I returned to South Wales after decades – here’s what has changed

wales holidays travel weekend breaks childhood memories family – Getty

Duw, but it was great to go back to South Wales. I could use the three words of Welsh I master (duw, cariad, mamgu) * while, in common with most non-Welsh, mangling the rest like a Labrador having a stroke. Great, too, to hear accents so rhythmic that you can’t imagine articulating something unpleasant. They have to, at times, of course – I’ve read Rape Of The Fair Country and seen Scarlets play – but I’m counting such occasions as aberrations from the true purpose of a South Wales accent. Which means making Dylan Thomas’ poetry even more fascinating and allowing my favorite Welsh women to finish their sentences by singing “cariad”.

This land is infused for me by the warmth of a happy past. I am forever in favor of him. So superficially similar to my Lancashire – green hills, pastures, mines, sheep, cattle, coast – South Wales is covered with otherness, the Welsh of “abers” and “llans”, of bara brith and laverbread, of a sharp angles to what I had learned in school and to a cast of greats who only got along with us to varying degrees.

* (God, honey, grandma)

Childhood holidays

But the attraction closest to me is the lure of childhood holidays, being with my Welsh grandmother (“mamgu”) near Carmarthen: eating bacon and broad beans, and boiling and squeaking, and wandering the fields and shores of the South Wales with adults lugging a real wicker picnic basket and French cricket bat.

Earlier this fall, I returned, for the first time in decades. First stop: Tenby, the kind of small resort town that envelops visitors, making them instant intimate and promising lovely moments. Needless to say, he had his liveliest moments. Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, Tenby was a key port. Portuguese sailors landed the first oranges there in Wales in 1566.

tenby wales travel holidays - Alamy

tenby wales travel holidays – Alamy

Then it declined, to be reborn as a 19th-century refreshment point. By the hinge of the 1950s and 1960s, it let anyone in, especially my family. It still is. Within the medieval walls, a slight excitement wanders the maze of stone and pastel Italian streets – pink and blue, cream and pale yellow – before the crescendo of cliffs and sands. Sure, he’s more cheeky these days. The shop signs shout at passers-by.

Nor, from around 1960, do I remember much in the way of nail bars, tattoos, burgers, or bar staff urging, “Have fun, guys.” My wife would most likely have had a pitcher of tea for the sands rather than, say, a glass of Jack Rabbit rosé wine on tap from the pub. Then again, she tasted more of rosehip syrup than wine, so she had a 1950s flavor.

But the salty gentleness persisted, as did the sense of holiday opportunities. If there had been more than us, I would have fixed a cricket match. The hills were still steep, the castle was at the top, but the museum was closed. So was the National Trust’s Tudor Merchant’s House. It seems, at the moment, that the British tourism industry needs to close at the very moments when it needs to open. Or as the restaurant lady said: “No food after 5pm”.

Welsh Island Warmy Vacation - Getty

Welsh Island Warmy Vacation – Getty

That said, our inability to set sail for the abbey on Caldey Island depended less on closing times, more on the coastal winds that pushed the boats out of the water. I wanted to replace a vintage Caldey Island mug that was broken only a few years ago. Regrets reduced to zero, mind you, when I learned that the abbey had been swamped by juvenile sex scandals in recent years. I thought rather of the sixteenth-century mathematician Tenby Robert Recorde. He invented the equal sign (=). I had no idea that it was necessary to invent; thought it just popped up automatically.

This was more enlightening and better suited to the sea setting. So did Mr. Whippy, who I was amazed to see still running in his ice cream van, along the coast in Saundersfoot. I figured it might go the way of darts, glitter, and sweet cigarettes.

So we drove up and up the hills and out of the village and back down the farm lanes no thicker than a shepherd’s staff. They were the realm of kids who drove tractors the size of aircraft carriers with no intention of stopping for a rental car to come the other way. This has usefully honed its high-speed reversing skills. Frankly, Pendine wasn’t worth it.

“There is nothing in Pendine; there never was, “wrote the great Byron Rogers. That’s an exaggeration, but just right. There isn’t much and it’s mostly beach, five, eight or nine miles, depending on who’s talking.

Pendine sands wales racing - Getty

Pendine sands wales racing – Getty

You’ll know this beach – it witnessed land speed records in the 1920s, Malcolm Campbell and JG Parry-Thomas dragged it over 175 miles per hour on endless hard sand. The attempts killed Parry-Thomas in 1927. There was a Museum of Speed ​​and it will soon be a replacement experience for Sands of Speed. “Not until February,” said a guy with a helmet, who was supposedly building it.

