Last week Sasha and I had houseguests: his sister and her daughter, both of whom were visiting Cornwall for the first time. One of the places that we took them was a must-see attraction here in the Southwest: The Eden Project, winner of a 2011 British Travel Award and home to the world's largest indoor rain forest. Sasha took me there the first time that I visited him in the UK, and since then we have returned many times for many reasons--to see the plants, to attend an outdoor concert, to buy unique Christmas gifts in the extensive gift shop. It is a great place and it was nice to have the chance to share it with someone new.
The Eden Project was born way back in 1995, when a clay pit in Bodelva, Cornwall was nearing its end as a productive mining site. Botanical developer Tim Smit--who is responsible for the restoration of another of my favorite Cornish attractions, the Lost Gardens of Heligan--found out about the site while looking for a place where he could establish a collection of internationally important plants. Architects eventually thought up the idea of placing the plants under a series of bubbles, which could be comfortably settled on any surface--even a reclaimed mining site. According to the Eden Project's website, the resulting construction process set a world record for the amount of scaffolding required. It took several years to improve the landscaping and construct the greenhouses, but finally, in early 2001, the Eden Project was ready to open its doors to visitors.
The whole point of the Eden Project is to celebrate plants and the connections between plants and people. So, if you're not really into botany or gardening or eating your fruits and veggies, then I suppose it's probably not the place for you. That said, the Eden Project does its best to have mass appeal, regardless of your attitudes toward all things green. The facility has both indoor and outdoor portions, both of which are sprinkled with displays that showcase plants and culture, and some of which allow you to have a hands-on experience with the flora.
The outdoor bit has species from a number of habitats, but there is a particular focus on Cornish plantlife. In the past, there was a large earthen sculpture by a local artist who also provided decorations for Heligan; this time around I noticed that the Project had acquired one of the locally made recycled metal sculptures that I've wanted to buy for a long time. I am not sure of the name of the artist, but he used to sell his pieces--many of which were birds--out in Discovery Quay. If you look closely at the eagle above, you'll see that many of its feathers are made from forks and other "upcycled" cutlery. These things probably take forever to make, which is likely why they cost a small fortune. Anyway, I think it's great that the garden profiles and celebrates local artisans.
Many of the Project's displays are aimed at educating people about the diverse ways in which we humans interact with plants--sometimes unknowingly, as when we use plastics made from corn products. The displays also provide information on the ways we intentionally harm plants in the wild. For example, there are exhibits showing how native plants are impacted by intensive mining efforts (an issue of particular interest here in Cornwall), and both agricultural and grazing practices.
The garden also showcases the many benefits of flora--as medicine, food, decoration, perfume, whatever. One of my favorite finds this visit was a huge field of lavender, a plant that has long been valued for its scent. It was particularly popular among the Eden Project's small, flying, buzzy visitors.
Pretty much every time I've gone to the Eden Project, the visit has been timed to take advantage of the tasty menu in the eating hall. Unfortunately, we were not able to do that this time around because we had a bit of an emergency prior to our departure from home--Sasha's niece got locked into the guest bedroom and had to wait there until we could find a handyman to come dismantle the door and get her out. After that traumatic experience, we were all willing to give her pretty much anything she wanted, so of course we indulged in some of the unusual Cornish cream ice cream flavors on offer at Eden. I passed up the intriguing lime-and-cardamom in favor of mango and passionfruit, while the others sampled fancy versions of caramel, chocolate, and strawberry.
Cones in hand, we toured the two biomes--the Mediterranean and the rain forest. Although it is the latter that gets all the attention--it does, after all, contain over 1,000 different species and have a roof high enough to fit 2 Big Bens stacked on top of each other--it is the former for which I have a soft spot.
One of the things I love is how it recognizes/celebrates ancient bacchanalia festivals. I'm not really into sculptures and carvings in general, but I have always liked these particular statues, placed amidst the grapevines; they convey a sense of movement so you feel as though you've just wandered in and disturbed the locals in the middle of a big party.
Although much of the Mediterranean biome is devoted to showcasing edible species such as grapes, citrus fruits, and olives, there was also a display on plants that are frequently used in perfumes. I'm not sure whether this was a new display or one that I just didn't remember very well from before, but, either way, I enjoyed reading about all the nice-smelling species and how they are joined together into concoctions that make us smell nice. In many cases, you can rub the leaves gently and get a whiff of the scent left behind on your fingertips.
Once I could finally be dragged away from my new friend, we headed over to the world-famous rain forest biome. It has been previously been visited by numerous celebrities, including Queen Elizabeth II, David Attenborough, and Bear Grylls (Angelina Jolie may also have swung by during her visit to the Eden Project in 2005). Since our last visit, they've installed an indoor helium balloon and a lookout platform, both of which allow visitors to get a bird's eye view of the tropical plants. Unfortunately, because we were there so late in the day, we didn't get a chance to try those out. Still, the view was pretty nice down on the ground.
One of the weird things about the biomes is that local birds always find their way in; it can be very jarring to stand under a papaya tree and then look over and see a blackbird or a robin hanging out in a nearby patch of bamboo. There are also some captive resident tropical birds--most notably white-eyes--that help keep the invasive ant population in check. You used to only catch occasional glimpses of these, but during this last visit we saw lots of them flitting about in the branches.
The curators (if that is the right word) at the Eden Project work hard to create a "total experience," recreating not just habitats but also touches of the human cultures that can be found in those environments. As you wander around, you find little paintings and sculptures tucked into the foliage, and there are entire displays devoted to explaining how plants impact particular groups of people, and vice versa. A large portion of the rain forest biome, for example, looks at the effects of banana plantations on tropical habitats.
We were the last people in the biome, much to the annoyance of the guards. They eventually had to round us up and usher us out so they could close up for the evening. We happened to time our visit so that it coincided with the first night of some sort of festival, which was a bummer for us but highlights one of the great things about the Eden Project--they have all sorts of things going on. During the spring and summer, there are several evening concerts known collectively as the Eden Sessions; Sasha and I attended one with Martha Wainwright and Paolo Nutini a while back, and it was pleasant despite some intermittent rain. During the winter, the staff create an ice skating rink and turn the garden into a winter wonderland. Other special events have included the Eden Marathon, a circus, and an eco-motor car show.
As I mentioned earlier, I am also rather a fan of the Eden Project's gift shop, which is stocked with many things edible, artsy, garden-y, and fair trade. It's a great place to go to find interesting and unusual presents for people; although the items can be a bit on the pricey side, at least you know that you are spending your money on ethically-made products created in sustainable environments. Despite the fact that I've got practically a biome's worth of plants already, I couldn't help but buy a new addition to my botanical collection during our last visit, and I also picked up a few edible items to include in my next Foodie Penpals package.
My best souvenirs were free, though: some good photos of flamingo lilies (anthuriums), which I hope to include in my upcoming book in the section on "other things that are named 'flamingo'." To boot, I have memories of time well spent with family--which, of course, is priceless.
Note to travelers: The Eden Project is a great place to go during Cornwall's notorious rainy weather, since many of the garden's attractions are indoors. If it is nice outside, you can take advantage of the newly-installed climbing wall and zip line. However, all of this comes at a cost--tickets are a rather steep £23 apiece these days, so make the most of your purchase by staying all day!