On a dull and chilly March day it’s a relief to step into the warmth of a rainforest – rather a surprising thing to find in the heart of Cornwall.
The smell of hot, damp earth is rich and inviting. Trees tower above, broadleaved and succulent, while fat little roul-roul partridge scrape, scratch and settle snugly in the undergrowth.
I’d already left coat, scarf, hat and gloves in the cloakroom, but within minutes I was shedding more layers and began to luxuriate in the tropical heat. Pacing myself I paused at every turn, reading the information boards, listening, looking and learning.
Eden Project in spring
On a day of grey clouds, drizzle and biting wind The Eden Project, arguably Cornwall’s most high profile attraction, felt a little sterile. Nodding daffs and bright hyacinths were the only splashes of colour on the outside terraces and it was too early to feel more than the tiniest promise of bud and bloom.
Our descent through the snaking paths left us initially underwhelmed – but stopping to poke and pry we began to unlock its treasures.
In a fairy-tale glade the earthy sculpture of Eve lay languorously under the naked branches. Wall sculptures hidden in mossy crevices heralded the plants that would soon appear. The Giant Steel Man invited us to try our hand at tug-of-war and a giant bee settled on the bare but soon-to-be-blooming flowerbeds.
The Eden Project is all about ecological education. It’s the brainchild of archaeologist-turned-businessman Tim Smit, who’d already worked wonders restoring the Lost Gardens of Heligan. An adventure in environmental restoration, it has turned a worked out clay pit in the Cornish hillside into a sustainable paradise.
Dotted throughout the site are images of the 20 year-long transformation which has brought the damaged land back to life. The terraces trace the story of the land from pre-historic times, through early low-tech cultivation, the industrialisation of food and farming to the present day, where experts are now trying to restore balance.
We’ve read suggestions on review sites that at this time of year there should be a discounted entrance fee. They have a point; it isn’t a blaze of colour, and doesn’t immediately take your breath away. But the ‘biomes’ which dominate the valley floor are the main attraction, whatever the time of year.
The rainforest biome
The moment you enter the rainforest ‘biome’ the place comes alive, filling all your senses with sights, sounds and smells. Half way up there’s a warning sign that anyone already feeling hot and bothered should heed because further up and further in the heat and humidity are even more intense.
Even with a welcome chill-zone near the highest point giving temporary relief it can be overwhelming and in the height of summer it’s not something to be taken lightly. The Lookout Platform, swaying high above the tree tops is only open for short periods and on the hottest days is closed by midday.
We were among the last to climb the metal-runged and slightly bouncy stairs, Pork Belly bounding ahead athletically, me gripping the handrails tightly, terrified but determined. By the time I made it to the platform it was 30 degrees C and more than 70% humidity and I was as hot and sticky as any trekker in a Thai jungle.
But it more than repaid the effort. There’s something truly awesome about being able to look down on the dense canopy of banana trees, vines, rubber plants and bamboo. Defying my slight fear of heights (but please don’t attempt the climb if you suffer from true vertigo) I peered downwards, watching birds flit through the leaves and listening to the splashing waterfall far below.
Staff are on hand with facts and figures, highlighting the importance of the rainforest in preserving all life on earth; not just the indigenous peoples who farm local crops and hunt sustainably, but also the big businesses of food production and the raw materials of industry.
The Mediterranean biome
The rainforest was our favourite part but the cooler and calmer Mediterranean ‘biome’ has its fans too.
March is too early to get the full benefit of the scented gardens, the olive trees and the burgeoning vines but there was a carpet of spring bulbs, an intriguing sculpture of the Rites of Dionysus and a chunky rustic chair, perfect for story-time, sitting in the sunny citrus grove.
By this time the day was nearly over (I thought Pork Belly was going to be shut in for the night as he took “just one more photo”) and we had to leave the rest of the grounds unexplored. There was no time to get lost in The Labyrinth, play the stone xylophone or experience the Sense of Memory garden.
At almost every step of your visit there’s something new to learn; the benefits of baobab, why we should choose fair-trade and environmentally- friendly foods and how to shop for alternatives to potentially damaging materials.
It’s all done in a chatty, non-preachy, fact-filled way that appealed to my head, not my heart.
Will we return to Eden?
Yes, though maybe next time we’ll go in summer.
Disclaimer: We are grateful to The Eden Project for giving us free entry. All opinions expressed are our own
More information about The Eden project
The Eden Project website