I once had a very interesting encounter with Prince Charles in Monmouth, Wales in 1975 when I was hitchhiking with a girlfriend around the United Kingdom. What follows is a piece I wrote in 1976, first about visiting Dylan Thomas’ village of Laugharne and then about meeting the Prince in Monmouth. Some of you have probably seen this before, please excuse my indulgence. The photo, which was damaged by the pocket camera malfunctioning as you will read, is of “Charlie” as he was winding up our “chat.”
Of Poets And Princes In England 1975
As I seem to recall, it was raining lightly. It always seemed to be raining. The narrow road wound ’round a curve or two and down a hill past a few leaning houses. Bright flowers poked wet faces over the walls of the yards. To the left lay a small church and a graveyard. The road thereafter became the main street of a little village, the buildings all lined up along the curb. The air hung heavy with the rain and a certain feeling that this quiet village harboured something special, something unusual. When, as we were coming down the hill, the drizzle gradually became steadier, we took shelter beneath the wide wooden archway of the churchyard gate. Yes, it was a sleepy Welsh Wednesday morning, cool grey and cloudy, a Dylan Thomas day dawning in Laugharne.
From Alan Davies’ Manchester House bookshop, just down from the bus garage and not too far from the main square, where we later had sausage, chips, toast and tea for lunch, it was roughly a quarter of a mile trek to the Dylan Thomas Boathouse. After slipping down several side streets, past another graveyard, we followed a path that ran along the slope that bordered the estuary. It was peaceful and serene, despite the downpour. The whole scene had the touch, the feel and the depth of one of Thomas’ images. It begged for words like a small barking dog begs for attention. Woof, woof! Perhaps it was the rain that set the mood. After all, we were retracing the steps of a master. Steps he had probably taken every day for years, steps that held a strong fascination and gentle appreciation for life in that certain corner of space and time. They were steps that led through warm Welsh days, rich in the imagination his insight stimulated. I doubt that he ever tired of those steps, despite the rain.
“And over the bridge and under the deep green wood and along the dusty road we wove, slow cows and ducks flying…”(1) Well the road wasn’t dusty, but we had stumbled into Laugharne in our wanderings. We were having that kind of luck. As we walked through the town I kept waiting to catch a glimpse of one of Dylan’s characters. Perhaps Enoch Davies or Noah Bowen. Maybe Jenkins Loughor and Mr. Jervis, or even Mr. Weazly and Will Sentry. Or Thomas’ uncle and his aunt, whom he never thought of as “anything but the wife of my uncle, partly because he was so big and trumpeting and red-hairy and used to fill every inch of the hot little house like an old buffalo squeezed into an airing cupboard, and partly because she was so small and silk and quick and made no noise at all as she whisked about on padded paws, dusting the china dogs, feeding the buffalo, setting the mouse traps that never caught her…”(2) We didn’t see anyone, probably because of the rain, yet I suppose they were really there behind the curtains, warm and dry, all the time.
The china dog. As we trudged through the rain towards the Boathouse I couldn’t keep that funny episode out of my thoughts. The downpour couldn’t dampen the absurdity of their routine. “She was so small she could hit him only if she stood on a chair, and every Saturday night at half past ten he would lift her up, under his arm onto a chair in the kitchen so that she could hit him with whatever was handy, which was always a china dog…”(3)
Why that particular passage held my thoughts I’ll never fathom, but it was making me smile as we descended the steps from the Boathouse to his residence, skirting the puddles. It was a small unimposing building, perched on the edge of the estuary with a pleasant view over the water. Inside, in the midst of all the precious memories, one could feel his spirit, his energy still pervading the rooms. Strange, such feelings, memorable, such moments. We signed the visitors’ book, leafing back through the pages, observing what other wandering souls had written in the previous months. We found an entry penned by his children, on a visit earlier in the year, that read: “it’s still the same old house, it’s good to be home…”
Deborah and I left Laugharne later that afternoon, regretting that we didn’t have more time to spend in the quiet recesses of the village. The rain had, for the most part, subsided and we still had many miles to cover. There would be other days, other mornings, as rich as the creamy English milk, so soothing to the throat. I’d conquer the pints with style, not to mention the other kind of pint that also soothed, stout. We left the sleepy village with a real piece of Wales in our pockets, along with a wooden “love spoon…”
It had been my dream since first a student of English Literature to travel to the Celtic Island strongholds. At the foot of the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains the early flames had been kindled through my studies. Later, having moved across the Piedmont to the coast, the dream began to take form, until, through Deborah’s stubborn persuasion it was finally given birth in the summer of 1975. We managed to wander around southern England, weave our way up through Wales, slip across to Ireland and finally roll through Scotland as far as the Outer Hebrides in sixty-three long/short days.
It seems that no adventure is without its fluke event, and this one was to be no exception. And as I was saying, we were having that kind of luck. Yes, there would be other mornings. On this particular one the sun was trying very hard to wedge between the clouds. The wind was having better luck parting the leafy branches of the trees. We had spent the previous night in a Forestry Commission campground, filled fairly to the gills with holiday makers, their idea of a vacation being not unlike that of most Americans – pack the kids in the car and get out of the city. Indeed the thick forests and rolling hills on the border of Wales and England offered a splendid opportunity for a pleasant holiday. The small wooded mountains more than once recalled those noble Blue Ridge Mountains we had left behind.
