Book It: A Journey of Literary Wales
Dylan Thomas's Boathouse, Laugharne, Wales. Photo: Courtesy of the author
Richard Burton’s voice warms the car as I drive through a Welsh drizzle from Dylan Thomas’s birthplace of Swansea to his adopted town of Laugharne. Burton is setting the scene in an audiobook recording of Thomas’s classic play for voices, Under Milk Wood, which chronicles a day in the life of a community suspiciously like Laugharne.
To begin at the beginning: 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, Burton intones as I navigate a seemingly endless string of highway roundabouts.
My GPS periodically breaks into the audiobook story to guide me along increasingly narrow roads to Laugharne. There, a cliffside footpath leads me to Thomas’s ‘writer’s shed,’ a converted garage overlooking the grey waters of the River Tâf estuary. It was there that he wrote much of Under Milk Wood.
A few minutes’ walk further brings me to the Boathouse, a small home clinging to the cliff face where Thomas spent the last four years of his short life. After clambering down a steep set of stairs and paying £6, I wander through the house, examining the family’s furniture and knickknacks, and reading about Thomas. In what was once Dylan and his wife Caitlin’s bedroom, a needlework club’s miniature version of Llareggub — the fictional town in Under Milk Wood — slumbers under a large glass dome.
Laugharne is actually my final stop on my literary-themed trip around Wales. I began a week earlier at one of my favourite places on Earth: Gladstone’s Library in the north Wales village of Hawarden.
For many years, former British prime minister William Ewart Gladstone lived in nearby Hawarden Castle. In 1895, he donated his collection of 32,000 books (and a lot of money) to found what is now called Gladstone’s Library — a library you can stay in.
Well, you can’t actually sleep in the gorgeous, two-storey Reading Rooms, with its leather wing chairs tucked into nooks lit by mullioned windows, and its wooden galleries reminiscent of a miniature Library of Parliament. However, you can bed down in one of the 26 bedrooms in the library’s residence wing. That makes it easy to wander into the library after dinner in the onsite Food for Thought restaurant. If you’re lucky, you might — as I did — randomly pluck a book from the shelf and see Gladstone’s own handwritten notes in the margins.
After exploring the collection of history, theology and other tomes, I toddle down to the lounge, where I help myself to a local beer at the honour bar and chat with a few of my fellow guests. As well as writers doing research, the library attracts visitors attending one of its many writing workshops and author talks.
From Hawarden, I drive to the Victorian beach resort of Llandudno, which was a popular 1860s vacation destination for an English family called the Liddells. Some believe that family friend Charles Dodgson visited them there, and that it was the Llandudno escapades of young Alice Liddell that inspired Dodgson — known to us today as Lewis Carroll — to pen Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The historical record isn’t exactly clear on that connection, but that hasn’t stopped the pleasant seaside resort from peppering its parks and streets with large statues of Alice, the Mad Hatter and other Carroll characters.
This area of Wales offers many amusements aside from the literary. On the northern edge of Eryri (Snowdonia) National Park, I follow another tiny road to the trailhead for a short, largely flat but rewarding hike to pretty Aber Falls.
After a side trip to Portmeirion — a resort town that famously served as the shooting location for the ’60s cult TV show The Prisoner — I resume my literary investigations and head south to the town of Hay-on-Wye. (A great stop along this drive is the small but grandly named International Welsh Rarebit Centre, located in a former schoolhouse built in 1626, where you can choose from many variations of the famed Welsh dish of cheese on toasted bread.)
Tucked against the English border in eastern Wales, Hay-on-Wye became known as ‘the book town’ due almost solely to the efforts of bookseller Richard Booth. He set up his first second-hand bookshop in Hay in 1962, and then another, and then another. Other retailers joined him; at its height, the small community was home to roughly 30 used bookstores.
The town is also famed for the Hay Festival (May 25 to June 4, 2023), which began in 1989 as a literary event. Hundreds of author talks and signings are still the festival’s backbone, but it now also features everything from Bollywood dance workshops to stand-up comedy. It’s a great reason for book lovers to visit Wales, but — as I hope I’ve convinced you — it’s far from the only one.