SPRING may be here (allegedly) but if you fancy an early taste of some totally tropical heat without the hassle of overseas travel just head for Cornwall’s Eden Project.
It’s 10 years since I first visited the Project, in a former china clay quarry near St Austell. And my recent trip confirmed that, with plants now well established and even more attractions, this is better than ever.
Back in its early days (the Project opened in 2001), the enormous greenhouse biomes housing the Rainforest and Mediterranean climate zones were stunning: there was simply nothing else like them. Today they’re truly amazing as the vision that they promised has come to fruition.
A visit starts in the huge parking areas, from where you can walk or take a bus down to the visitor centre. It’s downhill all the way in – be warned, there’s a lot of walking to be done – but the first thing that strikes you is the welcome: signage is good, colourful banners lure you onwards, and there’s an air of anticipation as you catch your first glimpse over the Project.
Once through the visitor centre there’s a regular land train to the biomes, and full disabled access via wheelchairs, ramps and lifts, or you can meander down the labyrinth of pathways. If you can, I recommend the latter as it’s a great way to discover the outdoor areas, ranging from myth and folklore, and global gardens, to crops that feed the world.
This time around the whole place seems bigger and better organised: it was great fun before, but now there’s an emphasis on child-friendly exhibits – spyholes at child height, willow tunnels for small visitors and a barefoot trail – and on education. The planting has had time to establish itself, and everything is managed but not manicured so the pit is ablaze with huge curving swathes of colour.
And there’s so much to do! Seasonal events – this month features A Celebration of Cornwall – are accompanied by cookery demonstrations and talks, and looking ahead there’s Chocolate Unwrapped over the Easter holidays. The programme changes constantly so check on the website (at www.edenproject.com) to see what’s coming up.
At the heart of the Project there’s an environmental message to get across, so there are display boards everywhere, plus The Core, a dedicated education centre, houses exhibitions, schools programmes and Project information. Don’t worry about being lectured, however: the Eden method is simply to get you thinking, and you don’t have to be committed to the cause to get a lot out of your visit.
My favourite attraction remains the Rainforest Biodome which now features an aerial walkway and a spectacular Lookout platform. The latter is reached via a suspended staircase taking you to 50m above the ground, but with incredible views it’s well worth those nerve-wracking steps.
On our visit the temperature at the top was 33.1C and the humidity 60.5 per cent so it’s the genuine rainforest experience. But the biome comes complete with a cool room for those who can’t take the heat, there are drinking fountains throughout, and there’s so much to see – butterflies, birds, lizards and frogs – that a visit is a must.
Thrill-seekers might like to know that rope bridges are also being planned for the Rainforest exhibit, but for now they have to be content with riding the longest zip wire in the UK, their screams of delight (?) providing much amusement for the crowds below.
The Mediterranean Biome follows a similar pattern to the Rainforest, although not quite as spectacular, but it makes a perfect venue for the storytelling that’s an integral part of the experience, and an example of how the Project draws together all manner of cultural facets – story, medicine, agriculture etc – in the name of sustainability. And if you’ve ever wanted to pretend you’re a Bond villain (scenes for Die Another Day were shot here), this is the place to live that dream.
With all that walking and climbing, visitors need to refuel occasionally, and I can report that the food is excellent, freshly cooked and with a huge variety ranging from the Baobab bar in the rainforest to the bakery and deli.
We stayed late and were contemplating a rather long walk back to the car, when a vehicle drew up. It was the Hospitality Manager, on duty that evening and offering us a lift up to the car park. That set the seal on a perfect day out – and I heartily recommend this little bit of Paradise in Cornwall.