Heavenly harvest in the Eden gardens
Twelve years and 14 million visitors later, Cornwall is reaping the benefits of its visionary Eden Project
Baby steps: the Sense of Memory garden at the Eden Project. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
It was one of the most talked-about millennium projects in Britain, and 12 years later a visit to the Eden Project, in Cornwall, is still high on the holiday agenda.
The low-key entrance to the former clay pit belies what you are about to see: the world’s largest conservatories – artificial biomes – sitting like giant geometric bubbles.
The Eden Project is a huge botanical garden, with more than a million plants, and as you wander along the paths leading to the rainforest and Mediterranean biomes you can feast your senses on plants laid out to highlight their colours, smells, textures or functions, such as for food or fuel.
You’ll also see outdoor-art installations, including The Weee Man, made from discarded electronic devices, and a driftwood horse.
When you walk into a biome you have to acclimatise to the heat. This summer, at 35 degrees or more, the biomes were overwhelmingly warm for some visitors.
The rainforest biome, the larger of the two, takes you on a botanical trip to tropical islands, west Africa and South America – with the recent addition of a 30m-high rainforest-canopy walkway.
The Mediterranean biome is a gentler, more familiar space, with its citrus trees, olive groves and grapevines. You can even sit and enjoy your lunch alfresco – well, technically speaking, you’re still indoors – next to rows of peppers, courgettes, tomatoes and artichokes.
The staff at Eden Med tell us it’s great fun until it starts raining, when they have to put out buckets to catch water from leaks in the domes, which are made from inflated plastic cells that sit on steel frames.
You can continue your journey in the Core, Eden’s education centre, whose roof is designed to imitate the structure of a sunflower. This is where the environmental messages central to the Eden Project are most full-on.
Yet the creative displays make it fun to find out what your carbon footprint is or whether you are eating the right foods and using the right energy to save the planet.
The centrepiece of the Core building is Seed, a granite sculpture that is the biggest stone sculpture since the time of the Egyptians.
Built in 2006, the building is one example of how the Eden Project continues to evolve. Visitor numbers have dropped at times, but then the impetus for change carries Eden forward.
Efforts to attract more people led to the installation of an ice rink each Christmas, Eden Sessions live concerts each summer and, most recently, the longest zipwire in England, which carries people one at a time above the entire site in less than 60 seconds.
Last month 19 species of tropical butterflies were released into the rainforest biome to add a new element to the experience. And, from today until October 13th, harvest celebrations will include cookery demonstrations by celebrity chefs, a beer festival and talks by local food producers.
Connections with nature
Listening to staff speak about the educational charity, what strikes you most is the way Eden spreads its positive message about our connections with nature around the world.
This is probably why its outreach projects continue to inspire. These are the Big Lunch, an annual street party like the Irish Street Feast, which is celebrated all over Britain; the Great Day Out, for homeless people, young offenders and excluded young people; Gardens for Life, which links schools in the UK, India and Africa; and Green Talent, which links the skills and talents of young people with 21st-century environmental challenges.
It’s hard to predict the future for projects such as this, but it will be etched in the memory of anyone who visits.