THE PENRHYS PILGRIMAGE WAY – A PILGRIM’S ACCOUNT
The Penrhys Pilgrimage Way, from Llandaff Cathedral to the Holy Shrine of the Virgin Mary at Penrhys, is an old and important Medieval route which was re-created in 2020 and has enjoyed some good publicity. Having read about the route I decided it would be an ideal start to my year of pilgrimage. I will be walking four pilgrimages during 2021 to raise money for Housing Justice Cymru, a charity alleviating homelessness, and this short, 2-day, pilgrimage near my home would be the first. The route is well explained on the website ( http://www.penrhyspilgrimageway.wales/ ) where one can see both the map version and the written description of the route. I chose to print all the map pages but not the descriptions. I also used ViewRanger and bought a subscription to Outdooractive, an app that shows the route, section by section and puts a blue dot to show your current position in relation to the route. I have no doubt this is the easiest and most effective way to navigate the route.
I was pleased that my wife Isobel was keen to join me for this walk. We have done a good deal of long-distance walking before, so we were both fit, and we knew what to carry. People who wish to walk this route of 21 miles in one or two days need to be reasonably fit, and if they are not regular walkers, it will be best to do some training walks of 5-10 miles in the weeks before setting off. We decided to break the journey in Llantrisant which is not only halfway and convenient, but also as it was the customary resting place for pilgrims over the centuries. The route is in six sections, each of about 3 hours duration, so it can easily be split up over a number of weeks or weekends if necessary.
We always carry our clothing, food, and equipment whether for a 2-day hike or a 10-day excursion and aim to keep the weight to about 15 pounds with some water. We do not carry much more than a small water bottle each on most walks in Wales as water is generally easy to find in a stream or tap. We do carry waterproofs and we always walk with poles, though on pilgrim trails I swap my aluminium poles for a more traditional wooden staff. The walk could possibly be completed in a monk’s sandals, but we wore walking boots and that is the most appropriate footwear given the very mixed going underfoot.
As we worship at Llandaff Cathedral it was very pleasing that Canon Jan van der Lely was kind enough to meet us at the West Door of the Cathedral on the morning we left to send us on our way with a prayer and blessing. Many years ago, we had stood on those steps for photographs after our wedding and it was pleasing to ascend the steps again as we led off towards the River Taff to make our way to Radyr which marks the end of the first of six sections of the route.
The walk through the suburbs of Cardiff was interesting and varied. After passing the weir on the river, and the rowing club, we left the bank and climbed gently towards Radyr through a mix of tarmac and trails. Reaching Radyr Farm we saw that the blue dot on my iPhone app was veering off the red line of the route, so we retraced and saw the waymarker post with the direction arrow lying horizontally and hidden by weeds on the side of the track, we gather this has been reported. Once we were back on the trail, we passed the affluent homes in Radyr and soon found ourselves outside Radyr Golf Club. Like most golf clubs they welcome non-members who bring welcome cash to their tills. So, we sat on the splendid terrace in comfortable chairs and enjoyed the most excellent coffees with a fine view across Cardiff to the distant Bristol Channel.
The second stage was from Radyr to Groesfaen and now we had left the Cardiff conurbation behind and were often on muddy tracks. If only these rural paths were better managed with the insertion of lateral (Tyrolean) channels to stop streams running along the length of the tracks. We must have had our eyes closed as we looked for the essential small bridge across the busy M4 as we nearly missed it. A man we passed told us to look out for masses of flies and mud after the bridge; well, we did not meet the flies but the mud was certainly waiting for us. The route rises to Creigiau, and the day was becoming wetter as we hit the streets again, but our luck was in store because as the rain came down, we passed the Creigiau Inn on the corner and dived in for a welcome drink.
When the rain stopped, we left refreshed and ready for the short walk to the A4119 and the end of the second stage at Groesfaen.
It must be said that using the Outdooractive app it was not easy to select each part of the route. They do not link automatically so when reaching the end of one section it is necessary to search on the app for the next section by name – “Groesfaen to Llantrisant” for example and that will eventually come up. We now left Groesfaen and were glad to be off the main road with all the traffic and heading back to the fields and hills. Though this section is surrounded by business parks, main roads, and a quarry so it lacks charm. The route takes an odd and unappealing dog’s leg to take advantage of a bridge over the busy A473. Leaving the bridge, the signage was unclear, but we headed west along a good tarmac track towards lower Llantrisant before cutting up an easy rising path leading towards the castle. We missed the trail at this point, but it did not matter as we wanted to look at the castle. Next to the ruins was a stone bearing a plaque saying that archers from Llantrisant had fought at the battle of Crecy in 1346. We carried on to the Bullring in the centre of the old town which marked the end of the third section and the end of our day.
