Where writers write: Dylan Thomas’s writing shed

Where writers write: Dylan Thomas’s writing shed

Dylan Thomas's writing shed b/w poet lying in grass
Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)

Next up in the series on where writers write is Dylan Thomas’s writing shed at the Boat House in Laugharne, Camarthenshire.

When Dylan Thomas first saw the Boat House, on a sunny Monday in May 1934, it was from the other side of the River Taf. He and a friend, Glyn Jones, were standing waiting for the ferryman to take them across to Laugharne. Opposite them, at the water’s edge, stood two white cottages. One was the ferryman’s, the other was the Boat House.

The Boat House, that ‘sea-shaken house on a breakneck of rocks’, would be Dylan Thomas’s home for the last four years of his life. It was from the Boat House he’d leave for New York in 1953. Only to die there after a suicidal drinking bout, aged 39.

But in 1934, Dylan Thomas was 19 and still unknown as a poet. Slight, good-looking and well-dressed, his notebooks may have been filled with poems but there was little, yet, in print. By the time he returned to live in Laugharne in May 1949, however, it was a different story.

By then Dylan Thomas had a wife, Caitlin, two children, and he was famous. He’d published four volumes of poetry and a short story collection, written several screenplays and made innumerable BBC broadcasts. He was beginning to make a name for himself in the States, too.

But the stout, somewhat dishevelled man who arrived back in Laugharne was very different to the 1934 version. Fifteen years on and Dylan Thomas, as he said himself, was a ‘shabby barrel’ with a ‘red blubber face’. Years of worry, hard drinking and mounting debts, had left their mark.

Dylan Thomas Boat House

The Thomases never owned a house, cottage or even a flat of their own. When, in 1951, Thomas claimed to be selling the Boat House in 1951, it wasn’t actually his to sell. The lease was bought for him by Mrs Margaret Taylor, a rather generous benefactor.

‘This is it:’, he wrote soon after, to thank her. ‘The place, the house, the workroom, the time. All I shall write in this water and tree room on the cliff, every word will be my thanks to you. You have given me a life. And now I am going to live it.’

Dylan Thomas's writing shed at the Boathouse. The Boat House at Laugharne
The Boat House, Laugharne

The Boat House itself was ‘very small’ according to Thomas. Outside, it looks like a child’s drawing of a house: a central door between two windows, three windows above and a grey slate roof. A verandah runs around two sides of the building where it perches above the lake-like river. At high tide, the sea would come in through a hole in the garden wall.

To begin with, Thomas was excited by it all. Later, when the pipes burst, the house flooded and rats invaded, he wasn’t so keen. The weather didn’t help. He complains regularly in letters about Laugharne’s ‘grey perpetual rain’. By April 1951, the Thomases had a third child. And Caitlin, ‘in the general hell of sickness, children, excruciating worry, [and ]the eternal yellow grey drizzle outside’ had grown to loathe the place.

But he was writing during those years. In the ‘water and tree room on the cliff’.

Dylan Thomas in his writing shed at the boat house, Laugharne

Dylan Thomas’s writing shed

Just above the Boat House along Dylan’s Walk (as Cliff Road is now known) was a wooden garage. It had been put up in the 1920s to house Laugharne’s first motor car — a Wolseley belonging to a summer resident of the Boat House. In 1949, with the installation of windows, a stove and a few bits of furniture, the garage was converted into Dylan Thomas’s writing shed.

It’s still there, teetering on the cliff edge, Thomas’s ‘word-splashed room’. It’s been preserved as a sort of shrine. Caitlin sold its original furniture to help pay debts after her husband’s death. So when you peer through the window, what you see is a staged recreation of his workroom, complete with fag ends, empty beer bottles and crumpled ‘manuscript pages’. There’s even a handful of the boiled sweets he liked on his desk. And lists of alliterative words lie by his pencil pot.

The furnishings are sparse: a stove, a couple of old kitchen chairs, a plain table and a bookcase. Dingy, brown curtains hang at the double-casement window, framing the view of the estuary. On the white-painted walls are curling photographs of poets — among them Byron, W H Auden and the other Welsh Thomas poet: Edward.

