It would be easy to walk down the seemingly unremarkable Cwmdonkin Drive in the Uplands area of Swansea without realising that you’d walked past a house of international importance. Only an understated blue plaque on the front of the house, and an easily overlooked brown tourism sign opposite, give any indication of the pedigree of the tidy Edwardian villa property at number 5.
It was here at number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive that poet Dylan Thomas was born on October 27th 1914, and where he lived for the next 20 years. This was the family home where Thomas wrote at least half of his published poetry, filling a series of notebooks with the poems that would form a large part of his published collections. Life at number 5 inspired his classic take on the festive season, “A Child’s Christmas In Wales”, and nearby Cwmdonkin Park is the setting for his poem “The Hunchback In The Park”.
Number 5 was the centre of Dylan’s universe during his most fertile period as a poet, and it was his time here that he looked back on for his later nostalgic stories and radio broadcasts, making this a literary house of significance.
The house has been painstakingly restored in recent years by custodians Annie and Geoff Haden, who with loving care and attention to period detail have recreated a warm and comfortable Edwardian home, as it might have been in Dylan’s day. The house is open for guided tours and can be hired for longer stays.
So with all this in mind, I was thrilled to discover on Christmas day, the present of a weekend stay at the Dylan Thomas birthplace, and in February 2013, a long-held ambition was achieved, when, along with my wife I arrived to stay at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive.
On arrival at the house we receive a warm welcome from Annie Haden and we’re soon sharing tea and Welsh cakes in the front sitting room. Annie then takes us on an engrossing house tour that fires the imagination as we hear about Dylan and his family’s time in the house, about the poems and stories that were inspired by the poet’s time here, and about how the house was restored from a student bedsit to an Edwardian family home.
But the magic really starts when Annie leaves, and I feel the excitement and awesome responsibility of being left in charge of a literary landmark of such significance. Over the next two days I regularly wander around the house, absorbing the atmosphere and seeking a connection with the young poet in the bricks and mortar of his childhood home.
For me it’s Dylan’s tiny bedroom with it’s view of the neighbour’s wall, and in the nearby bathroom, where I sense Dylan’s presence the most. I set up my ipod and speaker so that I can hear Dylan Thomas reading his poetry from the bathroom, where as a young man, he declaimed his verses. I listen from outside the door, the effect is both startling and moving, and the house works it’s magic again when I lie on the bed in the poet’s former bedroom, thinking of the boy Dylan on Christmas nights saying his words “to the close and holy darkness”.
The weekend is full of special moments, like waking up in the front bedroom where Dylan Thomas had been born 99 years earlier, or sharing the view, from the back bedroom, out over Swansea bay, that must have inspired the young poet.
It’s a quiet house, and when you’re alone with the stillness and silence, there’s something tangible in the atmosphere, and watching the sun going down from the front room window, it’s easy to imagine how this house might have shaped the life and work of a young writer.
Cwmdonkin Drive is part of the once upwardly mobile Uplands area of Swansea, and despite perhaps having seen better days, it still has much to recommend it. Cwmdonkin Park, the influential playground of the young poet, is close by, and well worth a visit for it’s connections to Dylan Thomas. Currently being renovated in time for the 2014 centenary of Thomas’s birth, the park contains a number of tributes to the poet, including a stone memorial inscribed with the final line of his poem “Fern Hill”, a Dylan Thomas memorial shelter, and a tree sculpture by Mark Folds known as “Dylan’s Pencil”. The Victorian drinking fountain that features in the poem “The Hunchback In The Park” is currently removed for renovation.
The busy shopping area of Uplands Crescent has a good bookshop and several eating places including Dylan’s old local, The Uplands Tavern (formerly the Uplands Hotel), and the house where Dylan Thomas first went to school at Mrs Hole’s Dame School, can be found at 22 Mirador Crescent. In November the area hosts the Do Not Go Gentle Festival, described as a festival “Dylan might have liked”, where acts perform in a number of atmospheric and intimate venues around the Uplands including at the birthplace at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive.
So if you’re interested in the life and work of Dylan Thomas, make a date to visit the house and community where he was born and grew up, and sample the special atmosphere of this most influential of literary houses.
Andrew Dally, March 2013