In Search of Martians… in Surrey.

For a few hours in October 1938, the world was gripped by mass panic. The stoic voice of the wireless set narrated events apparently unfolding on the edge of a small New Jersey township; flares in the night sky, falling stars, strange objects filled with otherworldly creatures, intent on our destruction. The beginning of our human battle for survival; the eve of the war.

The Woking Martian by Warofdreams via Wikimedia Commons

The immediacy and horror of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of H. G Wells’ The War of The Worlds, transposed to the USA, captured the imagination of many at the time, but it isn’t only adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel. The original story is set in the leafy suburban towns surrounding late-Victorian London, like Woking where Wells lived in 1895 and explored the nearby countryside on his bicycle.

Much closer to the closer to the original story, although with the flourish and excess of 1970s prog-rock, and by far my favourite version, is the musical by Jeff Wayne, with the solemn voice of Richard Burton narrating the story. If you’ve never heard it, I insist you treat yourself to all of its epic awesomeness.

The double cassette of the album was our family “car tape”, the soundtrack of many childhood road trips through the Scottish highlands with our caravan in tow. Just hearing the opening chords now evokes memories of empty roads skirting the sides of sea lochs and crossing the flanks of mountains, to end at vast beaches where my sister and I had the whole summer to explore. I think of picnics of dairylea sandwiches, monster munch crisps, and um-bongo juice boxes by the side of the road, and the adventure of being outdoors.

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The frozen heathland of Horsell Common, near the town of Woking. A surprising location for the first extra-terrestrial invasion of our Earth.

So this small corner of Surrey heathland, near the commuter town of Woking, has a bit of a special draw for me. It’s here, on Horsell Common, that cylinders fired from the surface of Mars in flares of luminous green gas first fall to earth, landing…

not far from the sand pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and half away.

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The site of the impact, where they found …a cylinder, thirty yards across, glowing hot…. And with faint sounds of movement coming from within.

The sandpits are a wide bowl in the heath, edges scalloped from years of quarrying rather than an extra-terrestrial impact. On the crisp January day that I visited, the shallow pond in the centre was frozen, and footprints are set fast in the icy orange sand. Like a child, I have to plant my footprints in the spot where the Martians landed, before continuing onto the heath. “The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one.

The open heathland rolls away into dark pine woodland, frosted heather and bracken a patchwork of green, brown and gold, framed by the reddish trunks of the Scots pine and paths marked out in the burnt orange of fallen needles and sand. Silver birches, with papery white bark, catch glittering dew drops on their dark ruby twigs, flashes of light in darker corners. Bright yellow gorse flowers among the mass of spines are a reminder of the mild weather that makes this frozen day an exception this winter. Its a landscape to be viewed leisurely, at different scales, both close-up and in sweeping views into the distance.

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Through the trees to the heath on Horsell Common.

Lowland heath, like Horsell and other nearby areas in the Thames Basin, is not a remote forbidding planet where no living thing could survive, but a rare and vital habitat. Globally there are more hectares of tropical rainforest, and like rainforest, the diverse botany of lowland heath makes a rich environment for insects and spiders, lizards and snakes, which in turn support a range of birds, just as rare as Martians might be. In the summer heathland is used by ground-nesting species, like curlew, woodlark, and nightjar, which are extremely vulnerable to disturbance from walkers.

Much of the remaining areas of lowland heathland are found in densely-populated, highly urban landscapes like South East England and much of the Netherlands, where pressure on them for leisure and recreation is high. Careful management by organisations like the Horsell Common Preservation Society and Thames Basin Heaths Partnership work to balance the pressure of visitors against the conservation of the habitat.

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Enjoying the frosty view with a hot chocolate at Heather Farm, Horsell Common.

We stay as long as cold toes can take, before heading to nearby Heather Farm, an area of wetland regeneration adjacent to the common, that was until very recently the site of a massive mushroom farm. Reedbed-fringed lakes and scrapes are found where there was once concrete hard-standing and a series of corrugated tin hangars filled with fungi. Even better is the new café by the water’s edge, where birdwatching can be done with a mug of hot chocolate to hand.

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…yet across the gulf of space minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely they drew their plans against us.

