Swansea - Wonder city on the bay

Costa Rica

The city on the wide South Wales bay, once compared to the Bay of Naples, is all set for touristic take off, as we look for short breaks closer to home. Gareth Huw Davies fills his must-do list with huge beaches, great museums, Britain’s pioneer beauty spot, a ghostly pub, and the house where Dylan Thomas grew up. Photo - Gareth Huw Davies, 2009.

Dylan’s den

A genuine goose bump moment. I was in Dylan Thomas’s bedroom in 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, where the boy turns down the gas and says some words to the “close and holy darkness” in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Now it is possible to stay in the house and share the magic. Imagine the ghosts of uncles trying out their cigars, and aunties tipsy on the port. The brilliant, wayward poet was born and lived in this house on the steep hill until he left Swansea in his early 20s - around 1934. He wrote half his poems here, including “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” Now a local couple have restored it to how it was in 1914, when Dylan’s parents bought it, brand new. It has furniture and fittings of the time and the original colour scheme, but no radio,TV and telephone. It opened in November 2008 for short stays.

Big Hitter

On September 1, 1968, a cricket ball came fizzing into the street out of the famous old St Helen’s rugby and cricket ground, and sporting superlatives were rewritten. Garfield Sobers became the first player in the game’s history to hit six sixes in an over. They haven’t put up a plaque yet, but it’s high time they did. But you can watch it on Youtube. This is just one stop on the 4 mile walk (or cycle) to Mumbles along the traffic-free promenade around Swansea’s great curving bay. Another is the Guildhall, for the vast Brangwyn panels. When you reach Mumbles, stop for an ice cream in Verdi’s, then tramp over the high grassy hill behind into the beginnings of Gower. Then take the bus back.

Walk through history

The dresses Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller wore in “The Edge of Love” are on show in the Dylan Thomas Centre, next to the magnificent new Sail Bridge in the heart of maritime Swansea. It’s a short step to the excellent National Waterfront Museum, for the story of Wales''s industrial revolution and beyond. I like the display on Swansea Jack, the diving dog which rescued people from the docks in the 1930s. I walked back up Cambrian Place, where Georgian townhouses briefly imitate Bath, and into Wind Street to the esteemed No Sign Wine Bar. Dylan liked this ancient, rambling city pub, and set his ghost story “The Followers.” here.

Hotel ahoy

Morgans is a boutique hotel born out of Swansea’s great nautical past. This handsome Victorian building, red brick banded with Portland stone, was mission control for Swansea’s trade when it sent ships round Cape Horn as far as San Francisco. In 2002 a local businessman gave it this new purpose – an earlier Swansea would have let the building go. Many of the original Art Nouveau details survive, light fittings, pillars, wooden floors, and stained-glass windows in the cupola above the original staircase depicting points of the compass. We stayed in the Benjamin Boyd -- all the ample, high windowed bedrooms take the name of ships that sailed from here. If you don’t stay, lounge in a deep leather sofa in the bar for a coffee, Welsh cakes and the day''s papers.

Peninsula perfect.

Gower, jutting into the Bristol Channel like a fly half’s boot aiming a drop goal at Devon, begins in Swansea’s eastern suburbs. The entire peninsula was named the UK’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1956. The south-facing coast is garlanded with glorious beaches -- Langland, Caswell, Three Cliffs, Oxwich and Port Eynon. Rhosilli is the finest of all, a three mile sweep of sand under a towering bracken-smothered hill. Inland is a spine of high moorland studded with brimming ponds, as creepy and romantic as Dartmoor. And as wild as Africa. The offspring of old pit ponies released here still run free. In the deep leafy heartland you plunge down a mystery maze of lanes, which usually lead to a castle. Such as Oxwich, stout and intact, or Woebley, worn and cryptic.

Eat at ease.

The three times we ate at the excellent restaurant at Fairyhill, one-time Welsh Restaurant of the Year, were wild nights. The rain lashed us across the car park of this small country house hotel in one of Gower’s remote folds, 20 minutes from Swansea. Which only made the cosy repose inside, as Andrew, one of the owners, served Penclawdd cockles in batter with Welsh G&T (Penderyn gin), all the more welcome. You feel safe from the world here. Most of Fairyhill’s ingredients come from within 12 miles, from the hotel’s own gardens, or the peninsula’s rich larder.

Gareth travelled with First Great Western, whioch runs an hourly service from London.

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