Dylan Thomas in South Leigh: A Life on and off the Rails
David N. Thomas
I first went to the Mason Arms in South Leigh in the late 1960s, driven there from Oxford by Louis Goodwill Nchindo (read his Wiki page, if you’re interested in diamond dealers). A mutual friend reminded me we had also hitched to the pub with Howard Marks (read his Wiki page, if you’re interested in drug dealers), though this does seem very unlikely, since Mr Nice lived in his own time zone; he was usually going to bed when the rest of us were crossing the quad for lunch.
In later years, the Mason Arms proved a useful stopping point on the way from London to west Wales, though we usually gave it a miss during the long reign of the cock-snooking Gerry Stonhill (Google him if you’ve a strong stomach) who filled the bar with cigar smoke and loud City traders pretending for the weekend to be country squires. He even built a helipad for them. It’s said that Stonhill banned children and vegetarians from the pub, but I can’t vouch for that.
Both veggies and children are welcome today in the Mason Arms, which is now a boutique hotel. It was a combined farm and pub during Dylan’s time in the village. His favourite pint there, Garne’s light ale, has long gone, as are his companions in the Mason’s public bar, including farmhand Steve Claridge (who was also the barman), Lionel Drinkwater the cowman and Harry Moody the milkman, who remembers Dylan once asking him to leave bottles of beer on his doorstep, not milk.
South Leigh then was a farming village; it still has farms and farmers today, of course, but not the sizeable population of farm hands that was there in Dylan’s time. Much else has changed, too. The post office and shop, where Dylan sent off his scripts and cashed cheques, closed in the 1980s. The dramatic society, for whom he wrote a Christmas play, has long left the village stage. The damp and dilapidated Manor House, where the Thomases lived for almost two years from 1947 to 1949, was recently up for sale for £1.5 million. The railway station is now a luxury bungalow, and much of the line has been lost to development since its closure in 1965.
Dylan may well have had a soft spot for train travel. The railways were in his blood, on both sides of the family. But, all the same, I’ve often wondered if Dylan and Caitlin fully realised, when the family moved to South Leigh, just how much of their time would be spent on the train. With no car of their own, and no bus service from South Leigh to Witney or Oxford, the railway became their life line. It took just five minutes to get to Witney and twenty-five to Oxford, with eight trains on a weekday, all pulled by steam locomotives.
It was essentially a local branch line that helped people do their shopping in the nearby towns. Although the service was mostly frequent and usually reliable, it certainly wasn’t intended for anyone who needed to travel to London on a regular basis. Even the fastest round trip would have taken Dylan 4½ hours, not including his time walking from home to South Leigh station, and the journey from Paddington to the BBC and back again. All this for a broadcast or a meeting that might only have taken an hour or so.
The outward journey in the morning was straightforward enough. It was the return that was the problem, especially for someone with a thirst for beer and company. Dylan and Caitlin’s troubles at South Leigh are illuminated by just one line in the following timetable: the four hour gap between the departures from Oxford of the two evening trains to South Leigh, the 6.18 and the 10.10.
Even if Dylan missed the 1.45 from Paddington, as would be most likely, he could still catch the 4.45 and be home in time to help with getting the children to bed, though it seems that he seldom did and Caitlin became enraged, as she put it.
And she would have every reason to be upset. If Dylan missed, or chose not to catch, the 4.45, it would mean more drinking in London and Oxford while he waited for one of the next four trains, whose only connection for South Leigh left Oxford at 10.10. He would not get back to the village until 10.38, with the Mason Arms at hand for a fortifying nightcap for the walk home to the Manor House. It’s very doubtful that Dylan and Caitlin ever took these difficulties into account when they decided to move to South Leigh.
Apart from these local problems, travelling by train then was generally a slow and tiring business. The railway system had been damaged and worn thin by the war with Germany. As investment in the railways declined, maintenance work had been pared back, and rolling stock allowed to deteriorate. No wonder that Dylan complained that it wasted his time, and sapped his energy and creativity.
In his twenty months in South Leigh, Dylan took the train, on average, twice a week to broadcast in London, as well as travelling to meetings with producers to discuss forthcoming programmes. His film work also took him to London, and sometimes on journeys around the country. Even invitations to and from friends meant a train journey to meet at the George in Oxford or the The Fleece in Witney. There was simply no room at the Manor House, he told one colleague, to entertain friends or colleagues:
“My house here, though with such a dignified address, is a poky cottage full of old people, animals, and children. And everyone I want to meet, I have to meet outside somewhere: generally, and preferably, in a pub. So can we meet one evening in Oxford in the bar of the George?”
And then, of course, there were the long train journeys that he made across the country: a trip to read at the Edinburgh Festival, for example, and another to Brighton. The BBC asked him to go to a village in Kent to compere an outside broadcast; that meant a journey to London and a sleeper on the Thanet Belle to Margate. He also went to Brixham, where his sister lived:
“I am writing this in the long train. Five hours of it. Steamed pig-fish and dripping cabbage and soapsud lager for mock-lunch. Three sleeping bores in the carriage, one with a bucket mouth…I will leave Brixham Saturday morning & be back in sweet Sow Lye Saturday night.”