The Vagabond Guide to the Edinburgh Festivals

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Photo Credit: -LucaM- Photography via creative commons

It’s early August, and in only a few days time you won’t be able to walk down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile for people breathing fire, pretending to be robots or juggling battle axes. Attempt to escape the crowds into a park, and you might stumble into an open air opera or a leading author reading from their latest work.

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Photo Credit: Yopizza via creative commons

August in Edinburgh is a perfect storm of Festivals, as events celebrating music, dance, literature, arts, and performance of all kinds spring up across the city. As well as the International Festival, Art Festival and Book Festival, you’ve got the world-famous Festival Fringe and the Military Tattoo. And at the end of the month Edinburgh Mela rounds everything off. It’s the best time to be there (having lived in Edinburgh for a couple of years, there’s a sense of excitement that spreads across the city like when you’re putting up the Christmas decorations at home), but it can also be the WORST time to visit. These are my tips for how to enjoy Edinburgh during the festivals (and save a bit of cash at the same time).

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Photo Credit: Canadian Pacific via creative commons
Book the big shows in advance.

If there’s something that you’re desperate to see, that would really spoil your holiday if you didn’t, don’t risk missing out. Big names and unique opportunities can sell out super quickly. However, you have the slim chance of picking up a last-minute ticket on the door, so don’t rule out your chances completely.

Don’t over commit to culture.

With more than 250 venues spread across the city and over 250,000 visitors (plus the odd local or two) making their way between them all, the festival can be EXHAUSTING. Be sure to leave plenty of time in your plans to get from A to B, check out some street performances, and perhaps to just sit back and enjoy the buzz for a bit.

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Photo Credit: Slainte74 via creative commons
Head to the Half-Price Hut.

The Virgin Money Half-Price Hut on the Mound Precinct (near the National Gallery) has a selection of tickets for events on-the-day or the following morning, with an appealing 50% discount on the usual price.

Festival freebies.

A real highlight (especially for a canny Scot like myself) was Fringe Sunday on the Meadows, a free showcase of Fringe performances. Unfortunately it hasn’t happened for few years due to a lack of sponsors, but there are still hundreds of free events to be found in the programme, including the Free Festival and many of the BBC events.

Work it, baby.

Possibly a bit late for this year’s events, but one way to experience the Edinburgh Festivals on the cheap is to get a job. There are plenty of adverts for unpaid street promotion work in return for tickets, and even the odd paid opportunity to be found on edinburghfestivaljobs.com.

Get some breathing space.

Don’t forget that there’s a whole glorious city to explore away from the Festival events. Take a break to climb Calton Hill, chill out among the flowers in the Botanic Gardens, stroll round the Shore in Leith, or visit the oldest pub in Scotland, the Sheep Heid Inn by Duddingston Loch.

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Photo Credit: raphael.chekroun via creative commons

A Vagabond February

Where I’ve Been

My February was pretty quiet in travel terms, as I prepared myself for an epic trip I’m taking in March and April (more on that later). I spent several days working with the Ocean Youth Trust based in Southampton, as part of the refit team on their sail training vessel, John Laing, a 22metre-long custom-built sailing ketch.

After spending much of January preparing the boat, we were able to paint the keel, hull, deck and coach house. Layers and layers of paint, mixed and applied with precision, and she’s looking rather smart sitting in her cradle. A few more jobs, and she’ll be going back into the water at the start of March, ready to be rigged.

The Bear and I managed to get away for a few days to Staffordshire, staying close to the edge of the Peak District. We managed to rack up a couple of 20km plus walks, carrying our new backpack training for our TGO Challenge attempt in May, taking in parts of the Gritstone Trail and Staffordshire Moorland Way, joined by the Bear’s brother, Woo. We did consider camping, to add to the #30NightsOut total, but only very briefly; freezing temperatures overnight were up against Woo’s cosy house nearby and the chance to catch up with his family, Mummy J and Baby Sully.

 

Highlights

IMG_4142v2Getting towards the end of our walk on the Staffordshire Moorland Way, we arrived at a half-frozen Knypersley Reservoir just as the sun was setting. The temperature dropped as we walked through the woodland around the lake, just enough to catch your breath. Or maybe it was just that pretty.

