Post-industrial Swansea is still the “ugly, lovely town” Dylan Thomas grew up in a century ago. It is a fascinating approach if you arrive by train, passing the harsh realities of Port Talbot on your left, which allegedly inspired the dystopian cityscapes for director Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. You curve round to the pleasant view of Swansea Bay, flanked on the far side by the Mumbles and its lighthouse, which marks the near side of the Gower peninsula. It’s a fantastic panorama, like welcoming arms waiting to give you a big cwtch (a Welsh embrace) as you pull into the city.
The bay lends itself to the opening scenes of this month’s Now the Hero/Nawr yr Arwr, an immersive theatrical experience in which performers lead audiences on a journey through the city, my hometown, and its artistic treasures. The show, which I developed with a team of collaborators, including fellow Welshman Owen Sheers, begins at a shipping container on the beach adjacent to the 360 Cafe.
Back at the station, the first thing you see when you come through the ticket barrier on your right is a small picture of Peter Ham, the Welsh lead singer of Badfinger, who co-wrote the song Without You (covered by Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey) and committed suicide in 1975 aged 27. It’s nice that this tribute takes precedence over Dylan Thomas but you come face to face with the poet when you step outside the station in the shape of a cartoon-like mural portrait by Pete Fowler, the artist who provides all the artwork for the Super Furry Animals. It’s worn but beautiful, a bit like Swansea.
The pavement outside the station bears the words “Ambition is critical.” This is a riposte to a quotation often incorrectly attributed to Thomas, that Swansea is the “graveyard of man’s ambitions”. They had fun with it in the film Twin Town, the great Swansea movie from the 90s. It’s since been updated from discreet silver lettering to bright, bold red, which feels in keeping with the ongoing cultural regeneration of the city.
Head down High Street, which has been neglected, though artists are now driving its revitalisation, with lots of shops having been taken over by galleries. Look out for Volcano Theatre, which has its own gallery. Above it is a giant painting of Elizabeth Taylor, she’s shedding a tear made by the Swansea graffiti artist Pure Evil. There is something mournful about it: perhaps she’s crying for Swansea – forever the bridesmaid to Cardiff’s bride. Other new landmarks include Galerie Simpson, led by Jane Simpson, who is well-connected because of her association with the YBAs (whose number include Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin). Continue along High Street before turning right onto College Street for more art at the eclectic Elysium Gallery.
Arrive at Castle Square, named after the much-diminished ruin that dates back to the early-12th century. It’s a redoubtable survivor given that much of Swansea’s centre was destroyed by the Luftwaffe over three nights in February 1941. It was targeted because of the docks and you can explore that history in the National Waterfront Museum. To get there, walk down the architecturally wonderful Wind Street (locally known as Wine Street), which is quiet by day but lively at night – because all the banks have been taken over by bars, pubs and clubs.
As well as its permanent display, the National Waterfront Museum, which is on Oystermouth Road, has a lovely new feature called GRAFT. It’s an edible landscape work developed by local artist Owen Griffiths in association with the museum and community groups. A barren courtyard has been transformed into a community garden that feeds local charities.
Cross into Somerset Place, firmly in the Maritime Quarter, where the Grade II-listed Morgans Hotel (town house doubles from £100 B&B, main hotel doubles from £125 B&B) is particularly grandiose. Completed in 1903, its seafaring associations are visible inside: pop your head in to look at stained-glass windows with a maritime influence and a mural featuring tall-masted ships on the River Tawe (the city’s Welsh name Abertawe means mouth of the River Tawe); you may even see Bonnie Tyler sipping bubbles at the bar.
From the Maritime Quarter, head out onto the beachfront path and admire the view of Mumbles over the water until you reach the stanchions, two stone staircases by Oystermouth Road that look like a bridge that’s not a bridge. Its “bridge” part was controversially removed for restoration but never returned.
Cross Oystermouth road, go down St Helen’s Road and left onto Victoria Avenue, a typical red-brick terrace at the end of which you are confronted by the splendid flank of Swansea Guildhall, opened in 1934. Head inside the front door for the most spectacular surprise. The building itself has beautiful Grecian decorations but the main event is the Brangwyn Hall, a vast, sparse space that the council has beautifully restored and where hangs a series of enormous panels by the artist Frank Brangwyn. The panels were originally commissioned as a first world war commemoration for the House of Lords but were rejected as “too colourful and lively”. Swansea bid for them instead and had to extend the ceiling of the hall considerably in order to accommodate them.
Brangwyn’s intention was to make something beautiful out of tragedy, and pay tribute to the people of the empire called upon to save Britain. In this sparse hall you are drawn to 16 vast superabundant images depicting the peoples and produce of the empire. The Brangwyn Panels are a celebration linking Swansea to the rest of the world, which you can explore further via the many restaurants if you catch a bus or cab back into the city centre.
Marc Rees’ Now the Hero/Nawr Yr Arwr runs over five nights (25-29 September) from 6.30-9pm (tickets £12/£15), starting at Swansea Beach. Now for More, a mini-festival, will run across the city throughout
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