Some of Dylan Thomas’s family lie in the Hampshire countryside where he and his wife lived very happily for some while in the 1930s, writes Barry Shurlock...

CHANCE encounters sometimes open unknown worlds. In the churchyard of St Mary and All Saints at Ellingham, just outside the New Forest, is the tombstone of a man with Welsh-sounding names and the simple epitaph: “GO GENTLY.”

Basic detective work shows that this is the grave of Llewelyn Edouard Thomas, the eldest son of Dylan and Caitlin Thomas, born in Hampshire just before the Second World War, and buried here at the turn of the century at the age of 61. And there are several other graves that help to tell the story of the early years of the Welsh poet.

The epitaph says much, as the relevant line of poetry actually reads: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” It is, in fact, a rebuttal by the brilliant professional copywriter that Llewelyn became, and probably expresses the angst he felt at being abandoned for a while in his early years by his parents.

During his childhood Llewelyn had to be brought up at Blashford by Caitlin’s sister Brigit and her mother, Yvonne Macnamara (1886-1973), who nicknamed him ‘Welly’. Though he later settled in Dawlish, he was deeply attached throughout his life to this enchanting part of the county that lies between the New Forest and the Hampshire Avon.

The story of the wild excesses of Dylan and Caitlin and their bohemian lifestyle are well known. Their rows, the boathouse cum writing shed at Laugharne, his tours of the USA with the tragic end in New York and much else. Less well known is that the way in which his early life as a poet was shaped by the time that he and Caitlin spent living in the village of Blashford, a mile or so north of Ringwood.

It’s a tiny place, with no more than about 65 houses, now dominated by areas of water and meadow created from gravel extraction. These include the Blashford Lakes Nature Reserve, 490 acres managed by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, in collaboration with the New Forest District Council and water companies.

The progress of Dylan, from the suburban comfort of Cymdonkin Drive, Swansea – driven by his broken schoolmaster father who read him Shakespeare almost before he could walk – to his chaotic, but fruitful life as a poet, owes much to his time in Hampshire.

It began with Caitlin’s father, Francis Macnamara (1886-1946), an Irishman with a colourful background, who inherited an estate in County Clare. His father had been killed in an ambush in 1919. His mother was an Australian heiress, with a fortune made by a great-uncle transported for armed robbery.

Although Macnamara was a protestant from an ancient Clare family, the independence of Ireland in 1922 and loss of most of the family lands finished his fortune, and he spent his life “in relative poverty and unproductive idleness”, according to some accounts. This was the man who married Yvonne, later to become Dylan’s mother-in-law, in 1907, but after about 10 years he abandoned her in favour of the sister-in-law of the painter Augustus John, Edith MacNeil. As will be seen, the Welsh painter was destined to influence the Welsh poet.

Macnamara was a man of many parts, educated at Harrow and Oxford, and the owner of a traditional gaff-rigged work-boat, a Galway Hooker, which he sailed from the west of Ireland to England and further afield. He tried without success to convert his property in Galway into a hotel.

After Caitlin had first met Dylan in the mid-1930s, in the Wheatsheaf pub in Fitzrovia, she took him home to her parents’ London home. When it became clear that they intended to marry, her mother Yvonne was warned against the penniless young poet with a penchant for irresponsible behaviour. But she could hardly complain: that was exactly what she had done in eloping with Francis Macnamara!

A second home in Blashford, called New Inn House, brought another dimension to the Macnamaras’ way of life, as it was whilst here that they enjoyed a long friendship with Augustus John, who lived at nearby Fryern Court, Fordingbridge. Caitlin and others shared much time with about a dozen of the painter’s children, half from his two wives and the rest illegitimate. A frequent visitor from Clouds Hill – now a National Trust property – was T.E. Lawrence, whose life at the time features in the prize-winning new film, Lawrence After Arabia.

After Francis and Yvonne had divorced, she came to live permanently in the New Inn House. It was a large property, once a pub, with 13 bedrooms and several acres of land, formerly on the Somerley Estate of the Agar family, earls of Normanton. One observer noted: “piles of bills and laundry … remained where they accumulated, and stacks of books, magazines and papers lying around, including comics and literary reviews.”

It stood on the corner of Snails Lane and the A338, “to the rear of the bus shelter… [and was] demolished and set on fire prior to gravel extraction by Halls Gravel Company” in the 1970s, according a local resident.

After honeymooning in Cornwall, and visiting the Thomas’ home in Swansea, Dylan and Caitlin, came to live at Blashford for six months in the winter of 1937/8. It was an idyllic period. A disused wooden hencoop with a rose-clad corrugated iron roof that had been used as a den by the children was converted into a summerhouse, where Dylan recited poetry.

The house was full of books, and during the stay he caught up with “two dozen thrillers”, the whole of Jane Austen, and some P.G. Wodehouse and John Cowper Powys. And he wrote, in an old woodhouse in the grounds, wearing layers and layers of clothes to keep warm and surrounded by trademark screwed-up papers.

Several of his early poems were written at Blashford, including I make this in a warring absence, The spire cranes, O make me a mask, and The hand that signed the paper, which is about the power of kings and politicians, whose “hands have no tears to flow”. In 2014 a notebook with drafts of poems he wrote at Blashford came to light.

He stayed in touch with his Swansea friend, Vernon Watkins, also an accomplished poet, but one who had chosen to have a ‘day job’ in a bank, even retiring with a pension. Dylan sent him his new work, as he was one of the few people whose criticism he respected. He was not, however, the perfect friend, accepting Vernon’s request to be his best man, but failing to turn up on the day.

Whilst at Blashford, Dylan and Caitlin enjoyed one of the most carefree and joyful periods of their life together, exploring the New Forest and the Dorset coast. They visited Durdle Door and Warbarrow Bay and frequently took the bus into Ringwood, to drink at the Royal Oak pub (now a restaurant), playing bar billiards, shove ha’penny and skittles.

Their time at Blashford during the winter 1937-8 has been recorded by a family friend, photographer and artist Nora Summers (and Yvonne’s lover), in Dylan Thomas and the Bohemians by Gabriel Summers and Leonie Summers with Jeff Towns (Parthian Press, 2015).

Also buried in the graveyard behind Ellingham church are Yvonne, her son John, daughters Brigit Marnier and artist Nicolette Devas (her stone shared with another artist, Rupert Shepherd, and his wife) and Nicolette’s son, Esmond Devas.

Better known to local historians is, however, another grave at Ellingham, a large chest tomb that stands alongside the south door of the church. Here lies Dame Alice Lisle, seated at nearby Moyles Court (now a prep school), executed in 1685 in the Square, Winchester, for harbouring John Hickes, a nonconformist minster, and Richard Nelthorpe, who had both taken part in the Battle of Sedgemoor. This was the failed attempt of the Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of Charles II, to overthrow James II. But all that’s another story.

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