 

News

The Telegraph Outdoor Adventure and Travel Show in London in the middle of the month was a great opportunity to listen to inspiring talks from explorers, and bask in the loveliness of Levison Wood of Walking the Nile fame. Although it feels that the main way into that type of career is serving in the Parachute Regiment or Royal Marines, my travel buddy Rach helpfully pointed out I do share the characteristic with them of “not really having a proper job”.

 

I’ve Been Reading/ Watching

Guy Martin. Crackin’.  Picture from Wikipedia.

This month I discovered Compass Cultura, an online travel magazine published monthly. Each issue has three long-form articles, of around 3,000 words each, that explore an idea, place or person in depth. There’s no advertising or sponsored pieces, and no Buzzfeed-style round-up lists. It’s quite refreshing to be immersed in a piece of well-written, compelling journalism. You can read one story for free each month, or subscribe for the full magazine, plus back-issues, and I urge you to check it out.

I’ve also been drawn in by Channel 4’s Our Guy in India, following motorcycle racer and all-round speed freak Guy Martin on a tour through India, from mountains and tea plantations in the north to the beaches of Goa. I’m a little bit in love with Guy, but it’s hard not to fall for his down-to-earth, cheeky-chappie personality, then be awed by his adventurous streak as he enters one of the craziest motorbike races you’ll ever see.

 

Best of the Blogs

Earlier in February I wrote about why I’m not a food blogger. Simply put, it’s because I like to eat and I don’t like to share, and am too lazy to cook and clean up after myself. But I do enjoy occasionally dipping into other travel blogs that write about food, just to see what they’ve got cooking, like Vanessa’s awesome pomegranate and mango salsa on Turnipseed Travel, or Niamh’s gluten-free buckwheat pancakes with plums and almonds on Eat Like a Girl.  I made a little bit of an effort for Pancake Day, with some basic pancakes spread thickly with Nutella.  They were gone before I could get my phone out of my bag to take a snap.

I’ve also really enjoyed reading about Emma’s exploration of the Oxford food scene on Gotta Keep Movin’. It’s a place I know well, but she’s given me a new side of the city to discover on my next visit.

 

My Most Popular Instagram

IMG_4190v2It was this one, of the interior of Litchfield Cathedral. An impromptu lunch stop on our route home from North Staffordshire.  The cathedral is famous for having three spires, and seeing intense fighting during the English Civil War.  Holes from musket fire are still visible in the outer walls, which look a little like this:

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Coming Up Next Month

As you read this, I’ll be on the verge of taking part in my biggest trip for a long time. At the very start of March, I’m flying across the Atlantic to the heavenly holiday hotspot of Bermuda, famed for its coral reefs, pink sand beaches and rum cocktails. How lovely does that sound? Mark Twain is claimed to have said, “You go to heaven if you want – I’ll stay here in Bermuda.”

Unfortunately I can’t stay there forever, but I will be leaving the islands in style, on board TS Lord Nelson, a three-masted barque owned by the Jubilee Sailing Trust. “Nellie” as she’s affectionately known, is unique in the world of tall ships (along with her sister-ship Tenacious), in having been designed with accessibility in mind, allowing people with different physical abilities to sail together on equal terms.

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Lord Nelson. Photo from the Jubilee Sailing Trust.

I’ll be part of Nellie’s crew for an Atlantic crossing, taking her from Bermuda back to Britain, arriving into Southampton in mid-April, after 30 days or so at sea. It might be a little quiet on the blog and social media over that period, but keep a look out for updates and for a full-account of the adventure once I get back.

Thanks for following These Vagabond Shoes. For real-time updates (when I have connection with the outside world!) you can follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

These Boots are Made for Walking

RoutePlan12015 will see me take on what will certainly my biggest challenge yet, as I aim to complete the The Great Outdoors (TGO) Challenge in mid-May. The TGO Challenge is a self-supported trek through the Highlands of Scotland, crossing from the west coast to the east coast within 15 days. It will be a test of stamina and endurance, not to mention my ability to pack light and the qualities of “suck it up” and “get on with it”.

