Monday, 3 April 2017

103 Vernon Watkins in Pennard

103 Vernon Watkins in Pennard
8th October will be the fiftieth anniversary of the death of poet Vernon Watkins, who died aged 61 at Seattle’s University of Washington, where he was the visiting professor of literature.  Having retired in 1966 from Lloyds Bank in St Helen’s Road, he was then being considered, along with others, for poet laureate following the death of John Masefield. 
Vernon lived most of his life in Pennard, where from the National Trust car park one can look across the Bristol Channel to the North Devon cliffs.  To the right overlooking Foxhole Bay is the much-enlarged Heatherslade Residential Home.  Outside this a plaque states: “Vernon Watkins lived here from 1924 - 45.  He and Dylan Thomas wrote many poems in this house”.  The plaque was unveiled by his widow Gwen Watkins on National Poetry Day in November 2009.  Heatherslade was rented by Vernon’s father after he retired from managing Lloyds Bank in Wind Street (now the Revolution Bar).  The family moved from Redcliffe, a large house in Caswell (replaced by the Redcliffe apartments), and Vernon’s mother soon became prominent in Pennard community activities.  Vernon would scramble down the cliffs, and enjoyed swimming, beachcombing, catching prawns and lobsters. 
Just before the roundabout and car park in Pennard, opposite the garage is Windy Ridge, formerly the home of Mr Emlyn Lewis.  His son Wyn Lewis recalled Vernon bursting in excitedly after work in March 1935, with the news that he had just met a genius - that was after his first meeting with Dylan.
Vernon spent many hours at Heatherslade with Dylan discussing and reading poetry, and they would play croquet in the garden.  When Dylan brought his fiancĂ©e Caitlin over she also tried to come to terms with this strange game.  Dylan described his friend as “the most profound and greatly accomplished Welshman writing poems in English”.                                                                    
From the bus stop by present-day Pennard Stores, Vernon would each morning catch the Swan bus (later the United Welsh no. 64) into Swansea, to alight at Hospital Square, outside the old Swansea Infirmary, now Home Gower.  He worked at the St Helen’s Road branch of Lloyds Bank (now the premises of William Hill).  In October 2014 Gwen Watkins unveiled a blue plaque stating that her husband had worked there for 38 years.  
On the outbreak of war Vernon was in a reserved occupation, until called up in 1941 to join the RAF police.  Being fluent in German and with his numerical expertise he was transferred to the government’s code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, where he met his future wife.  After the war he returned to Swansea, living for a year in Glanmor Road in the Uplands, before Vernon and Gwen Watkins moved into a wooden bungalow called “The Garth” on Pennard’s Westcliff, overlooking Heatherslade Bay.  The poem “Man in a field” concerns the death there of their former landlord and neighbour, the cellist Alfred Tomlinson. 
Visitors to “The Garth”, who included poets Philip Larkin and Dylan Thomas, composer Dan Jones and Dunvant-born painter Ceri Richards, often had difficulty keeping up with a fit Vernon whenever he suggested a walk down to the beach!
From Pennard car park the road to the left called Eastcliff ends at his favourite bay, pebble-covered Pwll Du.  The cliff-top path passes a spot above Hunts Bay where Vernon would sit looking across to Oxwich Bay seeking inspiration for his poetry.  Just below that cliff-top is a discreet memorial to the Poet of Gower, with words carved by sculptor Ronald Cour, whose widow Glenys recently exhibited at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery.  The words are from the poem “Taliesin in Gower”:
“I have been taught the script of the stones,
and I know the tongue of the wave.”

On Sundays Vernon would cycle to the morning service in Pennard Church, where his memorial states: 

“Death cannot steal the light

which love has kindled

nor the years change it.”

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