To read Cornwall: Part 1, featuring Land’s End, The Minack Theatre and Mousehole, click here.
CORNWALL: PART 2
The EDEN PROJECT
My dear reader — please note that this post includes some quite hefty animated GIFs which might take a little extra time to download. Your patience is appreciated. Most graphics and photos can be clicked to see larger versions, my photo collections at Flickr, or to access other web sites.
We chose to devote the whole of Wednesday 26th September, our second full day in Cornwall, to a visit to the Eden Project. Located in a huge disused china clay pit at Bodelva, near St. Austell, the project was opened in 2001, under the watchful guidance of visionary founder Tim Smit, working alongside horticultural experts Peter Thoday and Philip McMillan Browse, and Cornish architect and co-founder Jonathan Ball. The more Tim found out about plants, the more he wanted to tell the story of their importance to man, and so for that reason the Eden Project concentrates exclusively upon our relationship with, and dependence upon, plants. Much of our food, clothes, shelter and medicines come from the plant world; without plants, there would be no oxygen for us to breathe — in fact, there would be no life, as we know it, on planet earth.
(Click this Google Earth image to view a larger image — and click here for the GE placemarker to load the location into your own installation of Google Earth so you can explore it in more detail.)
It was a showery and rather chilly day, so I was decked out in a long-sleeved T-shirt, a warm woollen jumper and a quilted shirt-coat on top of all that. As we pulled into the car-park — one of many large areas around the periphery of the central complex, all of which are served by a dedicated road infrastructure, the construction of which is almost as impressive as the project itself — the sky was threatening yet another downpour, so I also pulled on a plastic yellow day-glo safety jacket I carry in the boot for emergencies, and donned my hat in preparation for what I thought would be a longish, wet walk down into the main arena. It was only then we realised they operate a free park-and-ride scheme, with bendy buses running every few minutes to take people directly to the visitors’ centre (at the bottom of the above map)!
Entrance tickets are £14 (with concessions), but that allows you to come back again as many times as you want for the next twelve months. There’s a restaurant for a cuppa before you begin your exploration, as well as a shop (best browsed on the way out), and then you’re through to the observation deck from where you can look out over the whole arena to the huge Tropics Biome (at the top of the map), the smaller Temperate Biome (halfway down the back of the map) and the Core, the exhibition centre (lower right on the map). The exterior areas are all planted with flowers, plants, shrubs, vegetables and fruits — no space is wasted. The yellow zig-zag line on the map is the main path that steers visitors to the different areas with ease; branches lead off into specific outdoor plantations. There’s a staging area (in the centre of the map) where various events, including music concerts, take place throughout the year. (They were preparing it for an ice-skating event when we were there.)
Everything about the Eden Project is huge, in both its aims and its physical size: the Tropics Biome is the biggest greenhouse in the world, covering 15,590 square metres (1.55 hectares, 3.83 acres). It’s 55 metres (180.45 feet) high, 100 metres (328.08 feet) wide and 200 metres (656.17 feet) long and is high enough to hold the Tower of London or eleven double-decker buses piled on top of one another. The Temperate Biome has an area of 6,540 square metres (0.65 hectares, 1.60 acres), is 35 metres (114.83 feet) high, 65 metres (213.25 feet) wide and 135 metres (442.91 feet) long. More than one million plants, representing 5,000 species from many of the climatic zones of the world, are planted throughout the project.
Before its full opening to the public in March 2001, two construction companies, Sir Robert and Alfred McAlpine, worked for eighteen months without payment or contract (a first for both companies) and then, for good measure, agreed to loan Eden a significant sum only to be repaid if the project was successful! They’re to be congratulated on their foresight and altruism: nearly seven million visitors have come through the doors since then, so hopefully it’s paying them back by now.
Inside the Core, along with the many static and interactive displays, a hidden wonder: estimated to be as old as three hundred million years and weighing as much as ten elephants, a 70-tonne single piece of prime, silver-grey Cornish granite, sculpted by internationally-acclaimed artist Peter Randall-Page into the shape of a seed. Symbolically representing the project’s aspirations to grow into a mighty living repository of some of our planet’s most precious flora, in June 2007 Seed was carefully lowered into the heart of the Core by crane and the roof was then completed above it. Seed won’t be moving again in a hurry! There’s a message to future generations from H.M. Queen Elizabeth II buried under Seed, to rest there forever:
On the path to the biomes, another work of art: the three-tonne WEEE Man, constructed entirely out of electrical waste. WEEE stands for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment and the giant sculpture — created by renowned theatrical designer and contemporary artist Paul Bonomini — represents the total amount of electronic waste an average person in the UK will consume in a lifetime!
The rain had held off for the most part, and by the time we reached the covered concourse linking the two biomes it also seemed to have warmed up a little, but it was as nothing compared to the Tropics Biome!
As the big glass doors automatically swung open, we were assaulted by an outrushing wall of stifling heat and amazing humidity. Our glasses steamed up. My jeans clung to my legs immediately, as though I’d been standing under a bathroom shower. I suddenly wished I’d left my yellow jacket back at the car — maybe my jumper and quilted shirt as well. And that long-sleeved T-shirt turned out to be not such a clever idea, either. Every pore was oozing sweat. But I didn’t want to disrobe because I wanted my hands free for taking photos, so I elected — rather foolishly, as it turned out — to keep everything on. We followed the path, along with the many other visitors (sensibly dressed, I noted enviously), rising ever higher into the massive biome, passing dense jungle on either side, crossing streams, ducking under huge overhanging leaves and long, sinewy vines. We passed jungle dwellings — huts constructed from roughly hewn wood and old corrugated metal, just as they are in the jungles of the real world where man has settled — and all the time I was growing hotter and stickier under my many layers of clothing.
