Glenys Pearce and an unspoken arrangement with the local police so a ‘lock in’ ran into the early hours of Sunday morning. My wife and I could hear the singing and merriment from our room in the guesthouse.

The lads from Swansea University had found their way into the lock-in and made the acquaintance of a local named Johnny Oriel. Johnny was the type of roguish character Dylan populated Llareggub. I have read that he peeled off pieces of wallpaper from the Boathouse and sold them to tourists. He was a friend of Dylan and Caitlin and it was he she trusted to take care of the Boathouse. It was said he was one of the characters in Under Milk Wood, possibly Captain Cat, probably because he wore a blue serge boatman cap!


Two excited, if hungover, students announced at breakfast that Johnny had offered to let them have the keys to the Boathouse and invited us all to join them. The Davies’ had to return to London but we were in!  Late Monday morning we met Johnny. He was living in a caravan parked in Grist Square. A short rotund man in his blue hat, he was loyal in his way to Caitlin and the only person I encountered not prepared to advance an opinion on the Thomas’s. He handed us a bunch of keys, gave instructions on security and care of the house, told us he had opened the upper windows to air the house and to leave them open and we were off. With hindsight, we cannot have been the only people to get an unofficial visit before the Boathouse became a public venue but, equally, I doubt it was an offer made frequently spurred as it was by ale and the sincerity of two students. No money changed hands, or if it did the lads hid the transaction.


Today, the path to the Boathouse has been cleared giving an open view of the Taff Estuary but in 1970 it was overgrown as it had been when the Thomas’s walked it. Now it has been named the Dylan Walk, nicely cleaned up into a tourist fiction. The “Writing Shed”, the garage for Doctor Cowan’s green Wolesley, was painted in red oxide, jutting out from the trees. The gate to the house was chained and padlocked. We opened and re-secured it as instructed by Johnny. As we were doing so, a party of day visitors arrived. As we wound through the garden I heard an American drawl exclaim “Gee, d’ya think they knew Dylan?”


The Boathouse, of course, was empty. It was warm and surprisingly quiet with a magnificent view of the estuary. A storm blew up quickly, the kind that can blow in and be gone in minutes, yet there was little indication of it inside. We walked the outer balcony and disobeyed Johnny, closing one bedroom window that was letting in the rain. The kitchen had the integral cupboards typical of the 1940’s. I opened one and inside were three dusty empty brown ale bottles, possibly the last Dylan drank before “sailing out to die” or so I like to think. For a second I contemplated taking one but Johnny’s trust and me being a lapsing chapel raised Catholic (it’s a long story) meant the temptation was fleeting. I wonder now if these are on display or disappeared in the re-imaging of the poet. We locked up carefully and wound back to Johnny then to the pub, possibly the Fountain, to talk over the experience.


I talked to many locals who knew Dylan.  With the exception of Johnny Oriel and the manager of our guesthouse, none were entirely positive. To contextualise this, Laugharne was a small rural community, the type that does not take quickly to outsiders and may not have fully accepted the poet and his Irish tempest. The chapel still held enormous influence in Wales and there would have been a pursed lipped disapproval of a man who died in an alien city after boasting of his drinking to woman he was possibly having an affair with. Then there was the recognition that Thomas Tourism was likely to wrench this “timeless, mild, beguiling island of a town” out of the hands of its people. That was certainly a resentment several locals expressed. The town was far from unfriendly, a common accusation made against Wales, but it could sense that it was soon to be changed utterly. It is not possible to say to what degree this discomfort with the poet was justified. No one actually spoke badly of him but none were praising either. One farmer talked of the threat he felt the town faced from growing visitors and ventured to comment that drink takes people many ways and with Dylan it just made him a pain in the backside! From word wonderful poet to bar room bore is a real fall from grace! To counter the easy excuse that this antipathy was simply small town small mindedness it should be remembered that Dylan’s parents were also respected members of the community so any antipathy cannot simply be dismissed as rural prejudice.


However, if the resentment and criticism was muted toward Dylan it was not toward Caitlin! Again, Wales at the time was hardly liberal and moral restriction fell more heavily on women than on men but the opinion, in as many as I encountered, was uniform – she was not liked! That she was, at the time, in a hotel negotiating the sale of the Boathouse with no apparent concern for the consequence to the town served to fan the flames of the dislike!


We visited St Clears, a short bus journey away, and the shop of Carl Eynon the butcher who by the addition of an alliterative ‘B’ is probably the only ‘local’ we can be certain inspired a Milk Wood character. I imagined he was already pestered by visitors so no mention of Mr Thomas was made, a reticence I regret years later.


