A detailed guide to getting the best from the Eden Project experience in Cornwall.
Hidden in an old china clay pit near St Austell in Cornwall are three enormous interlinked geodesic domes, like the secret greenhouse hideaway of a malevolent horticulturist from a Bond film*: the Eden Project. In my opinion, its one of the best visitor attractions in the region, especially for families, and worth including in your Cornwall travel itinerary.
*The huge biomes were actually used for the filming of Die Another Day, doubling for the villain’s diamond mine and ice palace in Iceland.
Describing itself variously as the world’s largest conservatory, an exciting educational playground, and an inspiring environmental resource, the Eden Project is a huge botanical garden, both outdoors and inside, which highlights our human interconnectivity with the natural world. The well considered exhibits explore our place on this earth, and our roles in shaping the future of the planet.
Here’s my guide to exploring the Eden Project.
Walking into the Eden project is taking a walk round the world, exploring different biogeographical zones through the flower gardens, farms, and forests of every continent. Every corner reveals something new to marvel at.
The Outdoor Biome
The domes themselves lie in 12 hectares (30 acres) of cleverly landscaped grounds, once the china clay quarry at the centre of the local industry. From the bare earth over 3,000 varieties of plants now grow, from groves of towering trees and the most flamboyant of flowers to allotment gardens filled with vegetables and native bee-friendly nectar plants.
Throughout the gardens are several sculptures and installations made from reclaimed materials, including the famous giant bee, named Bombus, that highlights the importance of their role in pollination for flowers, and for our future.
The Mediterranean Biome
The smaller of the two domes recreates the climate of the warm, temperate Mediterranean biogeographical region, with more than a thousand different varieties of plants native to the Mediterranean, South Africa, California, Chile, and Western Australia. Think groves of olive trees and citrus fruits, striking proteas and other fynbos plants, and huge aloes.
Dionysian sculptures cavort in a bacchanal amongst knurled old cork trees and wreaths of grape vines in celebration of the wine that flows from these regions (and you can treat yourself to a glass of something from the nearby bar), and the air is deliciously scented with herbs in the perfume garden. A balance between the wild and the cultivated, the outrageous and the civilised, darkness and the bright sunlight.
The Tropical Biome
The Tropical Biome holds the largest indoor rainforest in the world, with over a thousand different species of plants. With temperatures around 32°C (90°F), getting hotter as you climb to the canopy walkway, conditions are perfect for all kinds of tropical plants, including cash crops like coffee, cocoa, bananas, and other vital plants like rubber and bamboo. The planting design allows you to walk from West Africa to South America to South East Asia, taking in tropical islands on the way.
The hot, steamy rainforest biome was my favourite part of the gardens. Jewel-bright butterflies skip through the layers of vegetation, and in the very centre, a waterfall cascades down a rocky wall into a tropical pool. We climbed to the viewing platform at the very top of the dome, for an eye-level view of the jungle canopy. At the bottom we grabbed a baobab smoothie from the shack. In between, a conveyor of bananas poses provocative questions about fair trade, and a bright Brazilian banger of a truck, laden with oil cans, encourages you to think about biofuels.
One of my first big trips overseas was to Belize, on expedition to Raleigh International. Walking into the Tropical Biome and being enveloped in a bubble of heat and humidity took me right back to that time. The constant drip drip drip of water, chirruping birds, buzzing insects, and rustling of palm leaves creates an exotic soundtrack. A tumbling waterfall is a welcome island of cool spray, and the fabulous butterflies complete the jungle feel.
Why Visit the eden Project?
There’s so much to see, and there’s the potential for something different every time you go. Planting schemes change with the seasons, and the Eden Project hosts a wide range of events through the year, from a winter wonderland ice rink to summer music concerts, sporting events to a programme of lectures and learning.
As an environmental education specialist, I was completely immersed in the insightful interpretation that accompanied the beautiful planting schemes; thought-provoking without being overbearing, and informative without preaching at the reader. Because we can’t get by without plants: from the grains, fruit and vegetables that we eat; to modern essentials like sugar, coffee, cocoa and tobacco; cotton, linen and hemp for fabrics; to algae producing atmospheric oxygen essential to life.
Then, on top of all that, there’s the beauty, peace and balance that flowers and trees bring to improve the quality of our lives. Because of that, I think the Eden Project is a pretty vital place to visit.
Plan your Visit
The entry fee is relatively pricy, £27.50 for adults, £22.50 for students and the unemployed, and £14.00 for children. You can save 10% by booking online in advance, and additional discounts are available if you use public transport or stay in the hostel on site. Making a gift-aid donation upgrades your single entry ticket to an annual pass. The reminder of your place within the web of nature is priceless.
Opening hours are usually 9.30am to 6pm, or 8pm on weekends in the peak summer season (check the website for times, as sometimes the biomes may close early to host ticketed events). The gates open half an hour before the biomes, so you can start early and explore the outdoor gardens before the crowds arrive.
Dress in layers for your visit, as the temperature contrast between the outdoor gardens and the hot, humid rainforest biome can be marked. You’ll end up sweltering inside if you can’t shed extra clothing.
There’s more than enough in the Eden Project to hold your attention for a full day, with plenty of space to enjoy a picnic in the gardens and a selection of eateries aimed at different dining styles to choose from. And of course, being Cornish, there’s a pasty shop.
There’s on-site accommodation in the YHA Snoozebox, an eco-hostel constructed from converted shipping containers that embraces the Eden spirit of sustainability and low-impact living.
If you’re still keen for more in the St Austell area, I’d recommend combining your trip to the Eden Project with a visit to nearby Charlestown harbour, a picturesque port once used for shipping the china clay mined locally, but now home to a small fleet of traditional sailing boats and historic square riggers and a backdrop to many films, including the BBC Poldark series.