At the highest point, a magnificent waterfall — a chance for me to get some cool spray on my ever-reddening face. The path then headed back down. It was quite steep in some places and the thick jungle — as well as the heat and humidity — was soon closing in around us once again. Strategically placed sprinklers sprayed a fine mist into the heavy air, adding to my discomfort. That deep, resonating jungle drum I could hear (clever touch, I thought) turned out to be the beating of my own heart, pounding in my ears. I was on the point of preparing for what I thought must inevitably be an imminent stroke when the exit suddenly loomed out of the greenery and — whoosh! — in an instant, we went from oppressive equatorial conditions back to good old late-September England.
My relief was unconfined. We found an outside bench and I hurriedly stripped down to my T-shirt, letting the cool air dry me out. Ten minutes and a cigarette-break later it started to rain, so we ducked inside a nearby café for some refreshments.
(Don’t get me wrong: I’ve written this part up in a — hopefully — lightly comical way, but despite my self-imposed discomfort it was a fantastic experience and one I would highly recommend. Just don’t wear too much heavy clothing when you go there yourself!)
The Temperate Biome is a much gentler, cooler place. In fact, it seemed not much warmer inside than it was outside. This is where plants from places like north America, north Africa and the Mediterranean live — such as palm trees, cacti, ferns, succulents, and many more I’ve no hope of identifying for you! Everything’s more spread out and on level ground.
I found myself fascinated by the huge skylights that carefully maintain the optimum temperature by automatically opening and closing. Pneumatically controlled, you hear a –pssshh– of compressed air high above your head and, looking up, you watch the segments open one by one, like the petals of some gigantic metal flower.
For the technically curious, I can tell you that the biomes themselves are constructed from hexagons of various sizes, the largest being about nine metres across. The hexagon frames are made of galvanised tubular steel and glazed with a triple layer of ETFE foil. These layers are kept apart by having air blown in between them, forming an insulating pillow. ETFE stands for Ethylene TetraFluoroEthylene co-polymer foil. ETFE is a transparent, recyclable foil and they say it should last for at least thirty years. It’s anti-static, self-cleaning, very strong, transparent to ultra-violet light and isn’t degraded by sunlight. The whole structure is guaranteed maintenance-free for at least twenty-five years.
And so, after a browse around the plant shop (we bought some wildflower seeds to try in our own little garden) and a stroll through the souvenir shop, our brilliant day at the Eden Project came to an end. The bendy bus took us back to Melon car park and we motored back to our chalet at Carnon Downs.
I’m left with happy memories of a Grand Day Out, together with a lasting sense of awe inspired by this project’s size and depth of commitment to its aims — along with a growing concern about what we’re in danger of losing out in the real world.
Because it’s a sobering thought, isn’t it, that we must stop our destruction of the world’s rainforests and jungles in our frantic rush to create more grazing farmland for beef and suchlike, or we’re probably done for. We’re certainly contributing to the increasing numbers of fires that are already occurring in the wild, accelerating environmental collapse, by adding our man-made blazes to the overall total. By continuing to nibble at the edges, destroying in the process the precious life-giving lungs of the planet for farmland or wood or whatever, we increase the chances of droughts occurring in those areas around the fringes of the jungle, a footprint that soon spreads like a cancer into the deeper rainforest. That’ll shorten the odds on even more wildfires breaking out, growing unchecked, joining together, maybe unleashing unprecedented firestorms amongst the tinder-dry foliage that will eventually wipe out every last stand of trees, choking the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and accelerating the pace of climate change many of us know in our hearts is coming …
Uh. I’m just saying, is all. And I am a writer, you know — one who often confuses the true and the real, even at the best of times — but this is my blog, which I set up for me to write about what I think. Well this is what I think. Is gonna happen.
I don’t know what we do about it. That we’re an integral component in the complex dance of forces driving climate change cannot be denied; but I also understand that people gotta live. It stands to reason, though, that adding fuel to the fire’s the last thing we want to be doing right now. Don’t you think it’ll be one of the greatest tragedies ever to befall us if, in the coming decades — maybe even during the lifetimes of our children or grandchildren — Cornwall’s Eden Project is the only place left on earth where a rainforest still exists?
But hey — there’s still much we can be positive about. Eden’s guiding lights continue to look to the future with a further uplifting project in mind. The next planned building is called the Edge.
The site states that its scale and ambition will make the Edge an international icon of sustainability, showing mankind is capable of amazing things. The building will be a model of cutting-edge architecture and technology, harvesting water and energy from the sun, wind and rain, to show how we all might live in the future. It will be a testament to one-planet living, built to the lowest possible carbon footprint and designed to last.
Eden Project CEO Tim Smit says of the Edge: I believe that if we get it right, the Edge could be one of the most important buildings ever built. Not because of its structural form, but because of its ambition to create a setting for asking big questions of interest to all of us: What makes humans content? What lessons from the past can inform the future? And what might great look like? The answers to most of them lie not in the realm of technology, but in the building of healthy, safe and inspired communities drawn together by a narrative for the future they can believe in. In truth it is the theatre for the development of this story that we are wanting to build.
Read my Climate Change posts in chronological order by using the Climate Change Log.