Its population is roughly the same as that of New Zealand. It holds the record for the country most castles per square mile in the world. The British royal family’s wedding rings are all made from gold mined here. The world’s highest mountain is named after somebody who was born here. Poet Dylan Thomas was born there. And their national flower is the daffodil. In case you had not guessed by now, I’m talking about Wales, a country that sits geographically between England, the Bristol Channel and the Irish Sea. But although Wales closely shares its political and social history with the rest of Great Britain, and a majority of the population speaks English, it has retained a distinct cultural identity and is officially bilingual – all road signs are in both English and Welsh and 560,000 Welsh speakers call the country home. It also fields its own national sports teams, including a rather good rugby team. I had visited Wales on holiday years ago and had fallen a little bit in love with the wide, sandy beaches of Carmarthenshire, so earlier this year when I was invited to spend a weekend exploring the four counties of South West Wales (Swansea; Neath & Port Talbot; Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire) I jumped at the opportunity.
If you are heading to Swansea from London, I cannot recommend the Great Western Railway’s luxury Pullman dining cars highly enough as a transport option. Hop on at Paddington, eat a fabulous full Welsh breakfast, and disembark relaxed and well-fed in Swansea – more on that trip in a later post. Suffice to say that May and I were well set up for the day by the time we collected our hire car in Swansea and set off to explore. Our first stop was the Swansea Maritime Quarter, an attractively redeveloped residential area between the city centre and Swansea Bay comprising a varied selection of residential property, the tallest building in Wales (the Meridian Quay Tower), and Swansea Marina. While strolling around there we also stumbled across the Dylan Thomas Centre. Poet and author Dylan Thomas is a Big Deal in Swansea and is often referred to as Swansea’s most famous son. Probably best known as the author of Under Milkwood, a 1954 radio drama commissioned by the BBC, Thomas was born in and lived in Swansea for about half his short life (he died at 39) and Swansea’s Dylan Thomas Centre is the focal point for exhibitions, studies and events related to his life and work. It is also home to a permanent exhibition called Love the Words which opened on 27 October 2014, what would have been Dylan’s 100th birthday. The interactive displays tell the story of the work, life and cultural context of Thomas’s work through quotes, film clips and a detailed timeline of his life and career. Dylanophiles will also be amused the inclusion of the reversible “Buggerall” roadsign, a reference to the fictional village of Llareggub where Under Milwood was set.
From there we made our way to Uplands to no. 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, the unassuming terraced house where Dylan Thomas was born. Local businessman Geoff Haden visited the house during on the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death in 2003 and was spurred on by the semi-derelict property that he found to take over the lease two years later and embark on an ambitious renovation project. After three years of painstaking work, the residence was officially opened in 2008 by Dylan’s daughter Aeronwy on the 94th anniversary of Dylan’s birth. The house has been restored to look as it might have in 1914 when bought by the Thomas family as a new house, just a few months before Dylan was born in the front bedroom. Dylan lived in the house for 23 years with his family, writing two-thirds of the material that would be used in his published work from his tiny bedroom.
Image above © and courtesy of Dylan Thomas House
The charming Geoff himself met us at the door and welcomed us into the house, told us the story of Dylan’s family and then took us on a tour, including the kitchen, his father’s study, his parents’ sunny bedroom; the front bedroom with views out to Cwmdonkin Park where Dylan was born but that was usually kept for visitors; Dylan’s younger sister’s room; and the surprisingly tiny room where Dylan himself lived with room for only a single bed, a small desk and a chair – and the only working gas lamp in the house. Back downstairs we spent some time in the cosy lounge listening to Geoff tell us more about the Thomas family and Dylan’s early life before we enjoyed a decadent Welsh afternoon tea. Dylan’s Mam Florrie loved providing food for Dylan and his friends and Geoff continues that tradition with homemade cakes from “Florrie’s Pantry” including sandwiches, cakes, fluffy scones and some very fine warm Welshcakes, traditional griddle cakes studded with currants. Geoff is a charming and knowledgeable host whose passion for keeping Dylan Thomas’ legacy alive is infectious and I did so enjoy the afternoon in his company. In addition to afternoon teas at the house, Geoff also offers lunches, dinners and overnight accommodation – see the website for more details.
