When avid Dylan Thomas fan and Structural Engineer Geoff Haden bought the Swansea birthplace of the widely popular Welsh poet and writer back in 2005, it wasn’t in the desired condition.
However, after a three-year renovation project, the birthplace of Thomas, whose work includes poems ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ and ‘And death shall have no domination’, the history and reputation of the famous 5 Cwmdonkin Drive has been restored.
Now a popular tourist attraction, Haden recalls the renovation of the birthplace and his pride at its success in celebration of International Dylan Thomas Day on 14 May.
“I first saw the house in about 2003 and it was occupied then by Swansea City Council, who had it for four years and I was quite shocked about the condition of it. It was like a very run-down student bedsit, which it had been in the years before the council took over.
“I approached the owners of the house and eventually agreed a deal to take the house over on St David’s Day 2005. That started a three-year journey to restore the house and make it look as it might have in 1914, the year that the Thomas family bought it.
“The renovation was a multi-staged project that took three years. The first year I spent a lot of time researching the period, the house and Dylan’s time in it. He lived there for 23 years. We did very little work apart from stripping the wallpaper off to find out if any of the walls had been altered, we had to get into the skin of the building. I got really involved with the research and then we were ready to move forward to do the building work, to strengthen it and put things right.
“Then, the third part was the furnishing of the building which we needed to find furnishing of the period. We were really lucky to find the Thomas’ maid Emily. She knew what was in there because she had worked for the Thomas’ for five years, when Dylan was 16 and she was able to tell us all about the house: the colours, the furnishing, the layout and so it was trying to replicate what she could remember. Every furnishing and ornament in the house was found within a 20 mile radius of Cwmdonkin Drive, so it’s as local as we could make it.”
The renovation of the Birthplace has been great success, returning the house from its previous condition to that of when the Thomas’ were present. The Birthplace attracts visitors from every corner of the world. They can wander through the rooms at their own pace: the bedroom where Dylan was born, the front parlour ‘kept for best’, the father’s study, bathroom, kitchen, his sister’s bedroom and Dylan’s own bedroom – the smallest room in the house, where he wrote most of the work he had published. It’s an amazing room! Haden expressed his pride at the success of the renovation.
“I was very pleased because I think Emily was pleased that she saw what it was like when it was finished, being able to visit it a very short time before she died. She could relate to the house that we had created and I think it was very emotional for her. We opened the house in 2008. Many people who come and visit will say that they feel that the Thomas family had just popped out shopping and they’d be back any moment and that’s testament to the atmosphere and feel of the house.
“It’s always great to see the diverse range of visitors we get. We get Dylan’s scholars who know all about his work, we get the curious who want to see something about this man they’ve heard a little bit about. Then, there are children that come and are introduced to Dylan’s work for the first time.”
May 14th is now annually celebrated as International Dylan Thomas Day, remembering the heritage of one of, if not Wales’ most famous ever writer. The date was chosen to mark the first ever reading of Under Milk Wood, in New York in 1953, with Dylan taking part.
Geoff Haden was instrumental in campaigning for establishing a Dylan Day, because he believes in the importance of continuing to celebrate Thomas’ work.
“It’s something that was long overdue, that we at the Birthplace campaigned for and it’s actually the date that I chose as being the suitable day. Cerys Matthews then really picked it up and convinced the Welsh Government to put some money into the first Dylan days to get it off the ground.
“I think it all goes to the memory of Dylan, it’s a yearly event that is growing and growing and it’s something that was needed to just show how good the work that he produces is. It is still hugely popular nearly 70 years after his death.
“This years event, co-hosted by author and broadcaster Alun Gibbard, is jam packed, with contributions from Wales, England and Spain and an audience from many countries round the world.”