Dylan Thomas and New Quay – the little Welsh town that inspired Under Milk Wood
by Jeremy Miles
I am standing outside one of Dylan Thomas’s favourite pubs in a “cliff-perched toppling town” on the west coast of Wales. It is true that many a hostelry claims the notoriously thirsty Welsh poet as a regular. But this is New Quay, the picturesque fishing village on Cardigan Bay that Dylan often visited as a child. He and his wife Caitlin also made it their home and writing-base for a year during the Second World War.
The pub is the Black Lion where the infamous hell-raiser once got embroiled in a spat with a jealous husband who later attacked his £1-a-week “shack at the end of the cliff” with a machine-gun and hand-grenade.
The grenade failed to detonate but multiple shots we’re fired. Happily the cowering poet emerged unscathed. New Quay however didn’t. Dylan Thomas has left his mark on this peaceful fishing community. His hell-raising rows and constant need for money and drink have left countless tales of belligerent behaviour and unpaid debts in their wake and they t are still being told today, nearly 65 years after his untimely death following a drinking binge in New York.
More importantly New Quay is where he wrote the first draft of Under Milk Wood, his famous ‘play for voices’, and it was almost certainly the original inspiration for its fictional seaside hamlet of Llareggub (read it backwards and all will be revealed). Even today the little town with its colourful houses tumbling down the hill to the harbour fits to perfection the description of its fictional counterpart. Under Milk Wood’s colourful characters too were taken straight from the streets of 1940s New Quay. Dylan’s friend Norman Evans has long been thought to have provided the original inspiration for Nogood Boyo, while local seafarer Captain Tom Polly has been claimed as the real Captain Cat. Interesting too that the Congregational minister in New Quay during Dylan’s time there was one Orchwy Bowen who, just like Under Milk Wood’s Eli Jenkins, was both a priest and a poet.
Dylan expert David N. Thomas has described Dylan’s first six months In New Quay as being as creative as his four years at the Boat House in Laugharne, perhaps even more so. “Dylan was happy in New Quay,” he says, adding that Caitlin described the tight-knit little community as exactly her husband’s kind of place. It also offered the bonus that some of his childhood friends were still living in the town.
In wartime one can imagine Dylan staggering home from the pub in the blackout and on a dark, cloud-covered night formulating in his mind the words: “It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’- and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.’’
This hypnotic and most Dylan Thomas of Dylan Thomas descriptions opens Under Milk Wood. The passage would go on to become inextricably linked with Richard Burton who voiced the words in the famed 1954 BBC recording.
In a satisfyingly connected way I am now standing outside The Dolau Inn in New Quay’s Church Street where both Dylan Thomas and Richard Burton drank, though mercifully not at the same time. The Dolau was another regular port of call for Dylan on his seemingly ceaseless quest for beer and whisky. It was also place to soak up the atmosphere and eavesdrop on local characters, absorbing the rhythms of their chatter. Another Dolau regular was Alistair Graham, a nephew of the Duchess of Montrose. Upper-crust Graham was said to be Dylan’s inspiration for Under Milk Wood’s Lord Cut-Glass.
Ellesmere is a comfortable, remarkably well-equipped, three bedroom terraced cottage with sea-views from the garden and easy access to the delights of New Quay. Whether walking the rugged coast path, taking a boat trip to see bottlenose dolphins leap and play in the bay or just quietly enjoying the beach and watching life go by, Ellesmere is a great place to stay. There are a surprising number of good bars and restaurants nearby and there’s even a decent Indian brasserie just a few doors away.
Beyond New Quay itself we enjoyed a fascinating day-trip to Llanerchaeron, the former family home of wealthy landowners. Now operated by the National Trust, it offers the chance to explore the upstairs-downstairs lives that were a reality in this stunning early John Nash villa until 1989 when the final master of the house, Ponsonby Lewes, died. Outside are walled gardens, a working farm and riverside and meadow walks. There’s also a quirky museum of ancient agricultural machinery.
A trip to Cardigan – 20 miles away – found us discovering another intriguing architectural gem – Castle Green House, a Regency house that was built into the walls of Cardigan Castle in the early 19th century.
For many years it was home to the 900 year old castle’s last private owner. Miss Barbara Wood, a determined and eccentric woman who, despite the fact the castle and house were crumbling into ruination around her, refused all approaches by the local authority to take over the historic site.
She famously once told Cardigan Borough Council that they could “go fry themselves.” The local newspaper loved that one. Eventually Miss Wood’s home was declared unfit for human habitation. Forced out, she was appalled at the offer of a nearby bungalow but agreed to relocate with her many cats to a caravan in the grounds.