From there we headed for our accommodation for the night – Parc le Breos Guest House, a Victorian hunting lodge set in the 70-acre grounds of William de Breos’s Norman deer park. Set in the heart of the Gower peninsula, a short drive from Swansea, both the house and gardens have been lovingly and stylishly restored. When we walked through the heavy wooden door with its quirky bovine knocker, we found a warm welcome, cosy public rooms with Chesterfield sofas and crackling log fires. Bedrooms are well appointed and stylish with modern en suite bathrooms, huge and comfortable beds, and free wifi throughout. Before dinner we had time for a quick walk to the Quabs, a secluded and fairy-light-bedecked log cabin set on its own in the grounds of the house overlooking the trout ponds – it looked truly magical in the dusk and is definitely somewhere I would love to come back to for a romantic weekend!
The Parc le Breos restaurant offers breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, so we dined in. As there was a large group in residence that night, we did not eat in the dining room but rather in solitary splendour in the beautiful, soaring conservatory. We were glad we’d gone for a walk as we were in for a feast of local produce! The house has its own kitchen garden as well as keeping chickens and bees so a lot of what appears on the menu has been produced on-site. First up was a dish that sounds on paper like it really should not work: cockles and laverbread with smoky Welsh bacon. Although this is usually a breakfast dish, our hostess thought that the uninitiated might be more receptive if it were served as part of the evening meal. To clarify, laverbread is a traditional Welsh delicacy made from boiled and minced seaweed (laver). You can buy it in tins and to be fair, it looks like a rather gelatinous murky green blob… but I loved it! This was followed by stuffed local trout wrapped in more smoky bacon – always a perfect flavour combination. The main course consisted of roasted Welsh lamb with crispy potatoes, roasted root vegetables and leek gratin. And for dessert we had a decidedly moreish gooseberry pie, made with gooseberries from the kitchen garden. Breakfast the following morning was also a hearty affair served in the conservatory, setting us up for a day of exploring!
Our next destination was literally just a few minutes’ drive away: the Gower Heritage Centre. As you enter the Centre, there is a map captioned “It’s a lot bigger inside than you think!” – and they are not lying. The Centre is a visitor attraction and rural life museum based around a working 12th century water-mill, comprising craft shops, craft activities, old fashioned games arcade, a sandpit, an adventure playground, a tractor play area, an animal farm and La Charrette, Wales’ smallest cinema. In addition there are a number of artisan workshops and shops on site selling baked goods, wooden gifts and glass items. A corn mill was established on this site sometime during the 12th century, as part of the estate belonging to the Le Breos family, who were granted sovereignty of Gower by King John in 1203. The first written references to the Mill appear in government records from about 1300 onwards. It is likely that the Mill was established as part of the park development serving the needs of the locality, grinding oats for animal meal and barley for daily bread. Today, the watermill still works and we started our visit with a tour of the mill, seeing the impressive millstones grinding against each other, and the amazing scale of the old cog mechanism still faithfully turning after so many years. On the tour we learnt that it takes 25kg of grain to make just 9kg of flour – so much of the grain is discarded in the quest for a fine white flour. I also learnt to my surprise that flour is highly flammable, so there are no metal working parts that come into contact with each other for fear of generating sparks – and obviously no smoking allowed in the mill!
The centre also offers a hands-on opportunity to try out and learn some crafts and skills from the past, such as weaving, spinning, basic blacksmithing, glass-blowing and artisan bread baking, using flour milled on-site. We had signed up for the latter course and our tutor was the delightful Chendore Luan who was not only incredibly knowledgeable about bread making but also had a fantastically ribald sense of humour. First she taught us how to make an artisan bread shaped like a Celtic knot which involved much rolling of dough into long thin cylinders and then having the “legs” cross over and under each other… and double entendres for days! While we waited for the bread to rise, we also learnt how to churn our own butter from gloriously full fat local milk. We used a traditional hand-churn and let me assure you, it is a lot harder work than you’d imagine, especially as the butter magically starts to solidify. The end result was a fabulously creamy butter that was fantastic to eat on warm bread. Bread making classes cost around £80 for a full day course and are a fun way to learn a new skill – and if you are really lucky, Chendore might even show you the local wild garlic glade!
In my next post in this series I’ll be telling you a bit more about our marvellous trip from London to Swansea on the Pullman train – stay tuned for more!
USEFUL VISITOR INFO
For more information on holidays in South West Wales, see the South West Wales website.
Tel: +44 (0) 1792 463980
Opening times: Daily 10.00am – 4.30pm
Tel: +44 (0) 1792 472555
Opening times: By appointment
Parc le Breos Guest House
Tel: +44 (0) 1792 371636
DISCLOSURE: I visited Swansea and Gower as a guest of South West Wales Tourism Partnership and Vist Swansea Bay but received no further remuneration to write this post. I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control.
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