Bubble domed Eden Project, forward thinking, ecologically friendly brainchild of Sir Timothy Bartel Smit, already known for his work on the Lost Gardens of Heligan, also in Cornwall, officially rose from its’ formerly, disused clay pit near St. Austell, when it opened to the public on March 17, 2001. Designed to act as an ever evolving demonstration of man’s life supporting dependency on plants, it is a revelation, both technically, and in terms of its ability to inform, enlighten and amaze.
On a chill, grey January day, after a warming stop at the wood tabled Bakery connecting Eden’s two mammoth, indoor Biomes or ecosystems, enlarged insect shaped overhead fans appropriately still, our journey began, firstly, on a nearly overwhelmingly arborous note in the Rainforest Biome, where we rambled in wonder through four different, realistically scaled jungles, each fading into the next. Collectively, they form ‘the largest rainforest in captivity,’ captivating crowds in a space that is 50 metres high, 240 metres long and 110 metres wide, large enough to house the Tower of London!
The moist, humid conditions of each of the eco-systems within are recreated here, and with temperatures of up to 35 degrees Celsius, visitors who’d shed coats at the outset, soon lost hats and scarves too. The Biome’s thoughtful design affords stunning vistas in all directions, even, down, for those able bodied enough to climb the nine flights of stairs to The Rainforest Lookout, 50 metres up. While roaming through the jungles of Tropical Islands, Malaysia, West Africa and Tropical South America, in addition to admiring the flora and fauna of each region, one is reminded of all of the useful crops originating from each place, among them, rubber, cocoa,sugar, coffee, bamboo, spices and fruits such as bananas, mangoes and baobab, known as ‘the tree of life’, from Africa, which we tasted in the context of a refreshing smoothie featuring that hitherto unknown fruit. Sourcing doesn’t get any more local than this, as we passed crates of rosy Mangoes and bags of ripening bananas, the latter rolling along on overhead lines, interspersed with hard facts about the underpaid labourers working long hours under harsh conditions just to bring these lush fruits to our tables. Eden is not just about pretty plants, as it also serves to highlight social injustice, frequently reminding us that ‘our wallets are our weapons’ ! Some of the sights and experiences typical of a real jungle are here, sans predatory creatures, as we spied some happily chirping birds among the greenery, and stumbled upon a Malaysian home, complete with that country’s equivalent of a kitchen garden, with pak choi, taro and rice standing in for cabbage carrots and potatoes. As we wandered inside, we encountered women making shadow puppets and enacting weaving, common to Malaysia perhaps, but intriguing to our eyes, as well as colourful floral fabrics and laundry along the railing showing a canny mix of east meets west. A real scientist’s tool, over-sized creme coloured helium filled balloon The Canopy Bubble peers above smaller trees and shrubbery like an emerging moon, inviting exploration. Used for high canopy pruning, it also aides research and lends a sense of spectacle to special occasions. A panoramic view of the Rainforest Biome even the unable bodied, a category I inhabit at present, waits along the path leading beside a tumbling waterfall, rapidly cascading downward as visitors admire the beautiful shamanic wall paintings of Peruvian artists, Montes Shuna and Panduro Baneo, framed in greenery, imaginatively demonstrating ‘the spiritual connections between plants and people.’ I don’t know how long we were in the Rainforest Biome, but the time flew, as just being in such an incredibly evocative space is a genuine adventure!
Comparatively cooler and smaller Mediterranean Biome, along a corridor above the adjoining eatery is every bit as atmospheric, though it takes some adjusting to acclimatize to its distinct differences. Appropriately met by olive trees, light-struck bottles of olive oil and potted geraniums, we made our way along a gold and cream coloured mosaic path past terrained eco-systems reminiscent of Italy, Greece, South Africa and the spiky chaparral of California, complete with architectural look out points and well placed works of art. Amongst the living and man made accouterments of this Biome and its’ formerly detailed counterpart are some surprising facts, such as that the ancient terraced olive groves comprising large portions of the mostly man-made Mediterranean landscape support more animal species than a pine forest. As if in acknowledgement of that, chipper little birds flit to and fro, alighting on backs of deserted chairs in the Mediterranean Cafe, in search of tasty leftovers. It’s always a delight discovering unfamiliar species of plants and trees, and in this Biome I found myself falling for the delicately feather leafed Fynbos, or ‘fine bush’ evergreens comprising 80% of the Cape Floral Kingdom, which has over 1,400 rare or endangered plant species. But there is so much to learn at Eden, all of it, engrossing and appreciation of nature enhancing, that it warrants re-visiting, at least four, or, as some scientists now confirm, five times a year, each time the seasons change, including the latest (mini) season to be catalogued (and noted by many)- mid-winter spring. Biologically diverse cork oaks are represented here, both in their natural state and through the naturalistically constructed sculptures of Heather Jansch, who also created the spirited horse in the Visitor’s Centre. A helpful guide talked us through the progressions of cork’s development, enabling us to handle and better comprehend, the nuances of the tree’s diversely used bark. Nature god Dionysus, represented by a large iron bull rearing up on his hind legs, created by artist Tim Shaw, started out as a harmless vegetation god before he descended into the god of inebriation. Surrounded by seemingly, writhing Maenads, human like figures mimicking vines, the scene makes for intoxicating viewing as you sit in the Cafe nearby, sipping something a bit weaker, but welcome.
Hurrying through the grounds aka Outdoor Biome, we are struck by glimpses of many different gardens, on various levels, each specially designed to inform and delight in their own way. As we rushed along, we resolved to return to Eden, just to take in these diverse areas. While winter may not be prime time for most flowers, artworks aplenty are in evidence here. Among them is towering WEEEman, designed by Paul Bonomini, made entirely of disused electrical and electronic equipment, scary, as he’s a gigantic junkyard reptilian figure, scarier still because he represents the average waste of such things for one person in a single lifetime - 3.3 tonnes! The reason for my haste, eco traveller that I am, was my desire to take a quick look at the interior of Eden’s spiked, plant inspired solar paneled education, arts and events hub – The Core, before boarding our bus back to St. Austell Train Station. Under its recycled copper roof, at ground level, this innovative building features a huge glass ‘Plant Engine’, representing the eco-system services which maintain human life and the challenges imposed on our world: climate change, clean water provision and biodiversity loss. Inside its own, specially designed pod like chamber at the heart of the building is artist Peter Randall Page’s 4 metre (13 foot) high ‘Seed’, four years in the making, created from a 167 tonne block of Cornish granite. It is, truly, a work of collaborative architectural and artistic ingenuity, as its precise, reoccurring pattern is based on the geometric and mathematical principles of plant growth.
In its role of Educational Charity, The Eden Project encompasses one hundred different projects and partners around the world, ceaselessly working to prove that positive change is possible through the unity which working together provides, a tall order perhaps, but a most worthy and vital mission.