Saturday, March 9, 2013

Carrying the bucket around Swansea

Today, March 6th was a ‘Swansea-only’ day. I had contemplated taking in some more Gower sights, but just ran out of time – I had so much to do and see in my old home town. More Gower tomorrow, I thought as I wrapped up the day. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

As usual, the day’s travels began with taking the number 3A bus towards the city center. Gone are the red South Wales Transport double-decker buses; now they are mostly blue, run by First Cymru, and have two or three levels of seating such that the back seat it about 2 feet higher than those at the front. I usually opt for the back seat to get a slightly better view, but with dampness in the air, the windows have become dirty so that any hope of getting good photos is slim to none. There are several purple ‘bendy-buses’ on certain routes, but I don’t think my bus pass is valid on those and First Cymru served all locations I needed to get to anyway.

First stop of the day – Swansea Civic Center and its Brangwyn Hall, with its world-famous Brangwyn Panels. When I was 10 or 11 years old, I once sang in a large choir from its elevated and multi-stepped stage. As you’d look at the stage, I was on the left, about 6 steps up – singing ‘Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet’ with all the gusto a soprano could muster. Some 10 years later, I proudly walked across the stage, from right to left, to receive my B.Sc. degree diploma from Coleg y Pryfysgol, Abertawe (University College, Swansea) – part of the University of Wales. I should (will) post more about the ‘panels’ later; at this point suffice it to say there are almost 2 dozen of them, each more than 8 feet by 12 feet or so, depicting floral scenes much like this one:


I walked past some places that brought back memories from younger days: Joe’s Ice Cream Parlour – still serving after more than 60 years that I can recall; past Valerio’s Café (now an Indian restaurant) where as teenagers, we’d sip that frothy coffee, listen to juke box and do some ‘bird-watching’ or flirting.; past the Lloyd’s Bank where my wife used to work before we married in 1970. Dylan Thomas’ widow, Caitlin, had an account, one that my wife handled, at that bank. The building is now a ‘bookie-shop’.  Just before stopping to catch another bus into the city center I looked toward the Indian restaurant at which my wife and I had an embarrassing moment in 1969. I had called her, to meet after work for a curry. When it came time to pay the bill, we each discovered that neither of us had any cash at all. Graciously, the manager put us ease and said my (then fiancée) could simply stop by the next day on her lunch break from the bank, 8 or 9 doors up the road, and pay then. The even gave her a complimentary cup of chai when she showed up to pay the next day.

After arriving at the central bus station, I just had to take this photo – though the establishment no longer does justice to my name!  Like many pubs in Swansea (the whole of the UK for that matter) it has ‘gone belly up’.

I walked on over to the seafront and eastward to the Marina – a rehabbed area of one of Swansea’s old docks, now with ‘period’ lofts and apartments. Two statues of Swansea’s most famous son stand in the courtyard outside the Dylan Thomas theater near the Maritime Museum. I walked on, crossing the ‘Sail bridge’ over the River Tawe, past a memorial to lost Merchant Navy Seamen, one being the brother of my brother’s first wife and on to the old Norwegian Seaman’s Church alongside one of the docks which once made Swansea the busiest port ion the world. The ‘Kirk’ now houses a private retail business. Another of the former docks is now filled in and occupied by a large Sainsbury’s grocery store; just another of so many changes in Swansea.

Some older buildings, such as Somerset House, still remain – though it is now a hotel and not the place where many citizen-records (such as birth certificates, etc.) birth records were once kept.

Just across the road, I entered Wind Street, once a place with several large banks, a few pubs and a garage – outside of which I had my first automobile accident; in 1968. I had backed up too far and bumped into the front of another parked car; no big deal or damage, just an embarrassment in front of my friends. Wind Street now is the ‘new Mumbles Mile’ – the place where students congregate in the many eatery-drinking places that now occupy the former bank buildings. The sign at the entrance to the once notable ‘Salubrious Passage’ – a narrow, post-lined alley that is . . .  well, salubrious, is even gone. The sign is probably in some student’s dorm or ‘digs’ – or on some councilman’s ‘man-cave; as a memento!

I continued my walk into Castle Square, looking toward the renovations of the 11th century castle – overshadowed by a 150- foot tall 20th century plain glass block-house testimonial to commercialization – the British-Tele-Com building. I believe Prince Charles calls such architectural accretions, 'carbuncles'; I share his disdain for them. Some of them almost do cause blood to squirt from your eyes at the sight of them!

The once noted Boots Chemist on the corner of Princess Way and Oxford Street is now a McDonald's. 'Boots' is where my mates and I, as teenagers, would ‘chat up’ the female assistants each Christmastime, inviting them to a party – though no party existed. The ploy was never successful; oh well, try again next year! I descended the stairs of the 24-tabled doom-dark snooker hall - which my father believed was the passage to hell – to see what had changed. Little, except that it no longer took a shilling (for 20 minutes or so) in the meters for the table’s overhead lights. ‘More like 2 pound, now’, said a voice in the shadows.

I walked on up High Street, looking but not seeing the ghosts of Woolworth's Store, the Wimpy Bar, the Bernie Inns eatery, or the place where at 17-years of age I picked out a bolt of nice blue cloth, was measured for, and 2 weeks later was presented with my first ‘14” tapered-bottom, dress left please’, snazzy two-piece suit’. Look out girls, here I come!

I arrived at High Street Station to pick up my ‘online purchased tickets’ for my train trip out of a ‘once and future’ Swansea; I was going to North Wales next Sunday. I took a last look back down a once bustling shopping-street – now with empty, grubby and failing, poster stickered windows - and sighed.  

My old grammar school, Dynevor, now has a modern glass box stuck intrusively into a corner and the adjoining Albert Hall cinema stands like a skin-stripped, white-sided relic of a once alluring place of entertainment.

