Grid references: ST 00218 94611 (statue), ST 00075 94552 (well)
Penrhys is a meadow on the nose of the forest
Mass bread and holy water
So wrote the Welsh poet Gwilym Tew in the fifteenth century. At that time Penrhys was one of the holiest places in Wales. Pilgrims came 'over land and sea' (or so the poets said) to worship at the shrine of the Virgin Mary. The shrine had a miraculous statue of Jesus and his mother. According to tradition, the statue had appeared in an oak tree and a team of oxen had been unable to drag it from the site. So a chapel was built there, and a hostel for the pilgrims.
The land belonged to the monks of Llantarnam. It was they who provided hospitality for pilgrims and maintained roads and bridges to the shrine. As well as the chapel, there was a holy well. This may have predated the shrine. Many holy wells are in fact pre-Christian holy places.
Penrhys's popularity was its downfall. The shrine was targeted for destruction at the Reformation. In spite of local opposition the statue was taken away and burnt in London. But local people continued to use the well - its water was said to be particularly good for churning butter in hot weather. There were stories, too, of miraculous apparitions. Even in the nineteenth century, when the Welsh valleys were so strongly nonconformist. There were tales of travellers lost in the mountain mist who were guided to safety at Penrhys by the tall figure of a woman carrying a light.
In the middle of the twentieth century Penrhys was chosen as the site for an overspill housing estate for the Rhondda valleys. Atfirst it looked idyllic but the estate was badly designed and built and dogged by problems from the beginning. At one point it was regarded as a dumping ground for people who had nowhere else to go.
The regeneration of the community began with the work of John and Norah Morgans, who established a church community on the estate in the 1980s. Llanfair Church was opened in February 1992. A series of community projects were developed and there was the encouragement of a team of local volunteers, education workers and students that support the projects.
Alongside this, the Penrhys Partnership was established and 1993 saw the creation of the Penrhys Village Centre. This provides a range of basic services and a wide range of opportunities for individuals and groups within the community. There is an arts centre, workshops and an open-air auditorium. As the community web site says, 'Many challenges remain ahead for the community in its attempt to become a "community to which people wish to belong". The emphasis on partnership working and the development of a coherent holistic strategy is imperative. The ownership and management of Penrhys are under discussion with the possibility of local management. There is a lot of work to be done and we can only write the next chapter together.'