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Dylan Thomas in Metroland

As a trained Historian as well as being an artist, I feel the need to place my “urban minimal” paintings in context. I think it helps me understand the city around me too. Swansea is a town in which nothing in particular has happened. There was no workers’ rising (Merthyr and Newport), no cross-dressing protests (Rebecca Riots to the west of here) although Emily Phipps and the suffragettes were pretty active here in the years before the First World War. Again and again I come back to Poet Dylan Thomas who grew up here.

“Metroland” or “Metro-land” was the name dreamt up by advertisers for the new commuter belt communities to the north-west of London that was served by the Metropolitan Line. The 1920s and 1930s saw the rapid growth of new houses often in a mock Tudor/rustic style. In Wales, the presence of swathes of brand new Metroland-style houses signalled that the middle classes were as respectable (or “tidy”) and as well off as those in England. This was in stark contrast to the working-class mining communities in the South Wales during the Great Depression. They were experiencing destitution and extreme poverty. The 1930s in the Rhondda Valley was all about soup kitchens and the means test, not faux rustic idylls.

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“Hunger March” to London by welsh miners to draw attention to their plight

Not so in the heart of suburban Swansea. Poet Dylan Thomas, was born in an Edwardian house in 1914. His home was in the bosom of Swansea’s version of Metroland; Ffynone, Uplands and parts of Sketty. He grew up in Swansea in the 1920s, well before the Luftwaffe and the town planners destroyed the town centre. He famously wrote that Swansea was “an ugly, lovely town … crawling, sprawling … by the side of a long and splendid curving shore. This sea-town was my world.”

5 Cwmdonkin Drive
Swansea birthplace and childhood home of Dylan Thomas.

Writing to his friend, Trevor Hughes, in early 1934 he describes himself as “living in Metroland” in the midst of “respectability and subservient to the office clock”. This is quite ironic as Trevor lived in Harrow, outside London which was part of the original “Metro-land” served by the Metropolitan Line.

Young Dylan clearly found the respectability suffocating. Indeed, Dylan Thomas’s antics were not always to the tastes of the people of Swansea. After all, his birth place number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, was only made into a museum and restored to its former glory in 2005. As a teenager, Dylan acted in several plays at the Swansea Little Theatre which was based in a small church hall in the sea-side village of Mumbles near to Swansea. His alcoholism was already affecting his life as he frequently needed to slip out of rehersals for a quick drink.

The Antelope and the Mermaid Hotel were closest. He later wrote about breaking his tooth playing “cats and dogs” in the Mermaid. Dylan entered wholeheartedly into the game by crawling about on his hands and knees, barking loudly and finally shuffling outside to bite a lamp post and breaking a tooth! However, when the Company producer gave him an ultimatum at a dress rehersal, he left the company.

It was at number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive that he wrote more than 200 poems in his tiny bedroom before he was 20 years old. Later in the same year he wrote to Trevor Hughes about “living in Metroland”, he left Swansea for Fulham, in London. To live with his artist friend Alfred Janes. He had well and truly left Metroland now.

Alfred Janes Portrait
Alfred Jane’s Portrait of Dylan Thomas
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Former library

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Former Library

This library was a “cwtch”. That’s a Welsh word that is widely used by all who live in Wales, both Welsh-speakers, and non-Welsh speakers. It has a dual meaning. It can mean a hug/cuddle or it can be used to describe a small safe place, like a cubby hole. The two meanings are intertwined and often indistinguishable. This place was both.

I loved visiting this tiny library. It stood on Bernard Street – the artery that runs through the heart of Brynmill. It should have been too small, but it wasn’t. It was just the right size. It was about the size of someone’s living room. It felt like someone’s front room. The walls were filled with books and talking books. There was a computer with a printer which I used to use before we had the internet (back in the time of dinosaurs).  There was a children’s books’ stand and a notice board full of community notices. It was a nice place to hang out. The librarian was a lovely, peaceful lady who has a welcoming air about her.

