By Julia Conway
After a steep climb up Cwmdonkin Drive, I pause to catch my breath and admire the house in front of me. Like much of old Swansea, rows of terraced houses are built on the hillside. I admire the wrought iron gate, Art Deco with Five spelt out in welded metal on the top. I check my watch; it is time to meet the owner of this Edwardian property.
Geoff Haden is welcoming with a broad smile and alert, silvery-blue eyes. He is dressed smart and casual with his reading glasses tucked into the V of his dark blue pullover. I am invited inside and immediately transported back in time. This unassuming address is the birthplace of the poet Dylan Thomas. Now thoughtfully restored and furnished in the style of the original décor.
The blue plaque outside Five Cwmdonkin Drive
We sit in the Parlour – traditionally the best room of the house. A grandfather clock marks time rhythmically and a gramophone player sits elegantly in the corner. My host offers refreshments but I decline, imagining a silver tray laden with fine bone china and fear a catastrophe if I am asked to pour.
The grandfather clock and a portrait of Dylan Thomas
I wanted to know why Geoff decided to buy and renovate this property. He began by relating the history of the family who moved in shortly before Dylan was born in 1914. “The Thomas’ lived here for 23 years, during which time Dylan wrote two thirds of his published work. It’s probably the most important house in Dylan’s life.” Over time the house changed hands and by the 1990s was used as student accommodation. Geoff first viewed the house in 2003. “It was very run down structurally, and decoratively it was in a bad condition and I was just horrified. That here is the most famous son of Swansea and of Wales and nothing is being done about his birthplace,” he added.
An original gramophone still in working order
It took two years to complete the sale and three years to restore Five Cwmdonkin Drive. “We spent a year researching it so that we made sure we were doing things in the right way,” said Geoff. During that process he found Emily, a housemaid who worked for the Thomas’, she provided vital information about how the house ran.
Geoff Hayden enjoying a Dylan Thomas poetry book
Geoff added: “One of the great things about the house from our point of view is that nobody with any money ever lived here, so nobody was ever tempted to modernise. The windows and fireplaces are original, so are the doors, ceilings and skirtings.” All the furnishings were sourced within 20 miles, from car-boot sales, charity shops and auctions. Dylan’s writings also helped with the restoration as his stories and letters gave lots of clues about the layout of the house.
Geoff is certainly qualified for such a huge project, with more than 30 years experience as a chartered structural engineer. Born and educated in Swansea, he has a poetic lilt to his voice much like that of his literary hero. Now aged 70, with no plans to slow down, Geoff agrees that he has his ideal job. As 2014 is the centenary celebration of Dylan’s birth Geoff has a busy time ahead. The previous day he had been to functions in Cardiff and London for the launch of a commemorative First Day Cover released to coincide with a Royal Mail stamp of Dylan Thomas from the Remarkable Lives series.
The house was officially opened by Dylan’s daughter Aronwy in 2008. Geoff said: “Since then we’ve had it open for Edwardian dinner parties, house tours and events. People can stay overnight here.” Privately owned properties do not qualify for lottery grant assistance as museums do. Volunteers help with tour parties and administration.
I was delighted to be offered a full tour of the house. As he led the way, Geoff quoted from Under Milk Wood. “To begin at the beginning: It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible black…”