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Dylan Thomas - the poet who spoke to the world

On the trail of the great Welsh poet

Luscious landscape and combustible characters come together on the big screen in The Edge of Love (publicity poster, right), with Sienna Miller and Matthew Rhys as Caitlin and Dylan Thomas, and Keira Knightley and Cillian Murphy as their friends, the Killicks.



I'm on one of the most famous heights in British verse, St Johns Hill, above the small town of Laugharne. A soft sea breeze wraps around me, soothing as my favourite scarf.

For months West Wales been alive to the whirring of movie cameras, but for the moment all I can see is poetry. A silky tide steals up the Taf estuary. A heron launches lazily before the creeping waters. Lapwings, as crazy as dervishes, scatter from the burrows.

Cue the picture postcard moment. A searchlight of sun stabs through the clouds and lights up this serene tangle of inlets west of Carmarthen. It deserves all the tourist brochure eulogies. But let’s rewind 60 years to see why it became a location fit for Hollywood.

It's 1937, and a two-person whirlwind sweeps into town. Dylan and Caitlin Thomas are in the first passions of a tempestuous, plate-throwing, jealousy-boiling-over marriage that would last until Dylan’s drink-fuelled death in a New York hospital in 1953. If they lived today, their media would be bigger than the Berckhams.

I imagine them flitting between the short term addresses in Laugharne where they lived, loved and rowed. Last, and best, aside the hill just out of the village, is their “seashaken house on a breakneck of rocks”, the Boat House. Here Dylan wrote the second most quoted poem after Shakespeare’s many lines (220,000 returns on Google) – “Do not go gentle into that good night”. And the verse about the place where I'm sitting: “Upon St Johns Hill.” Some say it was his finest.

Now luscious landscape and combustible characters are coming together on the big screen for the first time. They’ve just finished filming The Edge of Love, with Sienna Miller and Matthew Rhys as Caitlin and Dylan, with Keira Knightley and Cillian Murphy as their friends, the Killicks. It will be released soon [some time in 2008, but no hints yet], with a second movie starring Michael Sheen of The Queen planned, and as an addicted Dylan watcher I can’t wait.

Like him, I was born in Swansea. The platinum-tongued lothario chatted up my mother. My father bought all Dylan’s poem and stories, inspired by the gentle fields, farms and villages of West Wales where he was 'green and carefree, famous among the barns.' For my part, over the years, I have tracked the couple through many of my favourite places, from Worm’s Head on Gower, to San Francisco, from Oxford to Florence, Cornwall to Prague.

It all started with a romantic encounter to match the station café scene in Brief Encounter, where Trevor Howard studied the smoke smut in Ceila Johnson’s eye and felt his heart leap. To find the place I followed Dylan’s trail to London. In Oxford Street. I joined the shopping throng, then turned into quiet Rathbone Place. Just opposite the Post Office was the Wheatsheaf. Exposed wooden frame and age-stained glass hinted at history within.

Was this really the setting for Dylan’s smoke smut moment? The proof was in a framed study of the young, rascally Dylan, on the wall just behind a Spanish girl who sat caressing a glass of Chardonnay. An uncanny reprise of Caitlin when Dylan first spotted her, “seas of golden hair, two blue eyes“ through a smoky fog at possibly this exact spot in 1936.

Did the bibulous scribe, already one of Britain’s best young poets, quit a typically garrulous clinch with some assembled literati, stagger over to his goddess, collapse drunkenly in her lap and propose? Let’s see what the film says.

The notoriously footloose couple provide a big choice of locations. London is bursting with Dylan and Caitlin connections, in bars and restaurants from Camden to Chelsea. But my next call was Newquay in Pembrokeshire, for a plot line dear to Hollywood’s heart, if improbable for the famously pacifist Dylan. The shootout.

This cosy port, narrow houses arranged in a cheerful band of colour under an arc of high hills is proud of its Dylan links, claiming that the originals for many of the characters for his Under Milk Wood lived here. The spat started here, as so often with Dylan, in a pub.

Dylan had been arguing in the Black Horse with William Killick, husband of old flame Vera (the Keira Knightly character). The serving commando stormed off home, collected his army-issue machine gun, marched up to Caitlin and Dylan’s front door (They were inside) and fired a live round. He was later acquitted, and sent back to the front.

Newquay has been peaceful ever since. On my visit I saw dolphins playing in full view off the cliffs around the village. It’s one of the few place in Britain where you can see the creatures from land. Dylan can’t have seen them, because I’m sure he could have found them a place in a poem.


Next to one of the couple’s secret retreats, the Aeron Valley, just north of Newquay. I drove there. But cars feel wrong in this pastoral idyll fit for a Jane Austen novel. Best place to savour the tranquillity is on horseback, just as the pregnant Caitlin was when she told a local woman they would name their daughter Aeronwy.

50 miles south, I looked down on Dylan’s friendly bay city, Swansea, from Mount Pleasant, where he attended school. The heart of the Swansea he knew was razed in the 1941 Blitz. But old haunts survived, including his favourite pubs, such as the No Sign Wine Bar. Inside it was marvellously dim, rambling and original. In the soft slumber of mid afternoon we almost sensed his lingering aura.

Swansea’s seaside setting is its glory. In the distance is the famous St Helens ground where Dylan watched cricket. Beyond, around the curve of the bay, is Mumbles: he often rattled along there on the much-missed Mumbles Railway. And then the brief ecstatic heights of Gower, scene of many a Dylan outing.

