Visiting Cornwall in the UK: The Eden Project
Tim Smit - visionary.
The Eden Project at Bodelva near St. Austell in Cornwall came into being because of the creative vision of one man. His name is Sir Tim Smit KBE (Knight of the British Empire) and it was his radical idea to create a living microcosm of endangered habitats that have become the now world-famous Eden Project.
He was awarded a knighthood in 2011 in recognition of his work at the Eden Project and the nearby Lost Gardens of Heligan.
Concerned about the rate of rainforest destruction Tim and his team decided to relocate a small section of the forest to an abandoned china clay pit in Cornwall in the UK. Here he hoped people would experience the magic of the rainforest for themselves and be inspired to help preserve this threatened world.
But first they had to provide the right conditions in which a transplanted forest could not just survive but actually thrive.
Science fiction comes to Cornwall.
The space age solution to this problem was the Biomes, revolutionary bubbles that look like some sort of off-planet city from science fiction.
Sitting on the quarry floor like gigantic bubble-wrap, the Biomes took two and a half years to build before they could provide a safe environment for plants from both a tropical climate and a temperate one, which is flora usually more at home in a hot, dry Mediterranean climate.
Together these Biomes provide the optimum conditions for the plants from these two extremes of habitat, the wet and the dry, to flourish, all tended with constant and enthusiastic care by the Project's energetic gardening team.
The love and further preservation of all sorts of plants is the overwhelming theme of the Eden Project and indigenous plants are catered for in the gardens outside the Biomes.
This ‘outside’ garden, with its many 'rooms' of plants, both edible and decorative, is also full of large and surprising sculptures and secret places to sit and dream.
The Tropical Biome.
The most noticeable aspect on entering the Tropical Biome is the extreme warmth and dampness which exactly replicates the humidity of the rainforest.
Luxuriant vegetation ticks with dripping water as the path meanders between lush foliage heavy with exotic blooms and giant trees that tower overhead.
Now and then the forest gives way to a small clearing in which stand the transplanted homes of the rainforest inhabitants who appear to have just stepped out for a minute leaving colourful clothes drying on their washing lines.
Waterfalls come crashing down from the high 'mountain' sides of the quarry and plunge into half-hidden jungle pools crammed with water lilies.
In such a setting it is very easy to forget that you live on a small, damp island with a famously cool maritime climate rather than the steamy warmth of the Amazon rainforest.
Only the schoolchildren chattering by to fulfil their latest school project or the bizarre sight of blackbirds and sparrows flitting through the banana trees and coconut palms remind you where you really are.
For those who do not suffer from vertigo, a nervous disposition or an over-active imagination there is a suspended walkway leading to a viewing platform high in the roof of this Biome.
This platform affords a view of much of the tree canopy from above as well as the bizarre sight of a fully-inflated hot air balloon which appears to have come down in the 'largest rainforest in captivity'.
The Mediterranean Biome.
The Mediterranean Biome houses plants from the hot, dry regions of the world and as you wander between the twisted trunks of ancient olive trees and giant, spiky aloes or wonder at the strange spongy bark of the cork trees, it is very easy to lose yourself in the region.
There is much to experience here, from the taste of wine in a typical flower-decked Mediterranean courtyard to the different scents of the many herbs that flourish in such heat.
It is an easy, comfortable climate that has attracted man from the beginning of settled civilisation, as evidenced by the small, stone, beehive-shaped ox-stables that also sheltered shepherds from the Bronze Age right up to the 1700's.
Art amongst the planting.
The Mediterranean Biome continually plays upon the world of the senses with its wafting scents and offered tastes. This may well be very familiar to those of us who take our holidays in such a delightful climate but, as is usual with the Eden Project, there is a difference.
To complete the sensory experience with a visual delight the visitor becomes aware that, standing amidst the luxuriant vines, the olive groves and the vivid colours of the flowers, are the award winning sculptures of artist Tim Shaw.
Depicting a full-scale Bacchanalian revel, these vibrant and startling figures dancing wildly around Dionysus in his guise as a rearing bull, are Tim's tribute to the vine, the wine it produces … and the effects of that wine.
This Biome, in homage to both the plants of the Mediterranean and culture in general, has been laid out as a natural theatre to celebrate music, storytelling, sculpture, photography and dance and as such it supports a wide range of artists and makers, from the purely local to the famously international.
Here, in this celebration of all things artistic, local writers have left a trail of words that can be followed, evocatively describing this habitat as you wander along its pathways.
The not-so-hidden message.
Reassuring as it is to enjoy the rainforest without the danger of snakes, insects and predatory big cats there is no doubting the message behind this ambitious enterprise.
The Eden Project is a place of fun with the hard-core mission to remind us of the unpalatable truth that the rainforest, the lungs of the earth, is under desperate threat.
As an educational charity, The Eden Project informs and teaches about conservation, sustainability and regeneration.
But it is also a place of hope and inspiration and, significantly, it teaches us just how powerful the wallet is as a weapon for change.
A shop with a difference.
As you might expect the shop at the Eden Project sells only ethical, sustainable or recycled objects.
This results in an eclectic mix ranging from surprisingly beautiful shopping bags made from bottle tops to den-making kits for kids and seed bombs for guerrilla gardeners.
The beauty of the items for sale is that you can feel good about buying them, they are not wasteful of resources and many of them actually help others.
Buying a brightly coloured necklace of Tagua nuts for instance actually helps towards supporting the 35,000 indigenous peoples who harvest the nuts.
Even the food takes responsibility.
The café is run on the lines of a canteen. You pick up a wooden trencher board, choose your locally sourced, organic, seasonal, fairly traded (well, what else?) bruschetta/bowl of soup/stew etc.etc and sit communally at a long wooden table.
When you have finished you go to the till and tell them what you have had and pay for it. It is quite simply taken on trust that you will be honest and pay for what you have eaten.
Such trust is strangely humbling and the staff say the system seems to work very well indeed.
How to learn about ecology without really trying
On the very simplest level the Eden Project is an interesting venue for a day out. Learning here is by a process of osmosis and is inevitable.
It is impossible not to learn things about our amazing planet and its plant life and marvel at what it is possible to do with plants which shouldn't really live in a British climate.
But, like an onion, there are many layers to this remarkable place.
Beyond the food, the art, the music, the shop, the 'making' workshops Eden's all-important educational aspect can offer still more.
Here it is possible to take a foundation course in sustainability and improving the carbon footprint of business, study for a certificate in Practical Horticulture or take a Masters Degree in Environmental Adaptation and Sustainable Engineering.
But Eden is not just a place for learning.
There is always something lively going on at the Eden Project. All year long the seasons and their customary festivals inspire entertainments of many kinds.
At Halloween there are evening lantern parades when local school children and artists collaborate to create elaborate and complex sculptures out of paper and wire which they light from inside with tealights.
And for most of the winter the bare trees are decorated with little blue lights, the small lake in the garden is frozen and covered with a marquee and ice skates are hired out so that we can all ice skate in comfort.
In Spring the outside gardens are ablaze with the jewel-like colours of flowering bulbs.
There is little doubt the Eden Project really has the honest remit of putting the environment first but it does this realistically, without ignoring the social needs of its visitors. No wonder it is called Eden, never has a place deserved it more.
As I have hardly scratched the surface of the Eden Project and its ever-changing cycle of events you can find more information on this link