Walking the Penrhys Pilgrimage Way
The Revd Phelim O'Hare, Parish Priest of St German with St Saviour, Cardiff, shares his experience of walking the Penrhys Pilgrimage Way.
"Be prepared! It's normally very windy at Penrhys."
This was the advice given to me just a few days before setting out on our parish pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady at Penryhys, on Saturday 15 August, the feast of the Assumption.
When the advice was given we were enduring an oppressively warm and humid August heatwave and part of me was looking forward to a nice refreshing bit of wind. As it turned out the regular pilgrims, who’ve been praying and gathering at Penrhys for years, said it was the least windy they’d ever experienced it. I suppose the torrential rain made up for the lack of wind.
Still, it was worth the eﬀort of getting there to see a socially distanced group of parishioners from St Saviour’s Church in Cardiﬀ meet up with friends from the Parish of Penrhiwceiber led by Fr Ben Rabjohns, their parish priest, and then to pray together, quietly but with deep reverence, the Angelus.
On the day, most people drove to Llanwonno and walked from there to the shrine, which involves a lung-killing climb up a hill that seems to never end. As for me, I had hoped to lead a group of cyclists and make the journey under our own steam to Penrhys starting from St Savour’s Church and following the Taﬀ Trail route for much of the way.
As it turned out there was just two of us who cycled - not surprising considering how heavy the rain was that morning.
I’ve been on many pilgrimages these past years, to holy places and shrines in many diﬀerent countries, yet it is always a surprise to me to see how much joy it brings to those who set out in good faith. I am still in awe at how the experience of journeying (even just a few miles) for a spiritual reason with people who mostly share our values and faith creates a sense of belonging and renewed hope.
As I watched people shuﬄe up the ﬁnal steps of a long and steep hill there was a real sense of achievement and pride at making it once more. My own experience of that hill was unforgettable as my bike computer took me up a shortcut at the base of the climb which had a gradient of 25.7% (courtesy of Strava). My prayer then was ‘Dear God, what have I let myself in for’.
As a ﬁrst time visitor, I was glad to make it and even more glad to be shown around and have the past pilgrimages described with warmth and aﬀection. The ﬁeld itself is pretty desolate but with wonderful views over both Rhondda valleys. Amidst the wilderness and weeds I was shown where Mass is usually celebrated, where people can sit and relax and have their lunch.
Then I was led downhill to visit the holy well and ‘Little Church’ where blessings and spiritual encounters have taken place for years. When I visit these places that are source of so many warm memories for people I’m often reminded of the words of St Peter as he journeyed up a hill and witnessed the transﬁguration of Jesus,
Lord, it is good that we are hereMatt 17:4
On this year of pilgrimage we had planned to visit Walsingham with other parishes from our diocese and later in the year to visit Rome and Subiaco with St German’s church. With the Covid crisis pausing those plans indeﬁnitely it was indeed good to be able to resurrect the experience of being a pilgrim on a very local level.
It is good because we never really journey alone but do so accompanied by God who is always seeking us out and wanting to share moments of grace with us that can truly transﬁgure us and renew our hope.
Braving the cold and the wet on a bicycle over 42 miles from St Saviour’s to Penrhys and back made this post lockdown pilgrimage even more memorable. As I look back on the day, I am reminded of the last lines of the poem ‘Inversnaid’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
‘What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and wilderness yet.'