Two US presidents have spoken up for Thomas. Bill Clinton praised his works recently, and Jimmy Carter came to Swansea to open the Dylan Centre. And it was in the USA where Dylan found the star billing he never attracted at home. He delivered impeccable readings to enthralled audiences, while Caitlin looked on, often gripped by jealousy.

You can chart Dylan and Caitlin’s squabbling, hard-up transit of the USA, but it is to Manhattan where the films will turn for the last drama, with the distraught Caitlin restrained in a straitjacket at St Vincent's Hospital as Dylan lay dying.

The blare and blast of 5th Avenue is as far as you can go from the simple peace of St John’s Hill, although curiously peregrines nesting among the skyscrapers echo the swooping hawk Dylan put in that poem. I don’t know if he wrote a poem to this mad city ( 'Titanic dream world, everything monstrously rich and strange,' ) but he came to feel at home here.

On our visit we walked up from the foot of Manhattan Island, past Ground Zero and on to Greenwich village to find the White Horse. This was Dylan's favourite New York bar, where he took his last drink, although the 18 record breaking straight whiskies may have been another famous exaggeration.

It doesn't matter any more. We’ve seen lesser talents behaving much worse. The many visitors here recognize that the world lost a flawed genius before his time. Another cultural hero who died prematurely in Manhattan agreed. It was John Lennon who put Dylan on the cover of music’s most famous record cover, “Sgt Pepper'.


* DYLAN and CAITLIN PLACES



Dylan and Caitlin Thomas moved between many addresses in their 17 year marriage. Fortunately for anyone who wants to follow their trail, they chose some fabulously scenic spots, many of them now linked by well-signed footpaths, to put down temporary roots. And they frequented some interesting pubs.



To begin at the beginning, as 'Under milk Wood' puts it, Dylan was born in Swansea at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive and lived there until he was 19. You can walk up to the house, unchanged since he wrote “And Death shall have no Dominion” and set 'A Child’s Christmas in Wales' here. Cwmdonkin Park, which features in his stories, is nearby.



Swansea is rich in Dylan and Caitlin associations. The Dylan Thomas Centre is an eloquent homage in books, letters, photos, and audio-visual displays. I like the love letter to Caitlin on a cheque stub. 01792 463980 . Thomas was a regular at the No Sign Wine Bar in Wind Street, where he set his ghost story The Followers.



The couple stayed on Gower, after his parents moved there, to Bishopston. Dylan loved the peninsula: He wrote “one of the loveliest sea coasts in Britain.”



Caitlin, born in Hammersmith in London, spent time with her father in County Clare, Ireland. The family home at Ennistymon, now the Falls Hotel, includes the Dylan Bar. (00353 65 707 1004 .) She was brought up at Blashford in Hampshire. The couple often visited Bluebell Wood, Cuckoo Hill and other nearby haunts in the New Forest, now a national park.



The couple married in Penzance register office in 1937 and honeymooned at the Lobster Pot, a guest house in nearby Mousehole. They were regulars in Mousehole’s Ship Inn. There is a Dylan's Corner in the bar. Other favourite places include Lamorna Cove, Newquay and Porthcurno. You can visit this entire coastline on the SW Coastal path.



In London a blue plaque at 54 Delancey Street, Camden, indicates that Dylan lived there. They had another address in Manresa Road, Chelsea, just off the Kings Road.



Many of their favourite pubs survive. As well as the Wheatsheaf in Rathbone Place, Dylan and Caitlin were regulars in the French House, The Highlander and Pillars of Hercules in Soho, The George and The Stag’s Head in Portland Place, and the Fitzroy in Fitzrovia. A number display photos and cuttings.



Moving west, the couple lived in Oxford, in the grounds of Magdalen College. Dylan drank in the Randolph Hotel, and they were often seen shopping in the Cornmarket. Next stop was the Manor House, South Leigh, near Witney, for one of their most settled periods. They also stayed in The Malting House, High Street, Marshfield in Gloucestershire.



In Newquay, Pembrokeshire, the Dylan Thomas Trail links the sites featuring in the forthcoming movies, including Majoda, their one time home riddled by machine-gun fire. Other stops include their local, the Black Lion (The Dylan Restaurant has a large collection of memorabilia) and the Dolau Inn, a favourite of Caitlin’s. Their beloved Aeron valley is a few miles north.



In Laugharne, near Carmarthen, they lived at Eros on Gosport Street, before moving to Sea View, just behind the 13th Century castle. Their favourite home, the Boat House is restored and open year round.



The Dylan Thomas Trail connects all sites, including Brown' s Hotel, and St John Hill. The couple are buried in St Martin’s Churchyard. Caitling outlived her husband by 41 years.



In New York the White Horse Tavern (567 Hudson St. - W. 11th St, 001 212 989 3956) was Dylan's ' local ', where he took his last drink. Now a poignant shrine, but still a bar. His room of choice was at the nearby Hotel Chelsea (222 W. 23rd St)



To remember Dylan as more than the embarrassing, though always charming and much loved, drunk he became, head north to Cambridge, Massachusetts for the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University.



He gave the first performance of Under Milk Wood here, completing it less than an hour before curtain up. It won him 14 curtain calls, securing his place in literary history. Six months later he was dead in St Vincent's Hospital, New York City.



The Word Travels, 0870 262 6012 organise trips on the trail of Dylan and Caitlin.

www.dylanthomas.com
www.newquay-westwales.co.uk
www.dylanthomasboathouse.com
www.carmarthenshire.gov.uk
www.hotelchelsea.com
www.thewordtravels.com

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