The Via Beata is a sculpture trail across the widest part of the UK, from Lowestoft to St David’s — some 400 miles. It was my vision, I suppose, but it’s really the Lord’s work. My wife, Gill, is involved, and we have a part-time administrator and trustees. People have described it as “a belt of truth”, or “a string of pearls” across our land.
Our aim is to share the good news of God’s redeeming love with the nation, placing an artwork every ten miles or so along this line, linking them with existing footpaths and rights-of-way. Each way-station usually offers somewhere to sit and reflect on a sculpture based on a few words of scripture. Our prayer is that these artworks will speak to those who make this pilgrimage, and make a lasting impact upon their lives.
It feels that we’re uncovering something that’s already there rather than initiating something. We were at a Christian music festival at St Ives, Cambridgeshire, on the line, and the landowner asked us to put a way-station there. Then he looked at the maps (how we got all those OS maps was another miracle), and found us friends with lots of bunkhouses who live on the line in Wales. We keep meeting people and finding connections all along the route.
I hope your readers might say, “Oh, I used to live there!” or “My uncle’s got a farm there,” and become involved. It’s become an extended family for us, and we’re always offered hospitality, but, eventually, someone may make a book of all the hostels and campsites en route. Many way-stations are at Christian conference centres or farms with accommodation — and we’ve just been offered a place in a pub car park — so already it’s quite easy to find places to stay.
You can already download a route map from Lowestoft to Little Gidding, and we have a dotted route from there to Hay-on-Wye, and three fixed points in Wales. On 2 September, we’re commissioning a way-station at Leamington Hastings, and then going west for a week of meetings about new places in Wales.
I work as a sculptor, wood-carver, and designer, and write stories and illustrate them. We also have a little cottage, and some workshops that we rent to tenants. When I’m not working, I’m usually working — but on the veg patch. I love gardening. That’s when I can think and pray — also when I am walking.
In 2000, I went to “Seeing Salvation” at the National Gallery — works of art that depicted Jesus. It moved me greatly, and I was touched by the reverent way that visitors approached each exhibit. It made me realise that, today, when we don’t have time to read and consider things properly, people will still take time to ponder a work of art.
Some time later, I was designing a small memorial pavilion for a cemetery in Hampshire, with some relief carvings that speak of hope in Christ. Folk have responded so warmly to this opportunity to sit quietly and contemplate its message that I found myself praying, “Lord, it would be lovely to place more of these across the country.”
In 2005, I was artist-in-residence at a small country park in North Wales. They wanted me to design a sculpture trail. As I worked in that beautiful place, I felt a moving in my spirit about something bigger, but I put it to the back of my mind, until the Lord gave me a strong challenge when listening to a sermon encouraging us to carpe diem. When we drew the line from Lowestoft to St David’s, and transferred it to OS maps, it passed right through our property in Banham, Norfolk. It was a set-up.
So, we placed the first way-station on our land. I’d written a few children’s books; the publisher organised an interview; and it happened that the reporter came as our first way-station was being built; so the cat got out of the bag.
It’s a pilgrimage where the journey’s more important than the destination. People once believed that going on pilgrimage would absolve them from sin. Our prayer is that when walking the Via Beata — the way of blessing — pilgrims will discover that God loves them, and has provided them with complete and free salvation through faith in Jesus, who is the true way of blessing.
We were contacted by a group from Norwich that works with vulnerable women. Could they be involved? So we designed a relief carving to which they could contribute. That was a great success, and a real blessing for these women to see their work as part of something lovely in the public eye. Some of them had never been out of the city before, so trapped were they in their lifestyles there. I can understand that, because I made a sign for a friend’s fish-and-chip shop when I was ten years old, and for years as I cycled past it, I felt so proud.
Then we were asked to organise some workshops for some ex-offenders, and they’ve contributed to three different artworks. To have a hand in something positive and beautiful is a new experience for some of them. When these chaps first saw the completed sculpture on which they had worked, one of them stood in front of it for a couple of minutes in absolute silence, then said, “Gor, bloody hell!” He actually meant heaven, but he couldn’t find the right word. Four of them cycled the trail from St David’s to Lowestoft in nine days, and some of them said that it was the best time of their lives. One now wants to join our carving team, and another has gone on to antiques restoration.
So, we realised that this via beata was more than just an art-trail. Blessing was coming to people involved at every level and the making process was a way of blessing, too.
For me, the most impressive artwork is always the one that we’ve just completed; so, at the moment, it’s the one just installed in the south porch of Leamington Hastings Church. The congregation felt that they couldn’t help make it; so, since it features a group of musicians and singers, we suggested that they send us pictures of themselves singing and playing instruments, and we put their portraits in the artwork. The figures are carved and then painted; so we took them to “Intents”, a Christian youth camp with which we’re involved, and the youngsters did the painting. Blessings all round.
I was brought up in a Christian family, but I remember first turning my life over to Jesus during a tent campaign when I was a young lad. The smell of canvas and bruised grass brings it all flooding back.
I love the screaming of the swifts in summer, and the music of the song-thrush, but then I love the sound of children at play. Then again, there’s Bach’s Matthew Passion. . .
We’ve smuggled Bibles into communist countries, and I’ve taught in a school for violent and troublesome boys, but I think the toughest assignment was preaching to a packed gathering of Christian illegal immigrants in a hot, airless basement in North Africa.
It is interesting to note what made Jesus angry: when he said, “Whoever offends one of these little ones, it would be better for him to have a millstone tied round his neck, and be thrown into the sea.” It makes me angry, too. We run a club here to teach the local children about the Lord and the stories of the Bible.
When I see the dear, committed young people here with a love for God, and the people around them, I’m filled with hope for the future.
Prayer is a constant conversation with the Lord. I mostly pray that the people of this nation will discover the love of God, and that I can have a hand in that. I pray that I’ll be faithful and achieve all he’s planned for me.
If I was locked in a church with someone for a few hours, I’d like to have dear J. S. Bach. We could chat about family, and music, and his passion for the Lord, and then he could play a few pieces for me on the organ.
Steve Eggleton was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.