Will you Walk with Us a Little Way?"

A Report on the Llantarnam to Penrhys Pilgrimage

Hear now what the Lord is saying:
Up, state your case to the mountains;
let the hills hear your plea.
Hear the Lord's case, you mountains,
you everlasting pillars that bear up the earth.
(Michaeas 6: 1 - 2, New English Bible version)

1999's pilgrimage got off to a soon-to be spectacular start Sat. morning May 29 just 36 hrs. after a huge natural lightning display the Thursday night in Cardiff that with flashes almost every 5 seconds featured with Cardiff pictures in the national press of that Saturday, and 60 hrs. after the Queen was treated to a man-made fireworks display the Wednesday night in Cardiff Bay for the opening of the new National Assembly. Within a few hours of the start, the pilgrims were afforded an early afternoon repeat performance of the natural light show as the heavens darkened and opened above the hills.
In the Afon Llwyd (Grey Water) Valley, at Mass in Llantarnam Abbey, Cwmbran, a Cardiff priest gave a commentary on the day's readings and Anthony Packer introduced the walk with a little history recap. Fr. leuan Wyn Jones is an ex-Welsh Independent minister who literally as well as figuratively crossed the road from Charles Street's Eglwys Annibynnol Ebenezer to the facing Catholic Cathedral. There were some 15 pilgrims, fewer than in previous years, so for an increased population in Cardiff region vis-à-vis old London, there were 1/2 Chaucer's number.
Outside the Abbey W. wall, the usual stop at the Llantarnam Parish Church of St. Michael's, of 14 th - 16th century date, was aborted owing to weddings, but more disappointingly, it was the early afternoon storm which led to the cancelling of lunch and prayers at Fr. Luke Holden's service at the Capel Derfel ruins, Upper Cwmbran. Fortunately, this year at least, the usual intermediate stop at a small church at Old Cwmbran, St. Gabriel's (CW), had been availed of though in her absence that day there was wanting not only her conversation but also the usual distribution of Madeline Gray's delightful home-made cake!
In St. Michael's Church two arches opening to the wide N chapel may have been salvaged from the Abbey.
Above a farm, on the eastern slopes of Mynydd Maen ( Stone Mountain, 472 m, 1549 ft) which separates the Sirhowy and Afon Llwyd Valleys, the present chapel ruins being of stone are mediaeval, probably 14th century-ish, but St. Derfel is a semi-mythological figure with Arthurian associations. The significance of Capel Derfel is that it was the church of a grange and because farming started on hillsides, valley bottoms being forested, Capel Derfel may even have been the start of Llantarnam Abbey. [At map reference ST 264 953, and noted on the'21/2-inch' map, Llanderfel Farm isn't named on the '1-inch' map.]
Pushing on through the storm, bedraggled, avoiding trackway conducting water, the continuations of the eastern slopes were betaken beneath Mynydd Henllys (over 366 m 1200 ft) to below the Iron Age hillfort and motte that caps the higher, harder rock of Twm Barlwm (419 m, 1374 ft). The twm is called by geomorphologists a Monadnock, after Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire in the USA. Of the tough Pennant Sandstone used in older Cardiff houses and walls, it is named after a legendary giant. From it the party dropped down as the skies cleared to initiate our drying in the sun, into the Ebbw Vale's Risca Gap for tea, amendation for our lunch gaps, and final drying off at St. Mary's Parish Church, Risca (? Yr hesg gae, the Sedge field).
Bank Holiday Sunday saw the welcome appearance of Maddy by the Afon Ebwy at the Risca start, at the stone arch of Pontymister monks' bridge, Old Pontymister, in order to set her example and exercise her healing ankle, broken just after Christmas, not in a walk but at home! Above the hamlet of Ochrwyth / Ocerwyth, above Castle Farm by the higher fork of the track, at the entrance to woods, a wild garlic bank marks the quarrymens' access which meets above the woods a prehistoric track. The quarry by the climb is called the 'Dolomite', for its product: it was closed in the 1950s after more than a century. The dolomite rock here is altered limestone, situated below the Pennant stone of the mountain tops.
The prehistoric track follows the ridge between E-W sections of the Valleys of the Afon Sirhywi or Slrhowy and the Rhymney (or between Risca and Bedwas), crossing the ridge at its lowest point (Pen-heol-Machen) between Mynydd Machen (363 m, 1193 ft) and Mynydd-y-Grug (358 m, 1175 ft); the col or low point lies at 285 m 935 ft. The quarry track, at a gate, and prehistoric track provide spectacular views of, respectively, the typical glaciated U-shape cross-section of the N-S segment of the Ebbw Vale between Newbridge and Cross Keys, and the narrow N-S Sirhowy Valley (Cwm Sirhywi) segment between Gelligroes and Cymfelinfach. And a halt at a grassy bank along the prehistoric track did give rise to a distribution of best cake !
The Sirhowy-Ebbw system forms a peculiar shape (rather like a 'h' printed upside down) down the two arms of which ice moved during the last Ice Age to join up and continue down the 'trunk' to Risca and beyond. The Sirhowy is more properly Y Sor wy, the Angry Water.
At the bottom of the steep track of 'Mountain Road' with as sloping road-bed the exposed dip of the beds of the mountain's grey Pennant Sandstone or grit, and opposite the 12th. century St. Barrwg's Church, with its saddleback tower, 'The Church House' at Bedwas is a public house which pilgrims are happy to reach (Bedwas from ? Bedw, Birch trees).
Victuals and refreshment are necessary before the crossing of Caerphilly to Groeswen where in the Welsh Independent chapel a fine large bronze memorial plague on the wall above the dais-pulpit bears a portrait relief and a remarkable legend:


