Dylan’s Swansea: 50 years a city

Dylan’s Swansea: 50 years a city

The Dylan Thomas Centre’s Linda Evans gives her take on Swansea then and now.

On 3 July 1969, Prince Charles, the newly-crowned Prince of Wales, stood on the steps of Swansea’s Guildhall and proclaimed that Swansea was to be elevated to city status (which was officially granted by the Queen in December that year).

Exactly 50 years since that momentous day, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall visited Swansea to join in our year-long celebrations of the 50th anniversary of that historic occasion. The weather was perfect as the royal couple arrived at Victoria Park, and a high tide sparkled in the five-mile sweep of the bay.

Some 26 years earlier, when Swansea was still very much a town, Dylan Thomas recorded ‘Reminiscences of Childhood’, which was broadcast in February 1943 and has since appeared in many publications. In it, Dylan described affectionately his boyhood memories of growing up in Swansea, ‘a large Welsh industrial town’, ‘an ugly, lovely town’.  Ugly or not, to Dylan ‘This sea-town was my world’.

Today, private leisure boats and yachts have replaced much of the heavy machinery and shipping in the docklands (now the Maritime Quarter). Furthermore, the ‘impressive gasworks and slaughter house’ have gone and the ‘blackened monuments’ have been spruced up. Swansea Museum, the ‘museum that should be in a museum’, still marks a cultural quarter that has been expanded to encapsulate the National Waterfront Museum and of course, the Dylan Thomas Centre, which houses our renowned permanent exhibition on the young boy who grew up to become a literary sensation and arguably the most famous of Swansea’s sons.

I like to think he would find it ironic that an example of ‘a tram that shook like an iron jelly’, on which he often travelled, is now a prized museum exhibit. However, the pier at Mumbles, which was the terminus of the Mumbles ‘railway’ to which the much-loved and lamented trams travelled (it closed in 1960), is less ‘gaunt’, but newly and impressively renovated with a new lifeboat state-of-the-art station at the end.

The ‘crawling, sprawling’ ‘long and splendid-curving shore’ still delights residents and visitors alike, and children enjoy the timeless pleasures of making ‘castles and forts and harbours and race tracks in the sand’, just as the young Dylan and his contemporaries did.

Brass bands still play occasionally in Swansea’s parks, and one of Dylan’s  favourite childhood haunts, Cwmdonkin Park, ‘a world within the world of the sea-town’,  retains its air of respectability, even though the park keeper no longer patrols the grounds and the ‘old lady [that] arrived in the  Bath chair with six Pekinese and a pale girl’ in attendance no longer visit. The ‘old tall trees’ have come to maturity, and the park’s many paths and ‘secret places’ still hold unlimited possibilities for young explorers.

When Prince Charles, (an admirer of Dylan’s poetry, who can be heard reading the closing lines of the  poem ‘Fern Hill’ in our exhibition), visited this summer, the post-war drabness of a war-ravaged city which was still somewhat  prevalent in 1969 has largely receded into memory. Of course, every city has a darker side, and today all cities have concerns that Dylan could never have envisaged, but I hope he would agree, if he could come back and reminisce once more, that the scales have tipped towards the lovely, rather than the ugly for Swansea with its ‘singing sea’ on the ‘bent and Devon-facing shore’.

Linda Evans

This post is also available in: Welsh