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Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Eden Project

As someone who loves gardening, it may seem a bit of a busman’s holiday to visit gardens when I go on holiday but I enjoy nothing more than walking around someone else’s hard work, appreciating the beauty of human orchestrated nature. There are many beautiful gardens all over the Britain but some of my favourite can be found in Cornwall so a Cornish break this Easter holiday was the ideal time to re-visit them. In this blog post and the ones to follow, I review 6 very different ones. If you too love beautiful gardens you may like to consider a holiday in Cornwall in order to pay them a visit. If so, then some of the best can be found within easy driving distance of St Austell.

Located very close to St Austell, The Eden Project is almost a garden theme park, with the layout, appearance and crowd management feel similar to other theme-park attractions, and very much a man-made tourist hotspot. Created during the late 1990s and opened in the early 21st century, it is a relatively new garden yet now looks well established, if somewhat lacking in genuine historical interest.

In the spring the parking isn’t too bad but driving past acres of parking spaces gives you some appreciation of how busy this place gets in the summer holidays. Indeed, the first time I visited this place was a year or two after it had first opened when it wasn’t as famous or as popular as it is now, and we spent about an hour and half queuing in the car just to get into the car park. I can only hope that they have improved the car parking organisation since then but even so it is something worth considering. I would question too whether there is much more to be gained from the garden itself by visiting in the height of summer when the main feature of the place is two climatically controlled greenhouses that are somewhat removed of seasons anyway.

On this visit we set off on an unpromising, foggy and drizzly day which again may have helped to keep the visitor numbers down. We reasoned that, with spending most of our time inside the greenhouses, it wouldn’t much matter what the weather outside was doing. However, we were fortunate in that the weather improved shortly after our arrival and I have to confess that brighter, drier conditions made for better photography and a more pleasant day out.

It is expensive to get into The Eden Project, costing £68 for a family of 4 if you pay on the gate. You can get that down to £57 if you book online in advance or if you pick up a discount voucher leaflet from a tourist information office or stand. The gift shop and food and drink places have top end prices too. The Eden Project is a charity and you have to bear that in mind but it does feel like a money spinning enterprise and a tourist attraction for the well-off. On the plus side, the entrance fee gets you a year’s membership and you can revisit the place as many times as you like within the next year without paying again. Probably quite handy if you leave nearby. The Eden Project has close ties to The Lost Gardens of Heligan so if you are planning to also visit the Lost Gardens of Heligan then look out for a leaflet at the Eden Project ticket desks that entitles you to 25% of your Heligan entrance fee. Also, on your way out of the gift shop, browse the leaflet stand and see if you can find one on Cornwall’s Greatest Gardens as you can gain a reduction in the entrance fee to other gardens by getting this leaflet stamped.

The famous points of interest at The Eden Project are of course the two enormous multi-domed greenhouses, looking like they have been constructed out of some weird sort of bubblewrap. The right hand one is set for temperate, or Mediterranean, climatic conditions and the, larger, left hand one is a tropical zone. Both are accessed via a central link, which also contains toilets and several food serving areas.

The temperate greenhouse is set out in a series of different countries so as you walk round you can be visiting California one minute and effortlessly stroll into north Africa a moment later without even a hint of jetlag. I’m, of course, particularly interested in the edible crops they grow and enjoyed seeing oranges, agave, figs, and chillies. I particularly liked their chilli trolley, providing information on the heat of each variety of chilli.

Having said that, the flowers are delightful too and particularly attractive to photograph. The trickiest part of this is trying to get a decent photograph without a person in the way or an annoying plant label. In April the tulip planting is particularly spectacular and you may like to make a note (from one of those annoying plant labels!) of you favourite so you can see about growing your own.

The tropical greenhouse is hot and humid and this hits you from the moment you walk through the door and it just keeps getting hotter the further you walk in. There are several water fountains dotted about and a cool room near the top should you be feeling particularly desperate but expect to feel sweaty by the time you are done and extremely grateful to get back out into the good old British weather! Again, I enjoyed seeing the edible plants and the tropical crops that we are so used to eating but not so used to seeing growing.  There is also an impressive array of beautiful leaves and it all comes together into a jungle of mind-blowing proportions considering it is all grown inside in an ex-quarry in Cornwall. By the time you get to the top walkway you are able to look down on the canopy in a way that most people would otherwise never experience.

Although the greenhouses are definitely the main feature, there is an outside garden worth strolling round too. In April the daffodils were looking particularly impressive but this garden I guess changes considerably with time of year. 

What wouldn’t change so quickly are the quirky works of art dotted around the site; an enormous bee, an interesting fence, a man, the “industrial plant”, the global warming greenhouse, and the maiden with the disco ball face, as my daughter called her. Having explored thoroughly by foot, why not take the land train back up the sides of what once was a china clay quarry to the gift shop before trekking back to your car.

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