His was truly a life on the rails, and he was often an absentee husband and parent. Caitlin was left to look after the children and Dylan’s sick parents as well. She became increasingly frustrated both by his vanishing tricks, as she called them, and the Manor House itself, which she thought was
“bloody awful….drably unpleasant…a sad place, really, with all those dismal fields and elm trees…I felt quite helpless, trapped in that desolate place with his children and his parents…he seemed to leave me at home more than ever…always with the same excuse that he was doing it to make money for us…he couldn’t face all the problems in the house…and then I had no one to talk to, which made it worse…”
Things got better when a local woman, Mary Walters, came to help: “She was a miracle, always happy and laughing and the best worker I ever had. I loved her and don’t know what I would have done without her.” Caitlin was particularly unhappy that Dylan would “go off to work in the mornings and then not return at night, and I would be raging by the time he did come home.” Dylan was soon thinking of a return to Wales, preferably to Laugharne:
“I want very much to live in Laugharne because I know that there I can work well. Here, I am too near London; I undertake all sorts of little jobs, broadcasting etc., which hinder my own work. In Laugharne if I could live there, I would work half the year on my own film-scripts, and half on my own poems and stories: cutting out all time-wasting broadcasts, articles, useless London visits.”
But Caitlin was not at all impressed. He always thought of Laugharne when things were bad, she said, but it was all fantasy. And she was right, and Dylan himself knew she was right. Wales, he wrote, was his magical gobstopper:
“…a very little time ago, I was travelling on the morning train from Oxford to London when, suddenly, the desire to live neither in Oxford nor in London, or to travel between them, came very near to knocking me down…I did not want to be in England…I wanted to be in Wales…I wanted to sit no longer, as I had sat for years, in that narrow-vowelled jungle, alone as it seemed, by my log fire…rolling the word Wales round my tongue like a gobstopper of magical properties…”
They moved to the Boat House in Laugharne in May 1949 and, as Caitlin had predicted, the gobstopper’s magic soon lost its potency. By the autumn, Dylan’s letters were full of the same woes and difficulties that he had experienced at South Leigh, having to take on little jobs, as he had put it, to pay the bills:
“I want to write only poems, but that can’t be. Never have I wanted to more. But debts are battering at me…I have only the scaffoldings of poems…My tables’s heaped with odd lines, single words, nothing completed.”
A handful of poems did emerge for publication, some new, one or two started elsewhere, but by the autumn of 1951, the poetry had virtually come to an end. Under Milk Wood fared no better. Dylan’s work at the Boat House on the play was, at best, desultory.
Nor was it the happiest period of his life, as his marriage collapsed, debts mounted, the tax man chased, the national insurance inspector summoned and the damp estuary air took its toll on his health. Laugharne became a place he wanted to escape from. His wife and children lived there, but he got away as much as he could. Of his four years at the Boat House, more than a quarter was spent in America and Persia, and much of the rest in London or travelling the country to read poetry.
When he moved to the Boat House, Dylan had anticipated going to London about once a month; by late 1952, he was travelling fortnightly. Not only was the BBC there, but so were his literary agent, publisher, bank manager and various film producers and magazine editors. People passing through London also had to be seen, particularly visiting Americans.
It’s worth taking a closer look at 1952. It began with Dylan and Caitlin spending an exhausting four months criss-crossing America by train. Within a week or so of their return, at the end of May, Dylan was back on the train; he was up and down to London right through to the end of July, with difficult train journeys to north Wales squeezed in as well (“an area harder to get to from S. Wales than Ireland would be”). August brought some respite, but then he was soon on the train again in mid-September:It was, of course, the travel time that had such a high opportunity cost. The journey to London, for example, took almost eight hours, starting with a bus or taxi from Laugharne, and with at least two rail connections to make. With so much of his time spent on the rails, it’s no wonder that some of the most important aspects of Dylan’s life – his family, his writing and his health – came completely off.
As far as we know, Dylan never returned to South Leigh, though Caitlin did, in May 1950 and then twice the following year. She came to see her friends in the village, and to pay outstanding newspaper bills from 1949. This seems extraordinary, given that they were struggling to pay their bills in Laugharne. Is it possible that the Thomases were thinking about going back to South Leigh to live?
Escape from Laugharne had never left the agenda. As early as the beginning of 1951, after just eighteen months there, Dylan was already planning to leave, hoping to keep the Boat House, but also to find a flat in London. By the end of the year, they were living in a basement in Camden Town, next to a railway line and shunting yard. Not surprisingly, the milk train from Llareggub was still stuck in the sidings and stayed there until May 1953, when an American locomotive came along and pulled it out.
© D N Thomas, 2019. A version of this paper with footnotes, sources, reading etc can be found at https://sites.google.com/site/dylanthomasandsouthleigh/home
I’m grateful to Michael Clemens, Stanley C. Jenkins and Martin Loader for their help with trains, timetables and photographs. My thanks as well to Liz Ashwell of South Leigh, Mike Brown of the Brewing History Society, Anna Clark and Helen Drury of the Oxfordshire History Centre, Mark Watson of BBC Radio Oxford, and Andrew Dally.
Images courtesy of:
Ben Brooksbank: Fairford station (Wiki Commons).
The Martin Loader Collection: South Leigh train in Oxford station and the South Leigh ticket.
Stanley C. Jenkins/The Lens of Sutton Collection: South Leigh station.
An account of the history of South Leigh station, and the Witney-Oxford line in general, with some excellent photographs, can be found at Martin Loader’s site at: http://www.fairfordbranch.co.uk/South_Leigh.htm See as well S.C. Jenkins (1985) The Fairwood Branch, Oakwood Press.