There is one more downtown sight to see now.  In 1959, reconstruction began on Swansea Market – bombed and broken in World War II. In the summer before I entered Swansea University, I worked as a laborer on that reconstruction – assisting with the scaffolding - it was my dad’s way of getting a bit of insight to ‘a man’s world’ between my academic pursuits. Swansea Market, with its glass roof, is a site not to be missed. Stalls abound with dozens of species of fresh sea fish, cockles, mussels, octopus, shrimp, prawns, squid, crab, lobster, whelks, and laver bread. The latter is unique to Wales; it is seaweed boiled into a black dollop of iodine-rich goop!  I have never tasted it – but bought a small package and will try a gram or two after I next have a few pints of beer!

Various ‘cuts’ of lamb, beef, pork, chicken and bacon – like you’ll never see as bacon in the US – alongside a variety of mouth-watering sausages, pork pies, meat and gravy pies, corned beef pies, steak and kidney pies, and rissoles.

There are Welsh cakes, breads, pastries, potatoes, flowers, cabbage, tomatoes, beans, sprouts – it goes on and on; a harem for a gastronome. 

Up the hill, now!  Adjacent to the market is the Central Bus Station where I catch a bus that winds its way on a 600- feet high steep hill to Townhill. Near the top, from Pantycelyn Road, there is a great view of Swansea Bay stretching some 6 miles or more from the dock’s entrance around the half-circle bite to Mumbles Head.This has to be the one place in Swansea that I always keep in my mind. It is where visitors are always taken to see the town laid out below them.  It can only be captured well in a panorama of photos. Later, in this blog series, I'll mention a visit to Croydon to see my wife's cousin, 'Big' Jimmy, (my Best Man at our wedding in 1970). He remembers being taken to this place! He too must have looked out through these, then much smaller shrubs, across the green-roofed Patti Pavilion in the foreground, towards Mumbles.  

I sat at a picnic table and while I feasted my eyes on the landmarks below, ate the corned beef pie that I bought at Swansea Market and washed it down with a can of Carlsberg lager. I could see the Guildhall, the chapel (seen in the film 'Twin Town') that stands next door to my childhood (for 27 years) home, my ‘local’ – The Rhyddings Hotel – and off to my right, Swansea University which was a short walk from my home via Brynmill and Singleton Parks. A slight drizzle necessitated deploying my small ‘brolly’ but the rain left after a couple of minutes. I stayed a few minutes more to soak up the sights of the various sites – old and new; some of the latter I wish were not there.

I took the nearby footpath, down a couple of hundred steep steps through an undeveloped area of trees and bushes – some bearing festoons of discarded bottles, cans and plastic wrappings - obviously too heavy for their owners to carry to the nearby trash-cans!  The steps ended and I walked 100 yards down the next street to see, on the left, number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, birthplace of Dylan Thomas. As a child, I had played cricket on the field across from that house. I had played lawn bowls and listened to brass bands on Saturday evenings on the bandstand in Cwmdonkin Park, just 150 yards from his home.

Just a ¼ mile further on, I stood in front of my childhood home. I knocked; no one was at home; students the likely occupants, so I just took a photo of the house – a humble affair, but it was home:

I walked, as I had thousands of times in the past, down the street toward Brynmill Park - and its duck-pond. This time however, my street looked like a shabby Christmas tree with ugly ornaments; house after saddening house bore signs advertizing ‘Student Digz – to let’. The neighborhood has been taken over by part-time residents - students at nearby Swansea University – of an atlasful of nationalities and ‘paucity of tidiness and consideration’, according to the dismayed reports of the few property owners who failed (or declined) to get out of the way of the advancing tide that has pounded on their shores in Brynmill.

Brynmill Park has lost some of the attractions of my day. The Muscovies, peacocks, partridges and monkeys have all disappeared – as has the small motorboat which made 3 trips around the 1 acre pond – for 6 pence (in ‘old’ money).  Though I only saw one swan, there were several Mallards and the sign identified many other waterfowl there - and there is still a rich variety (some perhaps surprising in the gloominess of the day) of shrubbery around the pond.

I crossed the lane into Singleton Park, followed the stream a little way, then cut back to walk through the Ornamental Garden. The time of year was not conducive to seeing it in its glory, but there were a few large (20 feet high) rhododendron bushes in bloom near the stands of tall bamboo. At the far end of Singleton park lies the University of Swansea – Prfysgol Abertawe; my center of learning for 3 years 50 years ago. I thought a quick pint in the Student Union Bar may knock the dust off and rekindle more memories. Lord, what a mistake! I poked my head into what seemed like a hodge-podge of a Turkish bazaar, lunatic asylum and ‘shout-fest’! I beat a hasty retreat, catching the bus outside to take me from bedlam to the tranquility of my hosts’ home.  

I thought again of Dylan Thomas. He once called Swanseaan ugly, lovely town’. It has since (10 years or so after his death) become a city, but if he were able to speak of it during the centennial celebrations of his birth next year, I’m convinced he would share my view, from what I saw today, that it has become ‘more of the one and less of the other’.

The tour will continue . . .  tomorrow . . . with more of Gower


  1. Mel, these are such wonderful posts. Brendan and I should print them off and be sure your great grandchildren have them as an addendum to their travel guides when they visit. Mary was a bank teller to the widow of Dylan Thomas. Family lore for the ages.

  2. SJ, the scenes you paint with your words and the emotions they evoke within me, reminds me of the feelings I experience each time I go "home" to visit the haunts of my childhood. One thing I have noticed as I roam though the streets of those bygone years is the sound of children at play. That unique sound is ubiquitous wherever the human family has been strewn. I've always taken comfort in knowing that new memories are being made in those places held so sacred in my heart.