In 1996, suffering from failing health, she was admitted to a nursing home and eventually, in 2003, she agreed to sell the derelict castle to Ceredigion County Council for £500,000. She died in 2009 at the age of 91.
Happily a £4.8 million Heritage Lottery bid set the wheels in motion for a massive restoration programme which has now renovated both castle and house. Well worth a visit.
Staying In New Quay is ideal for recharging the batteries with the coast path nearby and the spectacular beaches of Llangrannog, Tresaith, Penbryn, Aberporth and Mwnt all within half an hour.
Ironically New Quay’s greatest strength is also probably its biggest problem. It is a very remote and for anyone in Southern England involves an extremely long drive to get there. It offers great rewards for those who make the journey though. Hanging out on the Ceredigion coast is a wonderfully energising experience, pretty much as close as you can get to time-travel.
For while this region is definitely in tune with the 21st century and offers all mod cons there is also much about New Quay and its surrounding area that I would guess hasn’t changed significantly in the past 50 years.
Like many distant places clinging to the edge of the British Isles, it attracts, artists, eccentrics and those who wish to seek a simple, maybe alternative lifestyle. There are many native Welsh speakers and long held local traditions endure. It is also home to some spectacular ageing hippies who, sometime over the past half-century, have made their way west to escape the rat-race. They’ve chosen well.
Back at Ellesmere I set out once again on the Dylan Thomas Trail. With the excellent self-guiding booklet you can find a dozen locations that he frequented. They are helpfully marked with blue ceramic plaques bearing a picture of the tubby, tousle-haired poet.
There is plenty of revealing information for Dylan fans. You can find for instance the old Post Office where he regularly mailed his manuscripts back to London and where Jack Lloyd, a local postal worker, probably provided the original blueprint for Willy Nilly, the postman in Under Milk Wood. Today the former Post Office building is The Hungry Trout restaurant.
Then there’s the former police station – a dead-ringer for Llareggub’s Handcuff House – and up on Llanina Point, overlooking the town, you can find Majeda, the little house where Dylan and Caitlin lived in 1944-45. Majeda of course was also the scene of the infamous shooting. The incident was the focus of the 2008 film The Edge of Love starring Matthew Rhys as Dylan, Sienna Miller as Caitlin, Keira Knightly as extra-marital love interest Vera Phillips and Cillian Murphy as her enraged husband.
The general consensus is that director John Maybury used much artistic licence in the reimagining of the supposed ménage à trois that brought such sudden violence to the Dylan household.
He did however recreate the little wood and asbestos shack with painstaking accuracy, building it in a field adjacent to the original which is now a luxury bungalow.
Also up on the Point you will find the Plas Llanina manor house which Dylan originally visited with his friend the artist Augustus John back in the1930s. Later, when Lord Howard de Walden who was himself a writer, playwright and patron of the arts, leased the manor he allowed Dylan to write in an old watch-house in the grounds overlooking the bay.
That New Quay was important to Dylan is without question. He wrote far more than the first draft of Under Milk Wood while living there. It was where he penned many poems and the radio piece Quite early One Morning which was first broadcast by the BBC in August 1945. That programme started a there years association wth the corporation during which he made more than 100 broadcasts and sealed his literary reputation.
Dylan Thomas died following a drinking binge while on a poetry reading tour in New York on 9th November 1953. He was just 39-years-old. There has been much speculation about his death. Was it the booze? Was it the pneumonia discovered at autopsy? Or was it simply bad medical practise?
I think the latter is the real culprit here. Despite Dylan’s boastful claim on the eve of his death that he had just drunk “18 straight whiskies” it seems unlikely that, even if true, this would be enough to fell such a hardened drinker.
On the other hand he was in a poor state of health, weakened by drink and self-neglect and was suffering from both gastritis and gout. Almost inexplicably the doctor who was called to his hotel administered half a grain of morphine sulphate, a dangerously high dose for a man in Dylan’s condition. The poet gradually slipped into a deep sleep and lost consciousness. He was taken to hospital in a coma and died several hours later
The tragedy is that he still had so much to give us as a writer. At the time of his death he was about to begin work on an exciting new commission, writing a libretto for an opera with Igor Stravinsky. It was never to be,
Who knows what else he could have achieved had he lived? At least a visit to New Quay allows us to trace Dylan Thomas’s footsteps and glimpse some of the ghosts from his past.
*You can book Ellesmere through West Wales Holiday Cottages. Just a five minute walk from the sea, this is a much loved family home owned by the same family for more than 50 years. It has recently been refurbished to a high standard and has become a popular holiday let. For more information go to www.westwalesholidaycottages.co.uk/ellesmere or call 01239 810033.