Such was William Edwards, 1719 - 89, a bridge-builder like the monks. Not only was he the architect of the one-arch Old Bridge of Pontypridd (Pont-y-ty-pridd, completed 1756), he was also minister at Groeswen.
Another church and adjacent public house (the Rose and Crown) are features of Eglwysilan which is located in a hollow along the western arm of the horseshoe of hills of Mynydd Eglwysilan – the arm of Mynydd Meio (321 m, 1053 ft) that terminates at Groeswen; along the outer western slopes of the arm the road passes S to N. William Edwards lies in the churchyard between the porch (with plaque) and the tower.
Tea and biscuits in the church precede a little service and the final lap of the longest day of the walk, over the hill of Mynydd Eglwysilan (382 m, 1253 ft) to the Tâf Valley and Pontypridd. From this leg a distant view is obtained of the morrow's destination near the cone of Tylerstown / Tylorstown Coal-waste Tip. Maddy dropped out of the stage considering her ankle and the steep downhill nature of the final drop, and 3 dogged pilgrims (and a travelled black pilgrim dog who once did the 'penance-porridge' of quarantine) completed the walk (out of those 300,000!): Anthony, your reporter, and a sponsored walker from Swansea called David Griffin, an Anglican from Pentrechwyth.
Part of the explanation for the low number was previous walkers organising a separate walk of some 1/2-dozen from Brecon to join up on the 3rd day.
As well as these walkers, day 3's attendance is always reinforced by a worthy contingent from the Penrhys Church Centre. There were also a few walkers from an RC parish from N of Penrhys.
Meeting on a green near the site of the monks' Pontypridd White bridge, the band climbs over the crag of Craig-yr-hesg to the long street of the town of Ynys-y-bwl, in Cwm-clydach. From the town there is a shorter climb before descending to a gorge traversed by a river called, tautologically, the River Ffrwd, Y Ffrwd, the Welsh meaning 'river.' The river-bed is boulder-studded. Thence a climb to the deserted farm and grange site of Mynachdy (Mynach-ty, 'Monk's House', 'Monastery') to avail ourselves of the parapet of a stone bridge for a sit-down and the day's distribution of Maddy's cake! The entrenched rivulet below the bridge is the Nant Mynachdy.
From Mynachdy it is a level walk via plateau Cae Maen, Stone Field, and forest to Llanwynno - the O.S.'s Llanwonno being a corruption – the hamlet in the forest, part of Mynachdy grange, site of St. Gwynno's Well, a church, a public house, and a plaque on a rocky roadside quoting Psalm 34: l,"I will bless the Lord......" Situated below a rocky escarpment of Cefn or Mynydd Gwyngul (White narrow ridge) - 470 m, 1542 ft at Carn-y-pigwn, the carn of the peak – Llanwynno Church always treats the pilgrims well to tea and music on its little organ.
In the large churchyard, in the line of the nave continued below the church down the slope, an obelisk, with bardic sign \|/ and verse-inscribed, marks the grave of the bard-vicar of St. Asaph, William Thomas, "Glanffrwd" ("Riverbank"), 1843 - 90, husband of a singer called Lizzie Williams, Llinos y De, Linnet of the South, a prima donna. Descendant of a by-the-Dissolution-of-the-Monasteries-displaced Mynachdy monk, his best known work is a little local history: Wm. Thomas, Glanffrwd, Hanes Plwyf Llanwynno, yr Hen Amser, yr Hen Bobl, a'r Hen Droion, Aberdare, in Darian, a weekly, as serial, 1888; Pontypridd, 1888; 2nd ed. 1913; revised ed., Llanwynno, Cardiff, University of Wales Pr., 1949; free tr., Glanffrwd's History of Llanwynno, tr. by Thomas Evans, Merthyr Tydfil, H. W. Southey & Sons, Ltd. (Merthyr Express), 1950.
This is specially valued in the genre of local history for its style, comment on the times, and account of holy wells and folk customs since lost, customs like Pastai, Medd, and Cwrw Bach.
A final forest walk, sight again of the destination, and a descent takes us to the Afon Rhondda Fach Valley and up to the ridge of Cefn Pen-rhys - Mynydd Ty'n-tyle is 429 m, 1407 ft - and to Penrhys Uchaf, High Penrhys, the hillside St. Mary's Well (Ffynnon Fair), the Little Church of the Well, the Shrine, and the hilltop Penrhys Church Centre (Ecumenical Church or Uniting Church). Overlooking the Cwm Rhondda Fach, the shrine may be on or near an unsuccessful Cistercian foundation.
The attainment of Penrhys is a just cause to rejoice and give thanks. A tea is provided by the Church Centre and a 'traditional' end-of-pilgrimage service is arranged by the Rev. John Morgan and wife Nora, of the Uniting Church, Penrhys. Resident guests of the Centre from abroad are asked by John, a former United Reformed Church moderator, to give a greeting in their languages and because the service is ecumenical, pilgrims might be invited in turn to give their religions or any news brought, e.g. Maddy's plans! A regular contribution to this service is made by the handicapped members of Faith and Light and their National Co-ordinator, the bubbly Wendy Wilcox of Loughor, in Swansea. Faith and Light is an international Christian association of people with learning disability, their families and friends.
Among this year's new walkers, a speaker at the service, was a lady called Frances Ballin, of Llanishen, Cardiff, who is organising Welsh legs of a Pilgrimage Against Poverty in October for Manchester-based Church Action on Poverty. This pilgrimage is to culminate in the launch of One World Week, Saturday 16 October, other groups will congregate in London and Edinburgh.
Frances, who did every lap of the walk except the 2nd day's last one, had noticed that a leaflet produced by CAP for its walks, on a map of Britain on the cover, did not show anything in Wales! The Principality was blank. Did nothing happen there? Were the Welsh feckless? Frances determined that Wales shouldn't remain an empty space.
In 2000 Maddy plans 4 pilgrim walks! These are envisaged to form the arms of a cross + taking which, walkers will meet at Penrhys.