Unlike many other long-distance treks, the TGO Challenge doesn’t follow a way-marked trail on its route from west to east. Participants start from any one of 13 sign-out points in towns and villages on the west coast, and finish anywhere along the east coast of Aberdeenshire or Angus, between the towns of Fraserburgh in the north and Arbroath in the south. The route between those two points is entirely down the the participant, and can be as demanding* and long as you choose to make it.

The 2015 event will be the 36th TGO Challenge, with around 300 participants taking part. Many not for the first time either; I’ve found a couple of names on the list that will be attempting the challenge for the 23rd or even the 26th time! Participants are travelling from all over the world to take part, including Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, and even New Zealand. We’ll be in good company.

Gourdon Harbour in a winter storm.  If I stand at this point long enough the tide will come in, and I won't have to end my trip scrambling over seaweed covered rocks to reach the water.
Gourdon gutty harbour in a winter storm. Stand here long enough and the tide comes in, so there’s no need to end the trip scrambling over seaweed covered rocks to reach the water.

Since receiving confirmation of my place in the Challenge in November, I’ve been poring over maps and guidebooks to work out the route I want to take. The choice of an end point was an easy one as my parents live on the Aberdeenshire coast, in a little fishing village called Gourdon, right in the middle of the finishing area. Not only does it have a good pub, the Harbour Bar, with a chippy, Hornblower’s, just next door, I’ll also have good access to a bed, hot shower, comfy sofa, and WiFi; exactly what I’ll need after two weeks of trekking and camping in the wilds of the Scotland. (If I’m really lucky, someone might also do my laundry, but I better not push it at this stage of the plan).

To balance out my familiarity with the end of the route, I thought I’d start in a place I’ve never been to before. There’s a few options on the list, mainly the more remote and rural, but as we’ve got to travel up from the south of England to start the challenge we need somewhere fairly easy to get to using public transport. We’ll take the overnight sleeper train to Glasgow to start our journey north, then take the route to Fort William.

MuddyBoots1From there, I’ve opted for a TGO Challenge start in the fishing port of Mallaig, at the far end of the scenic West Highland Line. It’s a place I’ve visited several times before, but one thing I’ve never yet managed to do is take the small ferry to the village of Inverie, on the remote Knoydart peninsula. Although part of the mainland of the UK, the village of Inverie is not connected to the national road network, and getting to and from the nearest towns involves either a ferry trip to Mallaig, or a 25km (16 mile) hike through the “rough bounds” to Kinloch Hourn.  It’s also home to the Old Forge, the most remote pub on the British mainland.

Now I just need to join the dots between the two points**. It’ll only be approximately 290km (180miles) from one to the other.

What am I doing?

 

*Bear in mind, even without side-tracks and summits along the way, participants undertake a demanding hike for several days on end in remote backcountry, and contend with the notoriously fickle Scottish weather.  And most likely, the ferocious Scottish midge. 

** Plus some training hikes to break in my new boots.  And practicing my navigation skills.  Oh, and sorting out all the kit I’ll take.  Then throwing half of that out my rucksack when I find its too heavy to lift.  And testing some dehydrated hiking rations.  I’m sure there’s something else, but I just can’t remember right now…

2014: A Vagabond Year in Review

2014ReviewTitleIt’s that time of year again: time to look back at what the last 12 months have brought, and start to think about the year ahead too. My 2014 travels have made for an interesting year, with loads of exciting opportunities, unusual adventures, and new destinations across Europe and the UK to explore. Add to that mix a few return trips to favourite places, the odd unexpected detour, and plenty of time the BEST COUNTRY in the WORLD!*

My first trip of the year was a short Hogmanay holiday in the Scottish Highlands, based near Aviemore. After Christmas on the Aberdeenshire coast with my family, my boyfriend (the Bear) and I headed for the hills in the hope of snow. Unfortunately, a mild spell meant that only the tops of the Cairngorms got a dusting of the white stuff, then hurricane-force winds closed the ski centre and funicular railway, forcing us off the hills.

Rothiemurchus Forest near Aviemore is remnant of the ancient Caledonian wildwood.
Rothiemurchus Forest near Aviemore is remnant of the ancient Caledonian wildwood.