The tiny library had been there since 1952. Once upon a time it had been an ice-cream shop. It was run my Irene Mann’s grandfather. Irene is a local councillor. The library was closed in 2010. Austerity killed it. The council had starved it of funds and then said it was tatty and should go.  Everyone was against the closure. There was talk of a twice fortnightly mobile library that would visit the Uplands half a mile away. I never saw it. I am not sure it ever came.

Now there is a “community library” in the Community Centre that is run by volunteers for three short sessions a week.  The only mobile “library” I have seen in the area is the Dylan’s Mobile Bookstore, a large van that visits the Uplands Market once a month. But that’s not a library. I still occasionally see the librarian out walking her dogs.

The library was eventually replaced by a photography studio run by two friends, Geraint and Gary. It’s called Safelight Images. It’s great to have a local business here. They do a lot of weddings. There also large imposing photos of dogs and babies are displayed in the window. I am sure that it’s just the right size for a photography studio.

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English Corner

English Corner
English Corner

I love Victorian tin chapels. Maybe it’s because a playgroup I went to as a child in Hereford was held in one. I think that one was painted dark green. It was near the racecourse.

This tin building is at the crest of the hill, on Rhyddings Park Road. The corrugated iron is painted cream. It is jammed in by the side of the much larger and grander Argyle and Rhyddings Park Presbyterian Church.

The tin chapel is a friendly and welcoming building. The painted blue door always seems to be open. Playgroups meet here. I often see people with small infants coming and going.

There is a banner hanging above the door advertising “English Corner” for visitors to come and practice their English. This Welsh church has clearly gone out of their way to welcome international students and immigrants. I knew nothing about this community until I looked at their website and discovered that the church has been led by two energetic and thoughtful overseas mission workers, Charles and Molly Chua ,from Singapore for the past 11 years.

English Corner was set up by Charles and Molly after they found two lost Chinese students wondering the streets of Swansea. Charles and Molly took the two students to a Chinese shop and then drove them home. Over a cup of tea, the students pleaded: ‘we need someone to help us with our English!’ So they did something. The church set up weekly English classes on Friday evenings, and “English Corner’ grew rapidly, from 9 to 29 Chinese students in 3 weeks. Now 50-60 students regularly attend. It has since grown to become an international community linked with the Universities and Language Schools in Swansea. This proactive and positive work has had many benefits for the local community, students and new residents as well for the church which has a diverse congregation of Welsh and Chinese, Asians, Europeans and Africans worshipers.

So this unassuming little tin building holds a strong and vibrant community.  I like that.

Find out more about Argyle and Rhyddlings Park Church

 

 

 

 

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The Former Grocers

People remember Edward VII. He is in History books and TV programmes. In Brynmill there is a road named after him.  Kings Edward’s Road was once part of Gorse Lane, the narrow road that runs along side Patti Pavillion and St Helen’s Rugby and Cricket Ground that has been there since the 1870s. The street had its name changed in 1904, in honour of the new-ish king Edward VII, known to his family as Bertie.

On 20th July 1904, Bertie came to visit Swansea. He arrived in the royal yacht “The Victoria and Albert” and “cut the first sod” of the new King’s Dock named in his honour. Thousands turned out to see Bertie and his Danish wife, Alexandra, drive through the streets of Swansea in an open-topped carriage. They also traveled up and down on the Mumbles railway in a specially decorated carriage.

Ordinary people liked Bertie. He had the common touch. He had been Prince of Wales for many, many years before his mother, Queen Victoria, died in 1901. He had spent many of these years drinking, gambling and womanising, but when he became king, he proved to be a popular king.

When I first moved to Swansea in 1998 to do my teacher training course, I used to walk around the area, exploring. My friend bought a house at the top of Rhyddings Park Road. She later moved to Sketty and now rents the house out to a PhD student and his family. Rhyddings Park Road had very few student houses in 1998 many three or four. It’s all changed now.  There are 40 students on Rhyddings Park Road.