Laurence Main, Country Walk: Pilgrimage, Itinerary for a pleasure path which can reward you with healing (topline), Treading ancient paths with love (headline), the Western Mail section Country: Rambling, Cardiff, Tues. March 5, 1996. Pilgrimage from Llantarnam Abbey to Penrhys.

Chris Verity, Liturgical Steward of the Pilgrimage, Come West, Young Man, New Directions, London, Forward in Faith, vol. 2, no. 48, May 1999. On the Anglo-Catholic Glastonbury Pilgrimage on Sat. 3rd. July' 99.

Élie Marechal, en Chartres, Religion: Deux pèlerinages pour une chrétienté Une fois de plus, "ralliés" et "lefebvristes" ont marché en ordre dispersé, de Paris à Chartres ou de Chartres à Paris, Le Figaro, Paris, Mardi 25e Mai 1999. The Paris-Chartres Pilgrimage of Sat-Mond 22-24 May 1999.

Francis Carey, ed., For God, Mary & St. George the Newsletter of the British Chapters of the Chartres Pilgrimage, London, 14 Beryl Rd. W6 8JT, vol. I etc., 1993 onwards.

©: William J. Mathias, Cardiff, June 1999.

©: William J. Mathias, a Londoner now living in Cardiff and a regular contributor to the Roath Parish Magazine (Church in Wales).

Published in The Green DragonNo 9, Winter 1999

Other articles by this author:
Of Cats and Men

Before the rabbits scatter