I worked full-time during the first half of the year, so my travels were limited to long weekends and day-trips, including a visit to the Bear’s family in Yorkshire, a few day-trips to London and a couple of nights camping in Northumberland.

I squeezed in a two-week road trip and camping holiday to the far north of Scotland at the end of April, introducing my boyfriend to some of my favourite places in the world. My childhood holidays would usually start with a visit to my Grandparents in Thurso, on the north coast, followed by a few weeks in our caravan touring remote beaches and tiny villages.

On April 13th I ran the Virgin Money London Marathon, a 26mile long street party, and have an awesome medal to prove it.  I didn’t see Mo Farah.

Eilean Donan Castle, on the Road to the Isles
Eilean Donan Castle, on the Road to the Isles

At the end of June I said goodbye to my colleagues and boarded a flight to Norway. I headed to Haugesund, to meet up with the crew of the Viking longship Draken Harald Hårfagre for an eventful summer of sailing. Three days into our crossing of the North Sea, our mast broke, and we made straight for the safety of Lerwick, Shetland, to assess the condition of the ship. We were able to take advantage of the unexpected shore leave to explore a little of Shetland, whilst we waited to find out if our expedition could continue.

 

With a green light from the owner, we were thrilled to get back out to sea again, even though we were motoring rather than sailing. Our skipper took us down the Moray Firth and through the Caledonian Canal, to avoid the challenging conditions around Cape Wrath, on our route to the west coast.

Calling into the whisky-lover’s paradise of Islay, we bumped in to a fabulous band called The Blueswater, and invited them to stage what must surely be the greatest ever blues gig held on a Viking ship. If that wasn’t enough, the following evening on Rathlin Island we were invited to a ceilidh with traditional Irish music from members of the famous Black family.

Our next destination was Peel, on the Isle of Man, before we headed to Liverpool and the Wirral, where the ship underwent repairs.

With a fortnight’s shore leave, I took advantage of the opportunity to explore. Estonian shipmate Kessu and I took the overnight ferry to Belfast, and road-tripped our way along the Antrim coast, before heading south to Dublin to meet up with Marie, Draken’s French cook, to tour the city.

From our Merseyside base, I visited the sights of Liverpool and was joined by the Bear for a weekend. And after a few days of work, a few shipmates and I escaped for a couple of days hiking in Snowdonia, Wales, to celebrate crewmember Jemima’s birthday.

Back on Draken we returned to the Isle of Man, this time under sail. Heading north, we called into Oban, the Isle of Rum (where we visited quirky Kinloch Castle), and Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, before rounding Cape Wrath to reach Stromness in Orkney. We raced north to beat stormy weather, ziping past Fair Isle to make port in Lerwick, where we spent a week waiting on the weather for our return crossing to Norway.

After signing-off from the ship, I set out to explore Oslo, but somehow got sidetracked into a road-trip adventure that ended in Marie and I gatecrashing a Viking-themed wedding on a mountain top at midnight. I never managed to see Kon Tiki.

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The UNESCO biosphere reserve of Beinn Eighe in the north-west highlands of Scotland.

There was only one place in the world to be in September, as Scotland faced a referendum on independence from the UK. The atmosphere was buzzing with excitement and trepidation, and people were determined to celebrate regardless of the outcome. Wha’s like us?

In October the Bear and I headed to Greece, spending several days exploring Rhodes, before taking the ferry to Santorini. Well-known as a luxury destination, I wanted to see if it was possible to have an awesome experience on a shoestring budget. Mission accomplished!

I spent several days in Athens, taking in the TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) conference, my first experience of the travel blogging community. I met loads of awesome bloggers, made some good friends, and got the opportunity to take a day trip to Delphi.

After all that travel, it was time to return to the UK to work to pay off some of my adventures and build a bit of a fund for next year. It wasn’t all work and no play however, and I managed to squeeze in a couple of day trips to London and Oxford before Christmas.

 

It’s been a great year. What was your most memorable moment in 2014?

 

*That’s Scotland, by the way, if you didn’t get the subtle subtext through the post.

