Skirting the edge of an MoD firing range, I emerged on the very tip of the Laugharne estuary. Laying my bike down in the long grass, I walked out on to Pendine sands. To my left the sea swept in to meet the river Taf as it flowed past St Clears and Dylan Thomas’ Laugharne. Ahead of me across the waters was the split pyramid of Rhossilli Down and the long, rearing line of Worm’s Head. To my right, the bare flat expanse of sands swept along the coast as far as the eye could see. The monastic bulk of Bardsey Island was an offshore silhouette. Any human figures nearby were nothing but coloured dots on the great expanse of flat, hard sand.
At least I won’t have to change into my swimming costume underneath one of those awkward towel kilts, I thought approvingly. Then, inevitably: If the beach is this deserted, do I really need a swimming costume?
It wasn’t even the most unusual thing I’d done that day.
2014 is Dylan Thomas’ centenary year, and the whole of South Wales has been putting on events to celebrate the life of her most famous poet. I’d spent a fun weekend previously exploring the sites of his Swansea childhood, but the lack of easy public transport to Laugharne had always put me off exploring the famous house of his great late poems. I had a friend in the Dylan Thomas Boathouse, however, who’d offered to show me round, I’d been meaning to get back into doing a few long, exploratory cycle routes, and one Sunday I found myself with nothing to do. So I set my alarm clock for the perverse hour of 5:30am, and made the 7:10 train to Carmarthen.
It was a hilarious train, full of bleary drunken wrecks from Neath and Port Talbot who’d obviously gone into Cardiff to party on Saturday night and never gone to bed. They were extremely noisy, then comatose, then shambling suddenly out when we pulled into their station.
I emerged at Carmarthen, and set off promptly westward, towards St Clears. Typically of the consideration that road planners show to cyclists, there was a bike route running along the north side of the A40 for roughly three-quarters of the way to St Clears, and the Celtic trail on the south side – but did they meet in the middle? No, that would have been too easy. Instead I had the choice of a long and mountainous detour or a mile of unpleasant cycling along the hard shoulder of a dual carriageway. The detour was marginally the worse option, but once I’d made it into St Clears, it was a shorter, quieter southward haul. One more nightmare hill and I was freewheeling from Cross Inn downhill into shoreside Laugharne.
You know how sometimes you go to places you’ve read about, seen on TV and visited many times in your imagination? And when you get there it’s grey and drizzly and full of litter and unhappy people? Laugharne was nothing like that. Clouds scudded across the sun now and again, but the windfall light of the day was exactly that which gleams in Dylan’s poems. Sir John’s Hill, on the headland, was exactly as I’d imagined it; the Boathouse itself was exactly the ‘house on stilts high among beaks and palavers of birds’, ‘by full tilt river and switchback sea’. I went for an afternoon drink in Brown’s Hotel, one of Dylan Thomas’ favourite watering holes, and shared a pint with a group of men who appeared to have escaped from the pages of Under Milk Wood circa 1950, and defied all efforts to corral them in again. And there were surprises, too: Laugharne Castle, which no poem or memoir had warned me of, was a wonderful rambling boys-own ruin to scramble across.
I’m fortunate enough to have studied English Literature at University with Kieran, who works at the Boathouse. He bears such an uncanny resemblance to the Augustus John portrait of Thomas that one is tempted to enquire into the amours of his grandmothers. Thanks to him, I got to look around for free, a free espresso and a batch of welsh cakes wrapped in tinfoil. He subjected me to a Dylan Thomas quiz, which I failed miserably, and advised me to cycle further on to Pendine sands and take my swim there, rather than use the murkier waters of the estuary.
To the end of his life, Dylan Thomas was proud of his running prowess, having won the ‘Swansea Mile’ race when he was 14. It needs more research than I’m prepared to do for this blog to determine whether he was much of a swimmer, as well. One tends to imagine him with his limbs sprawling out of the bath, the typewriter plonked on his stomach and a cigarette lolling out of his mouth, not breasting the choppy Welsh sea with a strong front crawl. But his poems are full of the primal energy of the ‘tusked, ramshackling sea’ ‘that hides his secret selves deep in its black base bones,’ and in his short stories and memoirs you often find him beside Rhossilli, or Swansea Bay, exulting in the wildness of the waves or treasuring a sullen Byronic melancholy. The long horizons of Pendine Sands dwarfed and daunted me, too long and flat for my weak strain of poetry to take much purchase, but I felt sure Dylan would have struck an attitude fit for it.
Naked I plunged into the greyish, leek-and-potato sea, and did a few strokes out and back, secure in the opaque waves as a dog-walking jogger grew from a dot to a pin to a person and shrank back again to a dot. Once I was safe, I emerged and jogged speedily towards my clothes, foolishly left a good way out of the water’s reach, and part-buried in spindrift sand. After I’d shaken the sand from my cycling shorts, pulled on a t-shirt and munched a few welsh cakes, I set off back towards Carmarthen. As I left Laugharne behind me once again, I heard three shrill skyborne cries, and twisted my neck to see a hawk hovering above me. Like everything in Laugharne, it seemed to have leapt straight from Dylan Thomas’ imagination into the modern day.
Over Sir John’s Hill
The hawk on fire hangs still;
In a hoisted cloud, at drop of dusk, he pulls to his claws
And gallows, up the rays of his eyes the small birds of the bay
And the shrill child’s play
Of the sparrows and such who swan sing, dusk, in wrangling hedges.