Return to Eden

Reading time 10 minutes

It is May 2000 and I am standing in a long line of chattering, excitable people wearing white hard hats. This is not an audition for a Village People tribute act, but the queue to board a makeshift train that will transport us to the edge of an ugly, sterile china clay quarry. Below us, rising from a pool of pale grey slip, is what will eventually take its place as one of the wonders of the modern world, the Eden Project. The scene is breathtaking, otherworldly and improbable. No-one has seen anything quite like this before; a sense of awe and anticipation is tangible. Gigantic bubble-shaped structures, referred to as biomes, are being assembled by hundreds of ant-sized workers. Within 12 months these gigantic conservatories will offer visitors the opportunity to commune with plants from across the tropics and temperate world, learning as they go. The project is remarkable, audacious and visionary. One can already tell this is a game-changing enterprise. My younger self wonders if this is what the landscape might look like if Man were to live on the moon.

Fabulous flowers and luscious leaves abound in the rainforest biome
Fabulous flowers and luscious leaves abound in the rainforest biome

No one describes Eden better than its creator, the incredible, inspiring, irreverent Tim Smit, a man one cannot listen to often enough. Every time I hear him speak I feel empowered to change my world, achieve more and believe in people. Here’s how Tim describes what he and his dedicated team achieved in a remote, unpromising, unloved clay pit in one of the poorest outposts of Europe:

Fast forward 16 years and I am back at Eden. No need for a hard hat this time, not even a high visibility jacket. Eden is maturing. No longer an ugly duckling, the vast site sits within the landscape as if it were part of the very fabric of Cornwall. Around the fringes of a vast amphitheatre, hanging woodlands are growing up, accentuating the drama. A live music stage has been added (in 2002) and an educational centre named the ‘Core’ (opened in 2005, shown in the foreground below). There are majestic trees where once there was only mining spoil, carpets of daffodils and crops of potatoes where there was no earth to sustain life. The magnitude of what’s been achieved is hard to express in words. The most sincere advice I can offer is to go along and experience Eden for yourself.

Photo: Eden Project / Tamsyn William
A pastoral vision of Eden. Photo: Eden Project / Tamsyn William

Eden’s ambition does not begin and end here in Cornwall, or even in the UK. There are global partnerships with organisations all around the world working on sustainability, biodiversity and green employment. At the original site in St Austell there plans to extend a canopy walk through the jungle in the tropical biome and to build the country’s first geothermal energy plant, generating both heat for Eden and surplus electricity for the National Grid. Europe’s first and only redwood forest is being planted using stock raised from trees over 4,000 years old growing on the west coast of the USA. There is talk of creating Eden Projects on every continent apart from Antarctica. Tim Smit is one of those visionaries that will only sleep when his time his up.

Various methods of biological control have been introduced in the biomes to protect exotic flowers like these from pests and diseases
Various methods of biological control have been introduced to protect exotic flowers like these from pests and diseases

But what of the original Eden Project? I was pleasantly surprised to find that the experience remains as fresh and untarnished as it was on that first May day of the new millenium. The people working on site, from the lady collecting entrance fees to the gentleman talking to visitors about the benefits of panela sugar (an unrefined whole-cane product from Columbia), appeared to be full of the same joie de vivre that I remember from the early years. The landscape around the biomes is more satisfying and interesting now that it’s maturing, cleverly designed so that there is interest during every season. And horticultural standards are high. A new site has been cleared for a National Collection of kniphofia; there is a superb wildlife pond next to the Core and there are extensive displays of crops traditionally cultivated in the mild Cornish climate.

Everything, including bulb planting, is done on a huge scale at Eden
Everything, including bulb planting, is done on a huge scale at Eden

Art lovers will appreciate the wide diversity of sculpture at Eden, ranging from a giant bee to ‘Seed’ by Peter Randall-Page, one of the largest works of art to be fashioned from a single piece of rock.

Children and adults alike are fascinated by The Bee's hairy 'tail'
Children and adults alike are fascinated by The Bee’s hairy ‘tail’

Visiting any attraction with children puts a different perspective on things, but Eden appeals effortlessly to all ages. My niece Martha, like the toddler in the video above, spent hours running and playing in the willow wigwams alongside the main pathways. A simple collaboration with nature and yet so engaging for bright young minds. Meanwhile adults are able to sit in the sun and enjoy proper Cornish pasties and locally brewed drinks without a care in the world. The inevitably extensive gift shop is well-tended and packed with good quality gifts and plants predominantly sourced from Cornwall and neighbouring Devon.

Crowd pleasing displays of tulips in the Mediterranean biome
Crowd pleasing displays of tulips in the Mediterranean biome

If I were to have any gripes with Eden they would be insignificant ones. The entrance fee, at £25 for an adult, is pricey if one is only to visit once. This can simply be transferred into a season ticket provided one ticks the Gift Aid box, making it amazing value for potential Eden addicts like myself. Plant labelling in the biomes is patchy and tends to highlight only a handful of key plants valued commercially. However Eden is about man’s relationship with plants and how that might be sustained, not about botany. I am more than happy to forego a few name tags in order to breathe the same humid air as the plants that make up the largest captive rainforest in the world.

With maturity the view across the rainforest biome becomes ever more impressive
With maturity, the view across the rainforest biome becomes ever more impressive

In the fifteen years since it opened officially Eden has lost nothing of its magic. The feet and hands of millions of visitors have served only to polish this gem so that it sparkles like a diamond where once there was only lifeless clay. Neither has my sense of awe diminished, and I expect it will not from my next until my very last visit.