Seas of Red at the Tower of London (Photo Gallery)

On 17th July 2014, a Yeoman Warder of the Tower of London (also known as a Beefeater) planted a single red porcelain poppy in the grass of the moat surrounding the Tower. Other poppies followed, and the installation named Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red was first revealed to the public on 5th August, the centenary of the United Kingdom’s entry into the conflict that became known as WWI.

Ceramic poppies spill from a window high on the Tower wall, pooling in the moat below, washing the base of the stone walls. As more poppies were added to the display by volunteers working on the project, they surge up in a wave over the causeway leading to the entrance to the Tower.

Created by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper, the installation will be completed with the planting of the final poppy on Armistice Day on 11th November. This will bring the total number of poppies flooding the moat to 888,246, each representing a British and Commonwealth soldier killed in the conflict.

The installation has been criticised in some quarters as a sanitised interpretation of the grotesque and bloody events of WWI, however the sheer scale of the work has captured the imagination of the British people and the many visitors to London. Those attending at sunset everyday for the sounding of the Last Post and the reading of the Role of Honour, can’t fail to be moved viscerally by the thought of a name, and a family, attached to each and every one of the fragile flowers blooming brightly for a few short months.

5 Fantastic Facts About the Isle of Man

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View of Niarbyl and Calf Sound, Isle of Man. Photo Credit: idreamofdaylight

At the heart of the British Isles, surrounded by Ireland and the United Kingdom, lies the Isle of Man.  A dependency of the British Crown, the island is not part of the UK or the European Union, and has its own unique story.  Here are 5 things you should know about this quirky island:

1.  It has its own language, Manx. Closely related to Scots Gaelic and Irish, and known just as Gaelg by speakers, it’s an important part of the island’s cultural heritage. The last original native speaker, fisherman Ned Maddrell, died in 1974, but in recent years there’s been a language revival and use of Manx has become more evident, especially on signs and in print. Now, almost 2000 people (from a total population of around 80,000) speak the language to various extent.

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Tynwald Hill plays host to the outdoor assembly of the Manx parliament every June.

2. It is home to the oldest continuous parliament in the world. The Manx people celebrated the millennium of the Tynwald assembly in 1979, its origins from the time the island was under the rule of the Viking kings of Dublin. The Icelandic parliament, the Alþingi, founded in 930, is older, but was suspended for 45 years around 1800. The original ceremony is preserved with an outdoor meeting every year on the fields below Tynwald Hill.

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An armoured leg of the Manx triskellion from the crest on the Laxey Wheel.

 3. Whichever way you throw me, I will stand. The Three Legs of Mann (Tree Cassyn Vannin in Manx), a triskelion of three armoured legs joined together at the thigh, is the symbol of the Isle of Man, and appears everywhere. On flags and coats of arms, on banknotes and street signs, on car registration plates and on the front of the huge waterwheel at Laxey. 

A Snaefell Mountain Railway train approaching through the mist. Photo Credit: Jack_IOM
A Snaefell Mountain Railway train approaching through the mist. Photo Credit: Jack_IOM

4. From the summit of Snaefell, the highest mountain at 620m (2034ft), it’s said that you can see seven kingdoms. That’s not the seven kingdoms of Westeros, Game of Thrones fans, but England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Mann. The final two kingdoms are said to be those of heaven and the sea, home of Manannán mac Lir, the mythical first King of Mann.  That’s provided you have a clear day on this famously misty mountain.

5. The Isle of Man is a surprising centre of space travel research and development. Although the vehicle most associated with the island is a motorbike, a number of companies involved in building robots lunar rovers are based in on the island. And according to some sources, it’s 5th in the list of nations most likely to make the next moon landing.

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Do you believe they put a Mann on the moon? Photo Credit: nasa.gov

Weekly Photo Challenge: Juxtaposition

Posted a little later than planned, as I’ve been tucked up in bed with the flu this week, this is my contribution to this week’s photo challenge exploring interesting juxtaposition and unexpected pairings.

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I like this picture taken from the viewing platform at the top of the Rainforest Biome at the Eden Project, which looks just like an aerial view across the jungle canopy.  There’s even a tiny tin-roofed shack hiding amongst the foliage.  But the backdrop to this apparently natural scene is a futuristic-looking plastic and steel geodesic dome, which keeps out the English weather.