In 1975, as our marriage starting to implode, we rented a cottage in the countryside some twenty miles from Laugharne, the kind of second home Plaid Cymru militants were burning at the time. I walked through the town with my daughter, a journey made long by the interruption of friendly locals who chatted to her in her pushchair. Laugharne still a little country town but now on the threshold of change that would see it become a gentrified Dylan Disneyland. Within weeks of Dylan's death the News Chronicle had predicted "Now will begin the Dylan cult and Laugharne will become a shrine." and Daniel Jones had warned of an obscene scramble to own his memory precisely by those who refused to acknowledge Dylan in life.


Doctor Cowan’s garage had been repainted. A gothic script notice had been attached about the poet’s inspiration from the view of the Taff estuary. A window had been cut into its frontage so visitors could see the interior, arranged to mimic when Dylan sat there. I could see nothing in these but sacrilege.


The Boathouse had been sold to a school and opened to the public just weeks before; the furniture returned, floodlights installed and the exterior redecorated. Entry was a hefty fee, a lifetime away from a few beers with Johnny Oriel!  The Laugharne of five years earlier was slipping into memory. I was saddened for the town and angered for the Dylan I loved. Let’s write ‘Library’ on the library wall – it could still be seen in 1970!  I could see the future for the town from boutique guesthouses and celebrity to ugly statues, renamed streets and the edging out of the good people Dylan had cursed with immortality limping all too visible onto the shoreline. “The commercial enshrining of Laugharne” David N Thomas called it in ‘Postcards From New Quay’ the real site of Llareggub. No Eli Jenkins to pray for it. I left angrily determined not to return.

 A 'new' statue of Dylan.  Swansea, Wales.

In the 1990’s I was lecturing in Business and Management in a Hampshire college. The Vice Principal was a fellow Welshman and somehow we learned of a shared love of Dylan Thomas. He was married to Danial Jones’ daughter. Dan, mentioned for his love of reading in “A Childs Christmas”, had headed the trust set up to manage the Thomas estate for Caitlin and the children but resigned, distressed by the bickering that plagued the board of trustees. The archive of Dylan’s manuscripts was divided between Daniel, Swansea and the University of Texas which had started to run courses on Dylan’s poetry before he died. When he died in 1993, Jones left his collection to his son in law who slowly catalogued it. At intervals, he would update me on the latest find.

One day I arrived at my desk to find a note asking me to drop into his office. When I did, he pulled a non-descript book from the 1930’s from his desk and handed it to me, answering my puzzled look by saying, “look inside the cover”. Dylan was notorious for borrowing books and, if giving them back at all, returning them having been use as notebooks. Sadly, these were most often random memoranda such as a shopping list ordered by Caitlin but there, on the flyleaf, in Dylan’s recognisable hand was the pencilled first draft of “A Refusal To Mourn”. It featured in the Swansea centenary collection.


Bugger All For A Dull One

Callous winds still push

banal estuary tides,

and though the gathering wives be gone,

foxes still sing on wintered hills

baying at the mumble moon.

There’s myth of you booked high,

a drunkards fame

making a museum of heron town

but on Hudson Street

the crooked bars

keep a modest three finger vigil.

We song lipped sailors

want your words dishevelled,

dressed in ill-fitted tweed

smelling of flat ale and bourbon

and weeping beauty despite

or inked on the skin

beneath dragons

not etched into monument

painted on pisspot mugs,

Milwood muffins, Cwmdonkin cakes.


the tittletattle runs,

does no one hear

amid the fox song

a bitter harmony of wolves?

We are truly a nation of song.


(JB work in progress. Copyright)

In : Writers 

Tags: dylan thomas  wales  holidays  poets  chapel  laugharne 
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About Us

Nick Hennegan Hello. I'm Nick Hennegan and I started the London Literary Pub Crawl. Most of the blogs on here will be by me. I've always written but my first theatrical success was an adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Henry V' ( I founded Maverick Theatre in 1994. ( This pub crawl is really more a promenade theatre performance than a tour and I'm running it with a bunch of enthusiastic local actors and writers. I love sharing my passion for the area and the artists. I also present a radio show on Resonance 104.4fm - London's Arts Station and a podcast on our site. If you haven't visited us in London yet, I hope you'll come soon. And feel free to leave comments or email me at nick @ - I reply to them all and I love to hear from you.


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