In May 1983, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton swanned onto New York’s Lunt–Fontanne stage together in “Private Lives,” and I knew I was witnessing history. Maybe there was a bit of jowl here, a wobble to the knee there, but these were two of the great lovers and acting icons of the 20th century, and attention must be paid.
Who could have predicted that the next year Burton would die at 58, silencing that rich, rumbling Welsh baritone forever?
Thirty years on, I’m tracing Richard Burton’s earliest footsteps east of Swansea, Wales. Armed with his diaries—all 644 pages—I’m tromping up and down these hard-scrabble valleys to his birthplace and childhood homes. After reading Burton’s entries, spanning 93 months over 44 years, the highs and lows of this rugged region seem to reflect the wild swings in the Welshman’s memories.
Trails honor one of Wales' international stars
Wales has created two new trails around Rich, as his family knew him. One is centered in Pontrhydyfen (pronounced pont-REED-a-ven), where Richard Walter Jenkins arrived at a strapping 12 pounds on Nov. 10, 1925. The second is his childhood path in Taibach, a district of Port Talbot on the coast, where he lived with his sister Cecilia and her husband after his mother died in 1927.
The stucco house at No. 2 Dan-y-bont, Pontrhydyfen, was already crowded when Rich, Baby No. 12 of 13, joined the coal-mining family. The trail ventures from here into Afan Forest, where the lad would have played when he visited the homestead.
I walk from Burton sign post to sign post, a blackbird chirruping overhead and coal smoke tanging the air. Even today, Burton would recognize the Bont Fawr aqueduct, now paved for hikers and cyclists, and the old rail viaduct that once ran to the Oakwood ironworks. The coal and steel were long gone even in Burton’s day, and he would return throughout his life to help support his family.
Burton’s memories of his birthplace seem to change with his mood. In 1971, he jotted that 2, Dan-y-bont was where “[I] spent my happiest hours.” But just a few years earlier in1968, he’d confided to his journal “…my idea of absolute financial bliss was an annual income of a million dollars a year. Without working…It’s a far cry from 1925 and the helpless poverty of the valleys.”
After fame, Burton would return to his Welsh roots
Of course, Burton's perspective would shift beyond imagining when he left South Wales at 21. Soon he was playing Shakespeare at London’s Old Vic and praised in the same breath as Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. He made his first million young, and moved his first family to Switzerland to shelter his money.
He became world famous, with Academy Award nominations, a Commander of the British Empire honor and yes, those two storied marriages to Elizabeth Taylor. But Burton came home, too, and on his visits, as a life-long drinker, was quick to buy rounds at The Miner’s Arms.
The Miners’ Arms was the Jenkins’ local pub, father and son. “I was informed from birth,” Burton wrote, “that the toughest thing on earth was a Welsh miner. I believed it and it got me into more fights than one would have thought possible.”
Honoring Burton and Taylor in his local pub
On Jerusalem Road in Pontrhydyfen, The Miners’ keeps a photo shrine to Burton and Taylor, as well as Burton’s niece, actress Sian Phillips, who lives in the neighborhood.
This may be the perfect place to snag a pint of Evan’s Bevans Best Bitter and test Burton’s theory: “I do believe, rubbish as a great deal of it is, that the half-educated South Welshman speaks English with a verve, a love and a vivacity unmatched anywhere.”
On a Saturday afternoon, old buddies are having a drink as rugby plays on TV---the Miners’ is still home to the Pontrhydyfen Rugby Club. Allan Alford, one of a trio enjoying a pint, tells me Burton’s brother Verdun and his family lived across the road from him, “a nice family.”
Although Burton journaled “I am, I think, sublimely selfish,” he gave freely to educational funds and charities, such as Invalid Miners. “I and my wife,” he wrote in 1966, “could live for the rest of our lives on what we have given away in the last five years…to private individual people.”
Down the road from the Miner’s, the Jerusalem cemetery has a black marble marker for Richard Sr. and Edith Burton and for Burton himself, the gilt inscription bilingual. Burton is buried, however, at his long-time home, Celigny, Switzerland, wearing a red suit for Wales and a volume of the "Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas" on his chest.
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