King Edwards’s Road is over 52% students houses (that’s about 90 of them). It feels like more. Its a rather soulless street now. The large pub on the corner is closed. The grocers on the opposite side of the road is gone.  The house in the painting isn’t very pretty. Covered in ugly pebble-dashing.  I can’t remember if it had pebble-dash on it in 1998.

I remember going into the shop and admiring its wooden floors. It was light and airy. However, grief haunted that shop, like a heavy pall. I never forgot it. The old grocer sat, silently next to his till, starring into to space. There were not many vegetables in the shop but there were some green apples. On a piece of folded paper on the counter there was a colour photograph of a cheerful old lady wearing glasses. In wobbly old fashioned hand writing, next to the photograph was the statement “SMOKING KILLED MY LOVELY WIFE”.

It was heart-breaking. I didn’t know what to say to the grocer. So I just asked for a few apples. He put them in a brown paper bag and I paid for them.  Later I saw that the notice had been placed in the window. Then the shop closed. I suppose the grocer died or went into a home. He didn’t look like he’d go into a home. Now, it is a characterless house. The shop front was changed, the windows were made smaller. Maybe, the pinkish pebble-dash was added to the house then.  It’s a personal history lost.

I suppose that’s one of the distressing aspects of this transient community, no-one remembers. We are just here for a year. Passing Through. No point investing time or energy here. All is forgotten and something very important is lost. I don’t know what the grocer’s name was, but I still remember him.

Former Grocers
Former Grocers, King Edward’s Road, Brynmill, Swansea.

 

 

 

 

 

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Rhyddings House, Brynmill

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Rhyddings House, Brynmill

This is a strange rather ugly building. It’s pebble-dashed exterior is tinged grey with neglect. The front garden is unkempt and there’s a red boat in the far corner of the garden. I noticed this building ages ago and was intrigued by it. Why didn’t it look like the houses around it? It reminded me of a block of flats and it seemed out of place amongst the tight terraces.

 

I have discovered recently that it is, in fact, an old mansion house, originally built in the mid 18th century. If you walk around the back of the building it looks less like an ugly tenement as through a stone archway there is smaller stone building attached called “the cottage”.

Rhyddings House
Rear of Rhydding House with the “Cottage”

 

 

Further research reveals that when it was built in the mid-18th century, it was one of few big houses to the west of Swansea. It had 8 generously sized bedrooms, an orchard, walled garden, and farmland. The surrounding areas would have been hay fields, dotted with patches of trees.  It was located far away from the smoking chimneys of the industrial areas along the River Tawe. It had views of the burrows (sand dunes) at the bottom of the hill to the south and, weather permitting, across the bay to the distant shores of Devon. From 1837 onwards, you would have been able to see the new Brynmill Reservoir to the north-west. This lake later became the heart of Brynmill Park.

The name of Rhyddings is a bit of a mystery. I asked my Welsh-speaking facebook friend, Rhydian, his opinion on why “Rhyddings” is pronounced locally with a hard “d” sound instead of with a soft “f” sound. He said,  “short answer is that I don’t know. The word ‘Rhydd’ is Welsh for ‘Free’ but I’m not sure whether there’s any connection there to be honest because the word Rhydding isn’t used today if it was ever a word, and -ing isn’t a common suffix in Welsh.With regards to the pronunciation, it probably is being mispronounced technically but since it’s not, as far as I’m aware, an actual word then I don’t feel it matters.”

The house had many tenants over the years. Thomas Bowdler , was its most notable resident. He was an English doctor of medicine, philanthropist, and man of letters. He lived here in 1818, whilst he was carefully deleting all the unsuitable parts from the plays of Shakespeare ‘which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family’ to make them suitable for women and children to read:- this was his “The Family Shakespeare”. He died in 1825 at the age of 70 and was buried in nearby Oystermouth.  He left money to the poor of Swansea and his home parish of Box, in Somerset. Although the bulk of his large library was donated to the University of Wales, Lampeter, the remainder of his library and print collection were put up for sale along with his furniture.