The Eden Project is open throughout the year. Click here for opening times, special events and directions.

No label, but totally tropical all the same!
No label, but totally tropical all the same!

Categories: Climbers, Cornish Gardens, Cornwall, Flowers, Landscape Design, Large Gardens, Photography, Plants, Travel, Tropical Gardens

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

Greetings Garden Lover! Welcome to my blog. Plants are my passion and this is my way of sharing that joyful emotion with the world. You'll find over 1000 posts here featuring everything from abutilons to zinnias. If you've enjoyed what you've read, please leave a comment and consider subscribing using the yellow 'Follow' button in the bottom, right-hand corner of your screen. You will receive an email every time I post something new.

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25 comments On "Return to Eden"

  1. Eden is incredible, and Tim Smit is a truly inspiring man, it makes me proud to be Cornish. I have visited many times, but strangely have never done a Spring visit, I really must dig out my Locals Pass … Have you ever been to one of the Eden Sessions? Live music with the biomes for a backdrop and the heady scent of the flowers on a June night, pretty close to what Heaven must be like! Thankyou for sharing your visit.

  2. Thank you for your brilliant article and lush photos of the Eden project. 😄👍
    Having lived in Truro, Cornwall until autumn 2009 I was lucky to have been there at the birth of Eden, which was a miracle to behold. No one, but Tim could have had and held this bold vision. You’ve truly wetted my appetite to visit even more, as I’m fortunate to do just that this July after a long absence.
    I do agree with you, that the entrance fee is rather steep and the plant labelling has always been wanting a bit…but as you remarked, it’s the Eden Experince and not the botanical gardens…
    All the best from , presently the Lido de Venecia, where a whole manner of lovely shrubs and trees are in bloom!
    Many blessings ✨🌷✨

    1. Thank you Elisabeth. I assume you are on holiday? Sounds absolutely wonderful. Enjoy it! I am sure you will find Eden much improved and worth the entrance fee. Plan to make a long day of it and perhaps take a picnic? Weather should be good in July 🙂

  3. Truly remarkable and awe inspiring. Eden has been on my ‘gardens’ to visit since its inception. One day! Such incredible vision. How wonderful it must have been to have Martha along to add another dimension to the experience. Enjoy your holiday!

    1. Martha loved it, and so did my sister as the heat in the rainforest biome is the only thing she’s discovered that’s capable of slowing her down! Let’s make next year the year we visit together 🙂

  4. I too visited at the hard hat stage when It was nothing more than a building site. Again I visited some years later on a couple of occasions. Once when there was a ice skating rink. Your article has inspired me to visit again to see the maturity of the plants. Thanks for sharing it with us all. I love reading all your blogs.

    1. Thank you Florence. It’s lovely to know you enjoy my posts. I would definitely go to Eden again when you can. The whole project feels a lot more settled now, yet there is absolutely stacks to see and do. A very full day out, or possibly worth a full weekend?

  5. I love Eden. I’d quite fancy working there except the crowds in the summer might get to me.

    What a fabulous place and such vision from Tim Smit in making it happen. My dad used to deliver tyres for earth movers to the site when it was still a china clay pit. What a transformation.

    1. What an interesting connection with Eden! Like you, I am slightly phobic about crowds, especially in gardens. However Eden is vast enough to soak an awful lot of people up and didn’t feel crowded at all this week. August might be a different matter 😉

  6. Another place on my list ‘to visit’…keeps getting longer! I am glad it has evolved in a good direction, some were expressing doubts at the beginning.

    1. I think Eden has remained very true to its principles, which is all to the good. This is no mean feat given the inevitable pressure to generate income and draw in the crowds. You should put Eden up to the top of your list 🙂

  7. I didn’t realise that the Eden Project grew out of a quarry. A pity I live too far away to have made frequent use of my year’s entrance.

  8. That last photo tagged “No label, but totally tropical all the same!” may be of Aphelandra sinclairiana a recent planting in my garden here in south east Queensland, Australia. Love reading your blogs and so enjoy the photos.

    1. Well done Lyn, you got it spot on! I have learnt something new today and will update my photograph accordingly. What a stunning plant to be able to cultivate. Hope it blooms prolifically for you.

  9. I too was there Dan…all those years ago in a hard hat…in fact I was there before when talking with Tim Smit and his wife and Phillip Macmillan Browse at Heligan before Eden was officially on the anvil so to speak…! A remarkable project and brain child of a remarkable man of creative thought and vision to create from an overworked clay pit a garden of extraordinary beauty and ecological significance…a stunning place to visit at any time of the year….

      1. I’m not sure I did…it fell off three times! It was great to be there at the start of the Eden journey…

  10. Ohhhhh Yes yes yes…. put it on next years trip agenda please – thanks so much. My brother will owe me big time for staying home looking after our lovely mum whilst he trots around holidaying Europe Bus Class (due to his generous sis giving him FF points!) so I should be able to name my dates! I am off to Ceres in East Brunswick next Sunday to do a chutney and preserves course – look up Ceres on the Web sort of Eden/the Good Life combined – Oz style with a lot of community involvement – premaculture, bushfood, chickens, plants, courses the works. It’s really interesting. Now off to plant my garlic – have to stick with purple hard neck varieties here for best results. xx

    1. Looks like a lot of fun Helen. Hopefully next year will be your year for a bit of carefree leisure travel. You will have earned it! I am going to miss our garden visiting this year. Save me some chutney 😉

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