Well, yes it is a timeless, mild, beguiling island of a town, just as the poet said, and Laugharne may hold you so close to her bosom that you really don’t want to go anywhere else, which makes this a good place to spend a Weekend, a month or a lifetime.
It has long been a haven for writers and celebrities of the kind who prefer to walk through streets unnoticed. Laugharne is happy to leave visitors to get on with whatever it is they have come here to do. It’s a good place to write because no-one ever asks, “Why?”
“See that spider in the window?” asked one Larnie as a group of Americans sat in the Brown’s Hotel bay window. They turned their heads; rain dripped outside. “He’ll still be here when you’ve all gone,” said our Larnie with just a hint of triumph, as he walked back to his pint. And, of course, he’s right. But still they keep coming, especially now that Laugharne is only four miles off the motorway.
For thousands of years, Laugharne was a natural port, accessible mainly by sea, until the river silted up. The first bridge across the tidal River Taf at St Clears was only built some 300 years ago,which is no time at all in Laugharne terms.
Neanderthal man was living here 20,000 years ago, and left his mark at Coygen Cave; 6,000 years ago the Beaker People left a cemetery with 26 graves, and enough Roman remains have been found to suggest Laugharne was a settlement when Carmarthen was an important Roman town.
The Irish, the Vikings, the Saxons, the Normans and the Flemings also established themselves along this coast, and the evidence is there for anyone who cares to look for it.
Whether drawn by the landscape, customs, castle or a township cradled between wooded hills, we all share something beyond antiquity, consciously passing down whatever it is from one generation to the next.
None of us would wish to explain it, even if we could, although we comfort ourselves in the knowledge that Laugharne & its eccentricity, or sense of refuge, was attracting poets, writers & artists long before Dylan Thomas arrived.
The first to write a book here was probably Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), a chaplain to King Charles I. After the king’s execution, he turned to writing HOLY LIVING (1650) and HOLY DYING (1651), which remain widely read to this day.
The anarchic political philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836) also lived here with his wife, the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Their daughter Mary, who wrote FRANKENSTEIN, married Shelley. Turner painted Laugharne Castle during his tours of Wales, and Coleridge came here, too.
The First World War poet Edward Thomas used to stay with his landlady Miss Wilkins in the last house on the left up Victoria Street. His only novel THE HAPPY GO LUCKY MORGANS is partly set in Laugharne and partly in Wandsworth. One of his earliest poems THE GIRL ON THE CLIFF was likely written here.
It was the arrival of Dylan and Caitlin Thomas in 1938, soon after their marriage, that raised the town’s profile, for writers, artists & family friends would join them here, driven down by Augustus John or Roger Roughton, in their fast, large and expensive cars.
With Richard Hughes, author of A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA, living at Castle House, and always a convivial host; novelists Charles Morgan and his wife Hilda Vaughan at Cliff Cottage, and Keidrych Rhys editing WALES just across the ferry at Llanybri, and his wife Lynette Roberts hailed by T.S. Eliot and Robert Graves, the area became a literary enclave.
And this has all added substance to the legend, created by John Malcolm Brinnin’s notorious book DYLAN THOMAS IN AMERICA and the realisation that Dylan’s last work, UNDER MILK WOOD, was based on the town and its people.
These have been the magnets that has drawn an unusual kind of pilgrim. Writers like Margaret Atwood, whose visit inspired the short story AT THE GRAVE OF A POET.
Actors like Richard Burton quietly enjoying our beer; Charles Bronson hunched in a corner; Anthony Hopkins bringing in friends for coffee (not once but several times) or Katherine Hepburn who booked in for a night and stayed for three after being told she could cook her own breakfast if she wanted to.
And none of us are likely to forget the day Jimmy Carter arrived with a minibus-full of secret servicemen.When Carter wanted to do what even Presidents have to do after several pints of beer, his posse was alarmed to see that the Browns urinal had two doors – so an armed secret serviceman guarded each door while the President had a pee.
This is more than just a Dylan thing, although I guess Bob Dylan had his own private reasons for being here just two years ago, hunched up in the Portreeve‘s Carvery, reading a book, and left in peace. Laugharne will survive us all, just as it always has. Don’t come here expecting any answers,there are none to be found.
Just as in Dylan’s day, there are still feuds, scares, jackdaws in chimneys, skeletons in cupboards, pubs, mud, cockles, flatfish, curlews and rain, sun, window & snow, sometimes all in one day.
And, yes, there are some who were born here and saw no good reason to move; others who decided to come back home after spending their working lives in the city and there are those, as Dylan observed, who do not know, and will never know, why they are here at all...“slowly, dopily, wandering up and down the streets like Welsh opium-eaters, half asleep in a heavy bewildered daze.”
The town is a mystery to those who promote Welsh tourism for hardly anyone speaks Welsh, and yet if you wander into The New Three Mariners, Brown’s Hotel, The Cross House or the Rugby Club on the day Wales play England at the Millennium Stadium you would be wise not to wear a white shirt.
It’s not that Laugharne is trying to avoid the Welsh language, any more than it is being discourteous in its approach to visitors; it is something much more simple.Perhaps the secret is that we all know who we are & where we are. The legendary Tommy Watts, landlord of Brown’s Hotel, was once asked by a tourist if he knew the way to Tenby. “Yes, thank you,” said Tommy – and carried on walking.
George Tremlett. 30th January 2013