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Happy 100th, Dylan Thomas

Through force of will, a farmer establishes a pilgrimage site for fans of the legendary poet

Author Crai S. Bower Illustration Luci Gutiérrez

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WALES – Every October 7 for the last two decades, Bob Stevens has marked his birthday with a small ritual. “I drag my children to the top of Sir John’s Hill,” the 68-year-old dairy farmer explains, making his way along the tree-shrouded path that inspired “Poem in October,” Dylan Thomas’ celebrated rumination on mortality. And every year, having reached the top of the hill, Stevens recites the poem, substituting Thomas’ “my thirtieth year” with his own age.

Thomas is said to have composed the poem after taking a stroll here on his 30th birthday—October 27, 1944. The path he took runs through the Welsh village of Laugharne, on land owned by Stevens. A few years ago, the farmer lobbied the local council to help him create a Dylan Thomas Birthday Walk, timed to open this month to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the poet’s birth. The request was initially denied. “They wanted me to form a committee and I refused,” he says, “being dead against committees.”

So Stevens decided to go it alone, trimming trees to provide a clear view of the sites mentioned in the poem—“the dwindling harbour,” the “sea wet church”—along with the stark white house in which Thomas lived in the four years before he died. Finally, the council relented in its demand for a proper committee, endowing Stevens with a modest grant to add benches and plaques along the route.

As hectic as things are in the run-up to this year’s trail opening, Stevens will continue to observe his own birthday tradition, marching his now-grown kids up Sir John’s Hill to recite the lines that, he says, “speak to my hope that I’ll still be kicking in a year’s time.” Later, he’ll head down to the bar at Browns Hotel, where Thomas liked to have a tipple, and which, if the farmer has his way, will offer cut-rate drinks to anyone who makes the pilgrimage on his or her own birthday.

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