It’s that time of year again, the famous (or should that be infamous?) Laugharne weekend is upon us and the small seaside town in West Wales will be alive with festival goers hoping that everything will be as quirky and as chaotic as normal – they would be disappointed if things were to run smoothly! You see, this is Laugharne, the ‘strangest town in Wales’ with the philosophy of ‘it will all be the same in a hundred years time.’ A place where my grandfather ‘got off the bus, and forgot to get on again.’
I cannot claim to know what the town was like a hundred years ago but my grandfather did write a broadcast ‘Laugharne’ (You can listen here) in 1953 and, I would say, things are pretty much the same today.
Despite, or because of, its quirks, Laugharne was a place where my grandfather managed to concentrate on his writing, as it was here that he wrote iconic poems such as, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and Over Sir John’s Hill. It probably also inspired his play-for-voices Under Milk Wood. Even if the setting is more New Quay as many have suggested, the characters and the community spirit is definitely very reminiscent of Laugharne.
My grandfather was buried at St Martin’s church in Laugharne after his premature death in 1953, and then my grandmother, Caitlin, joined him in 1994. My mum spent a very happy childhood living in the Boathouse in Laugharne and included memories of this time in her book, My Father’s Places. Following her death in 2009, we scattered her ashes at the Boathouse. As a family, we have put a bench and plaque there in memory of her. On the bench it says – The Funny thing is I find myself going back again and again. We thought this was appropriate as my grandfather, grandmother and mum have chosen Laugharne as their final resting place, and I also often return there with my young son, Charlie. We hope that when people sit on the bench and look across at the stunning view across the estuary, they will feel the same way.
Linking with last week’s blog where I wanted to showcase Mum’s writing, below are some memories and poetry written by Aeronwy Thomas about her time living in Laugharne.
Reading with dad
If I could catch my dad after his bath, he would read to me. Comfortably ensconced in a capacious armchair, on his lap, he would read me stories and rhyme of his choice. From my vantage point I could see the estuary through the slats of the balcony but shut out distractions to listen to Dad. Was it going to be Grimms’ Fairy Tales or the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe with all the children. Heaven, it was going to be Little Red Riding Hood. “Who would you like to be?” he asked. “You’re so good as the wolf,” I replied, “so you can play him and the woodchopper.” Of course, I was left with the title role, if Dad agreed. Soon we were in the wood with the nasty wolf hiding behind trees and the poor girl in her red cape visible to all. Dad made me read all the dialogue which I pretended was a little difficult for my reading skills. “I only know the easy words,” I lied. I made myself easy in the armchair, sitting on his lap as if I owned him.
Another session we read Hansel and Gretel and I was forced to run around looking for matches. “This is the place the children slept when they first ran away from their nasty family,” he said, pouring a mound of matches on the floor. I didn’t think they looked much like a leafy mound to serve as a bed but did not like to say so. He then made an outline with matches of the witches’ cottage made from sweets to tempt Hansel and Gretel. What about the cauldron or oven to cook them, I demanded. He placed his beer glass in the house, which didn’t convince me. ‘What about something smaller?” I asked. Finally, to my satisfaction, he poured out the dolly mixture he kept in his pocket into the sweet house and I fashioned an oven from a piece of plasticine. There followed a debate about who should play the witch and the less interesting characters of the children. In the end, Dad adopted a falsetto voice adding words that I knew were not on the page and made quite a convincing evil old lady. I might ask him to wear a hat from our dress-up box another time, I thought.
Dad could also make lots of other characters from fairytale and nursery rhyme come alive. There was the gruff Giant in Jack and the Beanstalk and the jumpy white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, read in staccato, neurotic voice. Aladdin had a similar voice to the witch one without the frightening tones. It was the best time of the week when Dad opened a book with me.
Always one to seize the moment, I would lurk outside the bathroom door where you could hear him try out different characters from Under Milk Wood such as Mrs Dai Bread One and Mrs Dai Bread Two. As the bath was newly installed thanks to a patron, both my parents spent a long time there topping up the hot water. We, the children, had to make do with the tin bath in front of the Aga. As he emerged, hot and steamy, I would pounce with my reading request, nipping into the bathroom to see whether his detective novel had fallen into the bath water or mainly fish out any sweets he might have left. I remember once Mother, who was impatient to get out for their every night pub session, walking in while we were reading from Struwwelpeter, waving a pair of scissors to cut Dad’s toenails. We were delighted with the timing and asked Mother to try and cut of his toes as well.
Later Than Laugharne
Herons, mussel pools, gulls and piper,
encircle our ‘house on stilts high among
beaks and palavers of birds’. Cormorants
scud and gulls glide in my memory.
The stones, washed by the tide, which I
would turn looking for blue and white,
or floral pieces of china for our crockery
houses…And the fish my mother would
catch and throw back into the swirling
waters of the estuary all around us …
I remember them well.
…And high tode covering our back garden
through a hole in the stone wall which
embraced our home. The tide carrying our
makeshift boats on its back, pieces of lumber,
an old zinc bath, and I can still recall
the envy I felt when they bought my brother
a boat called The Cuckoo…
The names come tumbling back –
…And I remember the hole in the wall was
called grandly by all, The Harbour.
…And who could forget sliding down the
mud banks at low tide into the rivulets
left by receding water, or running along
the cliffwalk and stirring up a din outside
the shed that was my father’s writing den.
The memories race back –
… And the thrill of peeping through
the keyhole (I was always the most naughty)
to see my father writing his poems about
gulls, hills and cormorants on estuaries
which he saw through his wide-vista window,
and he sat, bent, writing in crabbled letters,
pressing against the hard surface of the
kitchen table that was his desk …
We were poor those days –
Though I can’t remember being poor
in Laugharne, those balmy,
green and golden …
Herons, gulls and pipers still encircle
our house on stilts,
and the cormorants still scud and glide
in my memory ……..
The Road Home
The way home is long
the cliffwalk lengthens
from home to seatown
and back again.
In dreams, I wander slowly
the heron still there
regal on one leg
surveying the estuary
and I stop to see
streamlets of water
over the sand-blown banks.
Light-footed in recollection,
I tackle the slope
worth running for
and come across the shed
painted royal blue
it hasn’t changed
in wayward memory.
And here I am today
labouring up the hill
looking for the familiar outline
through the trees
the grass green door
not the way it was
and through the porthole
I can see the branches
tapping the windows
my father there
working at the table
writing and muttering
watching the tides
his life on the turn
putting into poems
terns, gulls, killyduckers
flying over the bay
I look again with his eyes
the pages turn
before the last climb
to my home
along the pathway
down the steps
to the Boat House
which has not moved
in my absence.
It is a long road.
Aeronwy’s plaque in the Boathouse garden. Her husband Trefor requested that we use her married name Ellis on the inscription.
Hannah Ellis – 3rd April 2017.
Hannah is a teacher, writer and consultant. You can learn more about her by visiting the website – www.hannahellisconsultancy.com