Outside, next to the painted blue doors (not the originals, which are in the Dylan Thomas Centre) is a board. ‘In this building Dylan Thomas wrote many of his famous works seeking inspiration from the panoramic view of the estuary’, it reads. ‘Many’, might be a bit of an exaggeration.

Certainly, Dylan Thomas wrote some poems here. And it was where he finally finished Under Milk Wood, the ‘play for voices’ he’d worked on — on and off — for years.

Dylan Thomas’s writing routine

Mornings were for reading, letter-writing and doing the crossword — often with his father who lived opposite Brown’s Hotel in town. Lunchtimes were for drinking (heavily) in Brown’s, the Cross House, or the Corporation Arms. From two till seven pm Thomas worked in his writing shed.

It’s said he would read his work aloud, over and over; to hear the rhythm and rhyme and to perfect the alliteration. And certainly his daughter, Aeronwy, remembered that as she tiptoed past the shed as a child, she’d hear snatches of dialogue from Under Milk Wood and poems in progress.

But then, poetry is written to be spoken, not read. And Dylan Thomas famously broadcast much of his poetry. His 1950s US tours set the template poets follow today.

Dylan Thomas’s voice has added a new dimension to literary history,” raved the New York Times when he launched a US reading tour in 1950. “He will surely be remembered as the first in modern literature to be both a maker and speaker of poetry… the typical reader will become entranced after hearing him recite.’

See what you think. Have a listen to him reading Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night on youtube.

Dylan Thomas’s books

Dylan Thomas’s books are still in print. And there are so many books about him and his work.

If you’re new to his writing, I’d start with these:

Dylan Thomas and Roald Dahl

In the 1950s fellow Welshman, Roald Dahl, took himself on a pilgrimage to Thomas’s writing shed.

Peering through the window, he liked it so much he decided to model his own on it. Roald Dahl’s writing hut in the garden at Great Missenden, Bucks, was a complete replica. He copied everything, from its dimensions and decoration down to the boiled sweets.

If you’re looking for inspiration and thinking of taking yourself off on a pilgrimage, the Dylan Thomas Boathouse is open to the public. Plan your visit here. And don’t forget Laugharne itself.

Laugharne and Dylan Thomas

The ‘place he loved beyond all places in Wales,’ Dylan Thomas also thought Laugharne strange. Richard Thomas, founder of the Laugharne Weekend describes the place as ‘a total one-off’.’ Under Milk Wood was originally called “The Town that was Mad”, he says, ‘– and Laugharne still is, in the best possible way. If Dylan Thomas came back today, he would instantly recognise it.’

But Dylan Thomas isn’t Laugharne’s only claim to fame. The town’s been painted by Constable, Turner and Augustus John. Mary Wollstonecraft’s family had a farm nearby and Mary Shelley was a regular visitor to the town. Margaret Atwood set a short story there. Kingsley Amis wrote much of Old Devils while he was staying there. In 1911 Edward Thomas stayed too, writing The Happy Go Lucky Morgans.

Then there’s the author Richard Hughes, who from 1934 lived at Castle House. And who encouraged Dylan Thomas to relocate to the town, putting him up while he was writing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.

You could always make a weekend of it. Sea View, where the Thomases lived for two years before the second world war, is now a smart air bnb. And who cares if the weather’s not great? Light breaks where no sun shines.

More articles on writers’ workspaces

Read other blog posts in my series where writers writeAnd don’t forget to subscribe to my blog. You’ll be pinged every time there’s a new post.

More articles on the sheds, shacks and outbuildings belonging to remarkable women — writers, artists, sculptors, photographers, astrologers and inventors — are coming soon. Watch this space.

Dylan Thomas's writing shed
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Dylan Thomas's writing shed
Charlotte Peacock takes a peek at Dylan Thomas's writing shed perched on a cliff above the Boat House in Laugharne, Wales.

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