We were fortunate to have a friend living nearby who kindly put us up for the night.
The next morning, we set off from Llantrisant for Tonyrefail. The first miles were easy and pleasant walking across Llantrisant common, a Site of Special Scientific Interest established in 2000. Alas, we were disappointed by the amount of litter in the area; bottles and cans in the hedgerows and very different to the areas around Cardiff. After the common, we continued along a tarmac road until we crossed a stream on a new bridge at GR 049855 where the signs had not been moved. After that, we lost the trail around LLWYNAU farm and holiday cottages. After fence and gate climbing, we found the trail again and set off with relief.
Our next obstacle was an official route closure notice just over the bridge at GR 039866 issued by the planning department of RCT council. Happily, at that point, we met a lone runner who assured us that the route was perfectly safe but that it was physically blocked ahead which meant jumping over a fence. As we walked along it became apparent that this stretch of easy walking was on the route of an old railway. (Afternote – this was the old Ely Valley Railway which carried coal from Tonyrefail to Llantrisant) The route goes about 2 kms along the embankment and at the north end, shortly before joining a tarmac road at GR 034875, there is an old bridge over a culvert. A gap has appeared in the middle of the track and a careless walker might put a foot into the hole; it is barely big enough for a person to fall through. The hole has some red danger signs prominently displayed on either side and one can only wonder why the whole section was closed when the hole could have had a fence put around it? We found it easy to bypass the temporary closure and were soon on tarmac again. Our next challenge was the T junction at GR 024878 where there was no sign, but our phone app reassured us to turn north and at Tre-boeth farm we found waymarks to Tonyrefail. We were soon climbing the steps that link the residential streets on the east side of the town and we noticed for the first time the obvious signs of a socially deprived community.
The route barely touches the town; we had hoped to stop for a coffee, but we soon spotted a waymark leading us away over the hills towards Trebanog. This section of the route from Tonyrefail to Dinas is short and easy. Looking across fields to Trebanog we saw what looked like two flying saucers on the hillside, but as we approached, they turned out to be futuristic water reservoirs. The village was built on a mountain top for miners, but with the closure of the pits, there is now a high level of unemployment and social disenfranchisement in the community. As we descended to cross the A4233 we found a shop selling the cheapest sandwiches in Wales, but we were pleased to have them for our lunch.
To reach Dinas we had to make a modest climb up and over Mynydd y Cymmer from where we could look across the Rhondda valley to Dinas and Trealaw cemetery which seemed to be larger than the town itself and is one of the largest cemeteries in the Rhondda. The long descent to the valley floor is not well waymarked but we soon came out onto the busy A4058 and found the trail again near Dinas station where we stopped for lunch. This was a good place to rest as the sixth and last section of the
Penrhys Pilgrimage Way from Dinas to Penrhys starts with a steep and unforgiving climb which continues until the crest is reached near a radio mast on the top. Here there is a shelter, probably provided by the adjacent Rhondda Golf Club for use by the members in inclement weather. After the long steep climb pilgrims are rewarded with an easy flat track belonging to the golf club which leads north passing the clubhouse, where refreshments are available to non-members. Then the final furlong across the grassy ridge leads directly to the Holy Shrine of the Virgin Mary. The present statue, made of Portland stone, was erected on the site in 1953 replacing one that was removed during the reformation in 1538. We stood for a few minutes in the drizzle to think about the very many pilgrims who had arrived at this shrine before us. A short distance below is the Holy Spring of Ffynnon Fair which was reputed to have miraculous healing powers. We briefly paused to thank St Christopher for our safe passage before moving on.
On the afternoon of our visit, as it was raining, we did not linger but walked down the steep hill to Ystrad and the station where we boarded a train back to Llandaff where we had left our car. On the train, I had time to think of the many people who had made our pilgrimage possible. It is a well-designed route, and the supporting website is full of advice and information. We are most grateful to all involved.
Alun Davies, 25th June 2021
Postscript – If any reader would like to contribute to the charity Housing Justice Cymru – looking after homeless people in South Wales please donate at: