Bar/fly: Wales

By Kevin Pilley

A century after the Welsh poet's birth, Kevin Pilley wonders what Dylan Thomas would make of his old boozer.

The regulars at Dylan Thomas' old local tried to raffle my wife. I was slightly offended that she was only the second prize. The first was the bar's communal dog bowl.

The famous Welsh poet and broadcaster used to frequent Browns Hotel in Laugharne in Carmarthenshire in southwest Wales. At the time of his death in 1953, he had managed to clock up a bar tab of 550.

He would - reportedly - "moulder" in the corner scribbling away on the back of "Woodbine" packets and cadging anything he could. But especially money, "Felinfoel" and "Buckley" beer with more than the occasional chaser.

Thomas and his family lived in Laugharne for the last four years of life. He died in New York. "Alcohol had come a close friend." As it is for most of the locals in the small town on the "mussel-pooled and heron-priested shore" of the Taf Estuary , an hour along the coast from Swansea in southwest Wales.

With New Quay in west Wales, Laugharne was the inspiration for Under Milk Wood - his classic "Play for Voices" made famous by Richard Burton's readings. Thomas was a great "reader alouder" of poetry, wanting through his "craft and sullen art" to "leave the impression of feeling and let the meaning seep in later".

Much of the conversation in Browns is like that, too. Meaning seems only secondary. The banter is unrelenting and there is always a crowd smoking and joshing outside along Georgian King St, at the top of which Thomas is buried in St Martin's Church.

Thomas, as a man of words who "knew how they behaved" and had "learned to beat them now and then", would have recognised the noise of Browns but not its looks. It has recently been refurbished and reopened as a boutique guesthouse.

Its 14 rooms now offer Wi-Fi, digital radio with iPod docking stations, complimentary hairdryers, an LCD HD TV as well as "organic natural mattresses and crisp white linen adorning lovingly made beds". It has also become a "designated non-smoking zone".

A sign bearing a portrait of Thomas hangs outside. When the wind blows he shakes his head and seems a little confused by the New Modernist makeover and saddened that his listed boozer, originally built in 1752 as a private house, has gone upmarket and become "a business rendezvous" offering a complete conferencing experience. Each room apparently "oozes style and joie de vivre in a mix of cosy colour palettes". And organic Welsh clay paint.

What he would have thought of the thick wool "Cymru" cushions and arty throws, fluffy bathroom robes , the wall art photographs, "authentic cupboards", the marble-tiled showers, ergonomically challenging baths and en suite biodegradable peppermint tummy tonic, chamomile flower and mao feng green tea temples is open to wonder. But he may have been pleased with the "era-defining" room names.

His wake was held in "Browns" and he gave the pub's telephone number as his own.

The suites are now called "Llareggub" (bugger all, backwards), the mythical fishing village of Under Milk Wood, "Corran" (the name of the local river), "Fernhill" (one of his most famous poems), "The Strand" (a tribute to the township's cockling industry) and "The Barks", the name of the walk along the Welsh coastal path to the shed where he allegedly worked while living in "The Boathouse" with his wife, Caitlin, and their three children.

Dylan Thomas may well have been amused that you can now arrive and check in at his beloved Browns and say, "I have a room for the night. Which I know means 'bugger all'."

Browns is now run by Andy Farrell and his friendly and forbearing staff. The locals always have a good time and make sure visitors do too. As long as you give as good as you get. And don't mind family members being auctioned.

All toast Dylan. For what he did, has done and is doing still for the area. It is the centenary of his birth in October and there are events all around the world.

Every day is an event in Browns. Maybe the literary quotes are not that accurate. And few people make sense for very long.

But Laugharne and its most well-known hostelry essentially remains the same as he described it.

"Beautiful. Barmy." And certainly one of the friendliest.

Checklist

GETTING THERE: Air New Zealand flies daily to London. Rail services connect to Welsh regions.
DETAILS: 2014 marks the centenary of Dylan Thomas' birth. See dylanthomas100.org for planned events.
ONLINE: www.dylanthomas.com

- NZ Herald

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