Leisure Review: The Eden Project

What is it?

Located just outside St. Austell in Cornwall, the facilities are sited at a former quarry in a landscape famous for an industrial past. Much of the area relied on tin mining and it shows, there are still large slag heaps littering the landscape on approach. To this end, The Eden Foundation, a charity dedicated to important research into botany, biotech, sustainability and climate change set up this curious facility in the pit of an abandoned quarry.

copyright MG Mason
copyright MG Mason

Arrival

Take one of their green buses or park up in one of the fruit-themed car parks and walk down the steps to the entrance where information boards give you details on what you are about to experience. You are left in no doubt before you get to the entrance desk precisely what they are all about. If green technology, sustainability and life sciences are your thing then you will feel very at home. If you are just here to look at the plants, that’s cool too.

As you make your way through the doors and into the former quarry, the first things that draws your eye are the two biomes. Looking like enormous sheets of bubblewrap, they house one of the largest collections of plants in the UK.

Admission fee (as at July 2015): £25 but that gives you a one-year membership for unlimited access for 12 months.

Outdoor Biome / Outdoor Garden

The descent into the quarry has many temperate plants and trees. Please don’t ignore these in the rush for the biomes, you may find something interesting and the stroll along whichever path you take will be pleasant in itself. You’ll find many native British species and this is also where Eden Project keeps most of its bee hives. This year, they are actively encouraging populations of the black bee – native to southwest England, which has declined in recent years.

The Hub

You enter the biomes in the centre at a hub where below you are two eateries at lower ground level and a walkway before you leading to a shop and information desk before splitting off left and right to the biomes. The food here represents some of the best contemporary cuisine including seasonal British food and Mediterranean choices from the plants grown in the smaller biome. The food is very reasonably priced. My girlfriend and her parents each bought a main meal, a drink and a cake each, and the cost was around £46. Main meals include meat, fish or veg dish and a lot of salad (I’m not talking about a few lettuce leaves and a bit of cucumber and red onion either – the salads look as good as the main courses).

Tropical Biome

copyright: MG Mason
copyright: MG Mason

What hits you immediately on entry is the heat and the damp. It really is tropical, recreating the feeling of a rainforest. It is divided into sections – you can pass from South America to Central Africa to the Philippines in the space in under an hour. Flowering plants, trees, fruits and even traditional homes are around every corner. The tropical biome has waterfalls and when the conditions permit, a skyview platform allowing you to go to the very top of the biome. In my two visits between November 2014 and June 2015, it was closed both times due to conditions. Make no mistake, you will get hot and sticky and you may feel queasy. There is a cool room about half way around though.

While walking through examining the plants, information boards inform us about global trade, endangered rainforests, sustainability, conservation efforts and how much effort goes in to providing local economies and global markets with what they need. It’s all food for thought as well as aesthetics.

Mediterranean Biome

copyright: MG Mason
copyright: MG Mason

Around 2/3 the size of the Tropical Biome, it will feel very fresh in here after your visit next door. You will see not only plants and scenes from Mediterranean Europe, but also California and Texan desert and other temperate-warm areas of the world and the variety of native plants. This is where Eden grows a lot of the produce you may eat in their restaurants. I was pleased to see a large area dedicated to chillies – most varieties were present. At June 2015, they had a Roman garden near the coffee shop towards the entrance where the typical plants of the Roman Empire feature. It’s an interesting botanical lesson as much as the chance for a stroll.

There is an open area at the centre where you can sit down and listen to stories too. These are advertised in the biome; if there’s no sign up with times, there’s not one on today.

Science Centre

This is the hands-on experiment centre, largely aimed at children, that teach us how some technologies of the world works. It’s also where we learn about how much waste we produce through commerce and industry and also the human body. At June 2015, on the first floor there was a small exhibition about the bacteria and microscopic life that live within our bodies. There is a small café here, just one of many places to have a pit stop for food and drink.

Facilities

Visitors will find many shopping choices in the hub and at the entrance building selling fair trade coffee and chocolate, arts and crafts, food, gifts, books and local food and drink too. They now produce their own wine on site and you can buy bottles of this in the shop. There is a real focus on sustainability and fair trade which is always good to see (I bought some ground coffee on my last visit so expect reviews soon).

I had a disappointing experience in the shop when an employee tried to sell me some locally produced cider with “no chemicals”. Annoyed at this, I shook my head, disposed of the sample cup and muttered “that’s impossible” before walking away. Pseudoscience is very disappointing at a scientific education and research charity – especially one dedicated to biotech.

The site is accessible and though a steep descent into the quarry, there is a noddy train for children and people with disabilities. A lift at the education centre makes getting back up easier for everyone.

Verdict

You’d think that Eden Project would be a one in a lifetime thing, but you’d be wrong. Conscious of the limited appeal, The Eden Foundation seems to want to keep the place fresh with regular features and exhibitions and different things going on all year round. The stage at the centre is often host to concerts and some big names have featured there in the past. It’s always worth a visit at Christmas, especially for the night opening, ice rink at the stage and the continental market.

To really make the most of your entry fee, it’s worth visiting several times throughout your 12 months. £25 is rather steep which is why if you live locally it’s worth visiting in different seasons or checking the website for specific events. Eden Project is a great day out if you are into exotic plants but that’s not all there is to see. It is as much educational as it is a tourist attraction – on your visit, remember that your entry fee and anything you purchase will go towards vital research in plant conservation and biotech and helping people in the developing world. Feel virtuous as you walk out the door, Eden Project is doing some important work.

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