5 Cwmdonkin Drive, the solid, semi-detached house on the steep hill in genteel West Swansea, up the famously steep “chilly, glinting hill” from ”A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, up from the broad sweep of the bay, and the “carol singing sea”, is safe for posterity. It was restored to the home Dylan Thomas would have recognised in the 22 years he lived there. And now it’s possible to stay there.
In the deep repose of an old Welsh front parlour, furnished for the early years of the last century, before the days of TV and radio, I conjured up the ghosts of Christmases past.
I could see the Uncles in my mind’s eye, jolly ruddy-faced men tentatively holding out their cigars at arms’ length ”as though waiting for the explosion.” And the Aunties in the scullery, busy with tureens, flushed with a surreptitious tipple. Upstairs in his cramped bedroom, a small boy was sifting through his presents — the useless and the useful.
That boy was Dylan Thomas. This was his home, and these very rooms inspired his “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”. ( The book, published posthumously in 1954, became Dylan’s most popular work in America. Read about yet another production here )
Since 2008 it’s been possible to experience, in the original setting, that perfect piece of seasonal nostalgia ( uncles and aunties not included) to which so many return every year, along with “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Snowman”. And, perhaps, even commune with the muse that inspired Dylan, one of the great 20th-century poets writing in English, despite his reputation as a liquor-fuelled hellraiser,
5 Cwmdonkin Drive, the solid, semi-detached house on the steep hill in the more genteel west of Swansea, is one of the prime addresses in British literature. A local couple, dismayed at its poor condition 71 years after the Thomas family moved out, restored it to the home Dylan would have recognised in the 22 years he lived here, and let it out for weekend or week long stays. It is open to visitors when there are no guests staying.
I climbed Dylan’s famously steep “chilly, glinting hill” from ”A Child’s Christmas in Wales ”, up from the broad sweep of the bay and, pausing for breath, glanced back to the “carol-singing sea.” I knocked at number 5. Geoff Haden opened the front door and drew me back into the tumultuous months of late 1914 when D.J Thomas and his heavily pregnant wife Florence moved into their brand new house.
A scattering of casual domestic particulars fixed the house in its time – stair rods on the stair carpets, a glimpse of lino in the parlour, some hefty Welsh dressers. But the most striking detail was the bold, and it turned out entirely authentic, burgundy paint up the stairway. This vivid alcoholic hue must have etched into the passionate poet’s brain from early babyhood.
With its mix of the new, the second hand and the hand-me-downs, this is much as the house must have been as the Thomases prepared for the birth of their son in the front bedroom in October 1914. But Geoff and Anne Haden have not created a museum, where people shuffle through rooms behind ropes, muttering reverentially. Dylan would have found the very idea ludicrous. The house they remade is to be stayed in, and enjoyed, as a living monument to a man of words.
“We are winding the clock back to 1914,” said Geoff. “There will be no TV, radio or telephones. And mobile phones have a terrible signal here too, so everything conspires against you communicating with anybody other than the people you are with.”
Geoff is a Swansea man himself. He attended the same school as Thomas, five years after he died after a session of heavy drinking in New York City in 1953. He and Anne believe their city has neglected its famous son. When he was still alive, strait-laced Swansea felt uneasy about its association with the vagabond poet. Even in today’s more tolerant city, many people are still a little touchy about the prodigal.
Beyond the city his fame is more assured. John Lennon put him on the front cover of the Sgt Pepper album cover. And President Jimmy Carter opened the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea in1995. “We invited him to the opening of the house, and he sent us a note of good luck.” Bill Clinton, another Dylan fan, did not reply.
The couple first saw the house in 2004, around the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s death, when it was briefly open to visitors. There had been a number of private owners since Thomas’s parents sold it in 1937, Dylan having moved to London in a few years earlier. “I was horrified,” said Geoff. “It looked like a rundown student bedsit.” The couple resolved to rescue an important piece of literary heritage.
(Purists may argue that Thomas never lists the address of the boy’s house in A Child’s Christmas. Nor does he identify the child as himself. But Anne Haden has no doubt that Dylan set the charming fantasy, first published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1945. in and around his own home. – and the clues in the story are compelling. (And maybe the meteorological hyperbole isnt so excesive – there have been some severe Arctic weather recently – the photo above is from December 2010)
They negotiated a 30 years lease with the owner, a local solicitor, who must give them first option to buy if he decides to sell. Apart from a few original fireplaces and doors, nothing remained, so the Hadens scoured local auction rooms, second-hand shops and antique stores. They issued media appeals for furniture and fittings from the first part of the 20th century, and gradually filled the house with authentic period detail.
They found beds and mirrors, a Swansea-made piano, and an old bath on legs, now expertly re-enamelled. People donated 12 old Welsh blankets, a mangle for the washroom, and a little push lawnmower. They tracked down an original cooking range for the kitchen, where the Aunties gathered (it cleverly covers a modern cooker, a comfort to make life easier for guests). They rebuilt the wash room in the backyard, where Auntie Hannah sang “like a big bosomed thrush.” There used to be a gate here, where Thomas’s father would escape to the pub. So they put it back, although it doesn’t open as houses have been built since behind the property.
Internally the shape of the house is much as it was, with only a few doors moved and walls altered. The Hadens restored doors and walls to their original positions. Craftsmen repaired and revived period details, such as sash windows. Tiles in the original pattern were found in the local DIY superstore. Authentic period light switches were sourced on the Internet in Australia, and shipped over in five days.
Crucially the walls had not been replastered, which would have destroyed the original decoration. The builders stripped them down and discovered traces of the paint applied in 1914. The local paint store made an exact match. So the shade of burgundy in Mr and Mrs Thomas’s bedroom and on the stairs, the pea green on the landing, and buttercup yellow in Dylan’s sister’s room, were exactly the same as when the house was new. “We were surprised at the brightness of the colours,” said Geoff. “Somebody came in and said they were too modern. But that”s exactly how they were in 1914, when this was a modern house.”
The large high-ceilinged front bedroom retains the original fireplace that would have warmed the arrival of Dylan on October 27th 1914. Geoff Haden believes the growing boy would have moved from room to room to write his poems and short stories, including “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” written here when he was 19. But the real emotional thunderbolt strikes in Dylan’s own cramped bedroom. He described it as so small he had to come out of it to turn around, and so cold he had to stand against the airing cupboard for warmth.
The room has the only gas lamp in the house. And so, on December 25, some lucky person will be able to turn the gas down, snuggle into the single bed, say some words to the “close and holy darkness” and sleep.
Updated – Fri, 20 Dec 2013 10:33:34