Military debris, French cricket and Dylan Thomas

You could still die in Pendine Sands. The parts have been used by the military for generations. A warning at one point warns: “Do not touch the military debris as it could explode and kill you.” This, in military terms, would have a negative impact on a family vacation.

My memories, however, were less about the explosions, more to do with scratchy wool trunks, tomato sandwiches on plates detached from the lid of the picnic basket, tea tasting of the green cups it came in, a huge sky and a sea that stands out so sweetly that you’re in Devon before you drown, French cricket (obviously), running and screaming and being chased by father and uncles in their bathing suits of shirts and ties, and the majestic grandmother, by the head to toe in black, including a hat held in place with a pin. That had been Pendine, and she was no longer. It couldn’t be, of course.

We moved on to Laugharne. This is where you go to quote Dylan Thomas. Later nestled alongside, then perched above, the vast estuary of the Taf, Laugharne (“Larne”, I said to my French wife. “Don’t Laffarne”) is truly “an island of a timeless and charming city.”

We haven’t spotted the herons from the “shore of the heron priests” – but, in fact, Thomas was a kind of heron man. The isolated boathouse – bought for him by Margaret Taylor, wife of the historian AJP and where he spent his last four years, until 1953 – was a “bronchial heron”. Certainly, with so much water around, he was no good for a heavy asthmatic smoker. Less good was the flimsy hut on the nearby rocks where he wrote. You can look through the window. It has been restored as it was, crumpled papers sticking out onto the floor, an overflowing ashtray, a jacket on the chair and, pinned to the walls, curled photos (DH Lawrence, WH Auden) and prints (a “grandes baigneuses” which I didn’t do recognize).

In the village, Browns is the pub where he drank. (Of course, it was closed.) In truth, most of the pubs between Fishguard and Swansea boast that they dropped Thomas in the bar. Memories of him abounded. A contemporary recalled the poet as a clumsy man whose teeth “looked as if they had been thrown in from a distance”.

The fact is, however, that Thomas’s drinking sometimes overshadows his writing which, I would say, remains as fluid, melodious and difficult as the Taf itself. It is not necessary to have a precise understanding to be fascinated. As Robert Lowell wrote, Thomas was “a dazzling and dark writer who can be appreciated without understanding”.

He described the boathouse as a “house shaken by the sea / on a neck of rock”. If I had been able to write this, or “Don’t go soft in that good night, but anger, anger at the dying of the light”, I would have taken early retirement. As did Thomas.

The oldest town in Wales

Then to Carmarthen, a county town cloaked in memories as the holiday headquarters and half of our family. At first glance it seemed empty: empty shops and an occasional covered market. I had remembered it more vividly. Even thinner. As elsewhere in Britain, the average weight of strollers seemed to have increased dramatically since the 1960s. This is not body fascism – with a body like mine, it would be inconsiderate – just an observation.

But that was the first sight. And the first sight isn’t enough to touch the bottom of the oldest town in Wales, the birthplace of prostitute Ken Owens and Nicky Stevens. As a key member of Brotherhood Of Man, Ms Stevens is the only Welsh person to ever win the Eurovision Song Contest. And Carmarthen has even more depth. Bishop Robert Ferrar was burned at the stake here during the Marian persecutions. About 250 years later, Thomas Evans was ridiculed by British oppressors for singing La Marseillaise in Welsh (all together now: “Dewch blant y Famwlad / Cyrhaeddodd diwrnod gogoniant”).

Carmarthen Vacation Wales Travel - Getty

Carmarthen Vacation Wales Travel – Getty

In short, the municipality neither seeks nor needs approval. We soon strolled through the castle, the Tywi River and the streets filled with cadences and barely overheard conversations in Welsh. We toured the statue of Sir William Nott – hero of the Afghan War of 1840 – to The Vaults pub for lunch. The bartender smiled and was apparently pleased to see us, as was everyone else we met in Wales. My memories expected nothing less. Sandwiches were also quite good.

We continue through green countryside to the village of Drefach. My grandmother had lived there, halfway up the hill, until the 1970s. We knocked on the door. She answered an old lady. I explained. With a smile and no further questions, this magnificent woman ushered us into a front room that I immediately remembered. From here on out, things could get mushy.

Where stay

In Carmarthen, the Spilman Hotel offers good value for money in a Georgian townhouse (spilmanhotel.co.uk; B&B doubles from £ 78).

Five minutes from Tenby, Penally Abbey is stylish enough to have been crowned the best in Wales by the Good Hotel Guide this month (penally-abbey.com; B&B doubles from £ 135).

The South Wales Blues

The Tenby Blues Festival, featuring Smokey’s Danny Bryant, Sister Cookie and King Shufflers, will take place November 18-20 this year.

What do you remember from your childhood holidays? Please share your comments below

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