(The Boat House, Laugharne)
I thought to explain how, at the age of twenty, I found myself in a small village in South Wales with the man who was not yet my husband, and how we came to be driving – or attempting to drive – up a 1 in 4 hill, clearly marked as Unsuitable For Motor Vehicles, in a black Ford Popular at three in the morning or thereabouts, with a an elderly drunken Welshman crawling ahead of us. I’m not sure I’m equal to the challenge.
It all began in the school library, some years before when I finally unearthed the full text of the poem I had been searching for for months, having heard a small part of it read. It was Poem In October by Dylan Thomas and hearing it marked my ‘road to Damascus moment’ as a poet. It began:
- It was my thirtieth year to heaven
- Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
- And the mussel pooled and the heron
- Priested shore
- The morning beckon
- With water praying and call of seagull and rook
- And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
- Myself to set foot
- That second
- In the still sleeping town and set forth….
This matched my inner music. This was, if you like, a prayer in itself.
I had heard and read poems before, of course. Indeed, we had poems rammed down our throats at school, mostly of the tum-te-tum-te-tum I wandered lonely as a cloud and Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk variety. But this was different. It made me shiver. This was what I’d been needing, and I knew it.
Fast forward a few years and I am engaged (sans engagement ring, but that’s another story) to an artist, and he is proposing to drive me to Wales in his car, to Laugharne where the famous Boat House still is, where Dylan Thomas wrote his poems. We were going to camp, it seemed, in an old green Army tent of his father’s. I had never been camping before and didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. How did we do that, I wonder now. How were we brave enough to throw stuff into a temperamental Ford Popular, a combination and rebuilding of two separate scrap Ford Populars, and set off for Wales where neither of us had ever been before? How did he even know the way to Wales? I didn’t. I just knew it was turn left and then a very long way. I never once saw him looking at a map. He must have done it in secret – to preserve the masculine mystique.
I remember he set up the tent on my parents’ lawn, and me thinking, um, won’t a tent on the lawn bring it home to my parents (who were watching from behind the conservatory window) that we will, perforce, be sleeping together in this teensy-tiny tent when we are not, um, actually, um, married? But by then the tent was up and with it, presumably, the game.
We and the Ford Popular spent the first night just across the Severn Bridge, in a big, bumpy field with some cows. It was dark before we stopped so my fiancé (that ring never was forthcoming) had to erect the little green tent with the aid of a torch. We couldn’t see if there were cowpats, but by that time we were too tired and cross to care. It rained. The Army tent was waterproof only so long as you didn’t touch any part of it, whereupon water started pouring in from the touched bit. Water also seeped in underneath the tent, possibly cowpat-polluted, because we didn’t have a proper groundsheet just some bit of tarpaulin his Dad had found in one or other of his seven garden sheds.
The next day we went on to Laugharne and fiancé (though ringless) found a place for us to stay. It had a wonderful name: The Ant Hill Camp And Caravan Site. Wouldn’t you think, if you were opening a caravan site in a big field at the top of a hill that happened to be called Ant Hill, you’d apply a little poetic licence? Call it Hilltop Cara-Haven or The Bella Vista Camping Experience? Especially in the spiritual home of Dylan Thomas. I should stress that I haven’t been back to Laugharne, or Wales, for decades and if The Ant Hill Camp And Caravan Site does still exist and has not long since been obliterated by social housing or turned into a supermarket, I am sure it has greatly improved and is a lovely place to stay.
So, we stayed at this campsite. We stumbled across to the opposite side of the site for the loos and some cold showers. I had lived in a suburban bungalow all my life and weaving between dark tents, in the dark, in a potholey field with a torch, in the middle of some sort of countryside, was worrying. In the evenings we went to the Clubhouse, where few other people went. We sat around and drank Welsh beer in a large, underheated room with a bar at one end and a bored, disconsolate barman. I seem to remember acres of cocoanut matting, but perhaps that was just the colour of the carpet. Oh yes, and plastic palm trees. Could there have been plastic palm trees? In the day we went down to the village and bought Welsh steak and kidney pies (I have since become a vegetarian ) called Goblin. We found they boiled up nicely over a primus stove although the primus stove filled the tent with condensation. As we went into the shop, housewives stopped talking in English and switched to Welsh. We visited the Boat House and looked out over the estuary. It was rather a wonderful view but I couldn’t quite imagine Dylan Thomas – my Dylan Thomas – writing his poems in there. It had a faint smell of fish and chips.
In the local pub we made friends with a group of hippies, who had come from the South of England, near where we had come from. I think they offered us pot, which we didn’t smoke. We also got talking with Edgar and Rhiannon (names of course changed) a young married couple who lived in a council house at the very top of the village. They told us how you got a council house: you persuaded your mother to throw you out. They told us that villagers kept a stock of old dartboards, each of which they would sell to gullible tourists as ‘the very same dartboard Dylan Thomas played on’. Everybody had a useful Dylan Thomas anecdote to share. Either they had known the poet, or their granny’s uncle had known him, or their sister’s teacher’s dog had known him, and this was what had happened… What happened, usually, was that people bought them beers.
There were complicated arrangements around closing time. In the pub, on a weekday, closing time was strictly enforced. When the village policeman was due to walk past they turned off all the lights and stood still and silent. As soon as he had gone they turned on the lights again and resumed drinking, possibly as ‘private guests’. That didn’t work at the weekend, for some reason. At the weekend you left the pub and went up the road to the rugby club. There you could drink, legally, for longer.
To cut a long story short, Edgar and Rhiannon offered to put us up in their council house that night, but we would go to the rugby club first. There we met Hughie, the old gentleman I mentioned at the start. Much beer and whiskey was consumed by everyone apart from me: I was then in my teetotal, orange juice phase. Afterwards we had to get to Edgar and Rhiannon’s, and that was where the 1 in 4 hill came in. My (non-ring-giving) fiancé followed Edgar and Rhiannon, who had walked to the pub and were therefore on foot, and poor, crawling old Hughie, grotesquely hump-backed in the headlights, up the Unsuitable Hill. I remember clutching first the leather upholstery and then the big silver door handle, in apprehension as the little car groaned and staggered upwards and round sharp twists and turns for what seemed like miles. It occurred to me that if she stopped we would start rolling back. I was planning to wrench the door open and throw myself out, if it came to it. Fiancé didn’t seem at all anxious, but then he was full of beer and Welsh whiskey. It is at such times that you really need to be drunk.
Next morning Edgar and Rhiannon were going to a funeral. I remember Rhiannon frying us sausages for breakfast, which were more or less raw. Off they went in their funeral best, trusting us to let ourselves out and shut the door behind us. We were never to see them again.