Like all too many other mornings we had managed at best, a rather late start. It had rained on and off throughout the night and in a successful effort to keep a small five by eight foot tent relatively dry we had lost some sleep. The day before had been a long slow progression from the streets of Oxford to the Forestry Commission campground, located about five miles outside the town of Monmouth, just over the Welsh border. We had covered about seventy-eight miles hitch-hiking, the latter three-quarters of which we had endured in the open back of a kind family’s Landrover. Though a bit windy at times, it was a most beautiful ride through the rolling countryside just before the border.
On this particular morning, having finally packed up the tent and our backpacks, we walked down the road away from the campsite to where an elderly couple stood waiting to catch a local bus into Monmouth. The pleasant old lady lost no time in informing us that today there were big goings-on in the small town. It seemed that, as she put it, “Charlie would be a walkin’ through the streets, wishin’ ‘is subjects well. You shouldn’t miss ‘im.”
Charlie? Now I’m no fan of British Royalty particularly, but this was an unexpected turn of events. Deborah was visibly excited. And the town? Well, after a short bus ride we arrived in the town centre to see Union Jacks hanging all about, red, white and blue flowers in the shop windows and displays, and people milling about expectantly everywhere. We soon learned that Charlie, as everyone referred to him, would be headed down a certain street within the hour. Naturally, not having had any breakfast, what with the late start and all, I was thinking of my stomach. So it was off to lunch in the pub in the Swan Hotel. After a quick sausage, chips, cheese and ale and a few friendly words of advice from the pub’s owner as to exactly where Charlie would be waltzing by, we hoisted our “gear” onto our backs again. With a last swig of ale it was out the door to see the Prince.
Perhaps I should explain about the “gear.” Each of us was toting a big bulky green backpack. Stuffed to the gills with all the things you think you need and you collect along the way when travelling. Mine weighed about forty-five pounds, hers around thirty-five. Sometimes we must have looked very much like two turtles, you know, our homes upon our backs or whatever. Anyway, remember that, because I was starting to get this funny feeling.
We followed the clusters of people to the street that old Charlie was scheduled to walk down on his way to tea in the King’s Head Inn. There were multitudes of school children in uniforms and lots of elderly people lining the curb. A bit further down the street it was somewhat more crowded than where we now stood. There were numerous Bobbies pacing nervously about. Then, as some of the town’s officials, each with a large medallion of some sort around his neck, began to filter past, the crowd grew expectant. So there we stood backpacks on and all, dear Deborah fumbling with her Instamatic, waiting. Charlie, being as handsome as he was and all that, was certainly worth a picture.
Suddenly around the bend, sure enough as handsome and dashing as a frog turned into a prince, surrounded by officials hung heavy with medallions and ribbons, by wary bobbies, alert security agents and stumbling photographers, there came the bonnie Charlie. People were hanging out their windows and clapping as he briskly strode up the street in a dark suit, sporting a red carnation. That strange feeling was beginning to grow stranger as Deborah fussed about with her camera and Charlie strode ever nearer. It seems her camera was jammed and she was still struggling with it, frustration stealing over her face, as Charlie smiled up and down at his subjects and waved. Suddenly I realised that we must look like two watermelons standing there, me in my blue farmer john overalls and Deborah in her long pink…well it sort of looked like a nightgown. But it must have been the “gear.”
All of a sudden, between a smile, a step and a wave old Charlie caught sight of the “twa corbies,”(4) or watermelons if you wish. He broke stride, taking his escort by surprise, and walked towards us. I had seen it all developing, but I think Deborah was in shock.
“‘Ullo, ‘ullo,” said Charlie, “And where is it you’ve come from?”
“Virginia! Georgia!” we sputtered in rapid succession.
“Oh, how nice. And how far have you both come?” he continued.
“We’ve been through southern England and are now heading into Wales,” I somehow managed to blurt.
“I see. Where will you go from here?” Cameras were clicking and I noticed for the first time that quite a crowd had gathered.
“On through Wales and then into Scotland,” I heard Deborah reply, thinking it was good that she didn’t mention our intention of visiting Ireland in between. She was still fiddling with her camera.
“I see that you have the proper walking stick,” he observed, noticing Deborah’s cane. The crowd had swelled around us. “By the way, tell me, are the two of you married?” he asked with a perfectly straight face.
For a few long seconds all was silent in Monmouth. The townspeople, the photographers, the reporters, the Bobbies, the officials, the security agents, everyone was obviously hanging on each word and he had strung us up on the highest limb.
She looked at me, I looked at her, we both looked at Charlie. He just stood there smiling. “No we’re not,” we managed to whimper at last. Swoosh! The noose tightened. Guilty! Those poor souls further back in the crowd strained to hear the final blow. I could have formed the words with my lips as he spoke them.
“Well then, I should hope that by the end of your trip you might be!” The crowd roared. Deborah did somehow managed to take a picture before he slipped off. I must have been rather red in the face. A curious crowd now thronged around us with statements along the lines of “Aren’t you the lucky ones,” and “My, my, what did he say?” Questions were pouring in from all directions as we stumbled on down the street. In the Kings Head Inn I’m certain Charlie was chuckling over tea and crumpets.
Later in the day, as we were hitch-hiking out of town, our thumbs stuck out, his motorcade passed us right on by. He didn’t even wave much less pick us up. Yes, there would be other days…
(1). Dylan Thomas, The Outing (London: J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd. 1971), p.15.
(2). Ibid. p. 2.
(3). Ibid. p. 3.
(4). Old English meaning two crows.
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