The house was subject to a series of misfortune, not least of which was being struck by lightning during an autumn thunderstorm of 1831 and being bombed during the Second World War. Relations with the local community weren’t always easy – different tenants prosecuted local children for minor “crimes” on a more than one occasion. Once for a 12-year-old was prosecuted for “scrumping” (pinching apples) and a 14-year old for picking flowers. In 1873 a public right of way through the near-by Rhyddings Fields were closed off and this provoked an anonymous letter from the fictional  “Twm Sion Catti” (a Welsh version of Robin Hood) demanding to know who had done this. A later tenant, the Dutch South African farmer Richard White Beor, became a Justice of the Peace and no doubt helped keep law and order in this rural area.

The last decade of the 19th century saw the start of the terraces being built. In the 1880s Swansea was growing rapidly. Middle-class suburbs were spreading west. St Helen’s Avenue and King Edward’s Road had been built and houses were starting to climb up Rhyddings Park Road and Finsbury Terrace. By the start of the First World War, the farmland and the orchard was a dim and distant memory.

 

Map of Brynmill
Brynmill, Swansea

 

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The Rhyddings, Brynmill, Swansea.

 

 

The Rhyddings
“The Rhyddings” 33x 41 cm

 

The magnificent red brick building at the end of our road used to be called the Rhyddings Hotel but in recent years has recently rebranded itself as “The Rhyddings at Swansea”. I have always admired it’s generously arched windows which look out north and west from the bar and the lounge bar.

Local legend has it that it used to be a coaching house. Presumably, the current building was constructed in the late Victorian period, as it is built from similar red brick to that of the Brynmill Junior School which was built in 1986.

Writer Kingsley Amis (of “Lucky Jim” fame as and father of Martin Amis)  later drank here in the late 1940s when it was run by ex-professional footballer Jack Fowler. I was would amazed if Dylan Thomas hadn’t drunk here too but I have yet to come across a reference to him doing so. He is known to have been keen on the Uplands Tavern and the pubs in Mumbles.

For some reason, locals use an Anglicised pronunciation of the name “Rhyddings” (with a hard “d” sound instead of the soft “f” sound that would be used in Welsh pronunciation. Perhaps this is simply a sign that Swansea is a very Anglicised town and sadly, Welsh is not often heard here. Medieval Swansea had an English community and much later the English from Devon and Cornwall came here in the 18th and 19th centuries came to work in the copper and tinplate industries.

The white building on the opposite corner to the Rhyddings is the Park Fish Bar which claims to be the oldest fish and chip shop in Swansea (running since 1974 since you ask). It is unusual to see the road outside The Rhyddings pub empty. There are usually cars parked there. The absence of cars illustrates how the community of Brynmill has been hollowed out by an imbalance of student houses. In many streets in this area, 80%-90% of houses are empty in the summer.  It makes for an eerily quiet summer. It’s like a ghost town. It’s very sad.

The imbalance also affects local businesses. Not only because the area is very empty in the summer months but even when they are here students tend not to drink in the local pub or eat chips from the chip shop. They drink at home and order their food from Adsa & Tescos or have takeaways delivered by some poor Deliveroo rider who struggled up the steep Swansea hills to deliver their food. Some do, of course, but Jeff, who used to run the Park Fish Bar, used to tell me tales of the days before the student houses swamped the area when families regularly bought fish, chips, and pizzas from his shop and the queue reached out the door and around the corner.  This is a shame as students undoubtedly bring youth and energy to the area but when there is such an imbalance it no longer feels like a healthy and varied community but instead some sort of annexe to the University Campus.

Note: Not to be confused with Rhyddings House, which is at the corner of Bernard Street and St Albans Road. I’ll be coming to that ghost of a house next.