The Eden Project: Complete Guide
James Bond isn’t often seen in a greenhouse, but when the makers of the 007 movie Die Another Day needed a set for the villain’s Icelandic lair, the Eden Project was at the top of their location list. Its futuristic steel-framed “biomes” remain a thrilling sight, like a cluster of giant golf balls wedged in rugged countryside near St Austell, and its emphasis on sustainability, recycling and humanity’s relationship with the planet couldn’t be more appropriate in the age of Attenborough and Thunberg. Home to the largest indoor rainforest in the world, it’s also a novel twist on Cornish mining heritage – the Eden Project was created in a disused claypit.
Since it opened in 2001, this turbocharged take on the Victorian glasshouse has been one of the most popular tourist attractions in Britain, and new Edens are planned in the UK, China, Australia and New Zealand. It hosts an acclaimed summer music festival, the Eden Sessions, and eco-conscious adrenaline junkies can ponder its worthy message while whizzing down a zipwire at 60mph. You can even do a degree here, with backing from the University of Plymouth.
The Eden Project is an architectural marvel and showcases spectacular plants from across the globe. The star of the show is the Rainforest Biome, where you can see more than 1,000 species of plants from Asia, Africa and South America in tropical temperatures of up to 35C. For maximum drama, head up to the Canopy rope bridge, slung between two of the tallest trees. The Mediterranean Biome houses plants from Europe, South Africa, California and Western Australia, including a citrus grove, red and green kangaroo paws and the Dorset Naga, one of the hottest chillies on the planet.
The Eden Project is family-friendly, with a host of interactive displays and exhibitions exploring everything from tapping wild rubber to the crucial role played by oxygen-creating cyanobacteria. You can lose yourself in the peaceful Outdoor Gardens, where the paths are lined with bramble, budding oak, willow, ash and hazel. Some visitors complain that the tickets, food and drink are too expensive – sustainability and ethical practices evidently come at a price.
These intersecting domes cover 2.2 hectares and are a remarkable feat of engineering – the claypit in which they are built is unstable, and the bubble shape was designed to adapt to shifting ground. Each dome consists of a tubular steel frame covered with panels of ETFE, a fluoropolymer that is 100 times lighter than glass – the Eden Project describes it as “clingfilm with attitude”. ETFE has a lifespan of 25 years, which could cause a few issues around 2025.
There are two distinct zones, the tropical Rainforest Biome and the Mediterranean Biome. The former is home to electric-blue jade vines, coffee and cacao trees, and the largest flower in the world, the titan arum, which weighs 170 pounds and blooms for just 48 hours (no bad thing, because its overpowering odour has earned it the nickname “corpse flower”). This indoor rainforest contains a rope bridge, a misty cloud bridge and a waterfall fed by rainwater. The Mediterranean Biome has a delightful herbal aroma and displays flora from temperate zones across the world, including olive trees, vines and a variety of citrus plants – check out the Buddha’s hand, which resembles a lemon with fingers.
The giant bee sculpture in the grounds is a reminder that the hexagonal panels were inspired by honeycomb, a good example of how the Eden Project connects humanity and nature.
Things to Do
The Eden Project’s innovative architecture plant displays, gardens and educational exhibitions have attracted millions of visitors, but it’s also a great spot for thrill-seekers. The site is home to Hangloose Adventure, an activity centre with the longest and fastest zip wire in England. The intrepid can hurtle over the biomes at speeds of up to 60mph, then take on a high ropes adventure, the daunting 360-degree swing and a stuntman-style leap onto a giant air bag. These activities are not included in the Eden Project admission price, but you don’t have to pay for Eden entry if you just want an adrenaline rush.
Back on safer ground, the Eden Project is dotted with sculptures by artists such as Julian Opie and has indoor and outdoor play areas for children. The gift shop offers a wide range of recycled, locally produced or fairly traded goods – naturally, you can buy a reusable jute bag to take them home in. You can even spend the night here, in a YHA hostel built using shipping containers, and a hotel is planned for 2021.
The Eden Project was created by Tim Smit, a former music producer who worked with Barry Manilow and the Nolans before restoring the Lost Gardens of Heligan, a few miles down the road from St Austell. Smit wanted to build an epic showcase for the world’s most important plants, and in 1995 found a disused claypit that he thought would be ideal. He worked with the starchitect Nicholas Grimshaw, famous for the Eurostar terminal at London Waterloo station. The design of the biomes was inspired by soap bubbles.
The builders used a record-breaking 230 miles of scaffolding to put up the Eden Project, but the project was nearly sunk in 1998, when 43 million litres of rain fell into the pit. A special drainage system saved the day and construction of the biomes began in May 2000. Half a million people came to watch the construction process before the official opening in March 2001, and more than 20 million have visited since then.
Famous guests include the Queen, David Attenborough, Angelina Jolie and the Olympic flame, brought into the Rainforest Biome by TV adventurer Ben Fogle ahead of the 2012 London Games. Tim Smit received a knighthood in 2012 for services to public engagement with science.
Given Tim Smit’s background as a record producer, it’s no surprise that live music is a crucial part of the Eden Project’s formula. Since 2002, the Eden Sessions have seen some of the world’s best acts perform to 6,000 people on a dedicated stage. The first festival had a decidedly indie feel, with Pulp, Spiritualized and Doves headlining, but the line-up now spans rock, pop, funk, soul and dance – Elton John, Kylie, Nile Rodgers, Lionel Richie, Pet Shop Boys, Amy Winehouse and Tom Jones have all appeared, as well as Dizzee Rascal and West Country superstars Muse and PJ Harvey.
The Eden Sessions were cancelled this year because of Covid-19, but Lionel Richie, My Chemical Romance and the Script have signed up for 2021, with Diana Ross yet to confirm.
Food and Drink
As you’d expect given its eco-friendly remit, the Eden Project tries to buy as much produce as possible from local sources – more than 80% of the money spent on catering suppliers goes to businesses in Cornwall and Devon. There are plenty of healthy options for the kids, and vegans and those with dietary issues are well catered for. Food waste is converted into natural fertiliser in a huge on-site composter.
There are four cafes at the Eden Project and you can take food from them into the gardens as a picnic. The Canopy Café, in the building that links the Rainforest and Mediterranean biomes, serves stone-baked pizzas, garlic ciabattas, spicy burritos and nachos with cheese, salsa, guacamole and yoghurt. The Little Lunch, outside the biomes, sells quinoa salads, sourdough toasties, sausage rolls and steak or vegan pasties. The Eden Coffee House, in the visitor centre, offers hot drinks and cakes, and you’ll win no prizes for guessing what’s on offer at the Ice Cream Parlour, in the Outdoor Gardens. The flavours here are inspired by rainforest fruits and the makers use unrefined sugar cane. Try classic clotted cream vanilla, coconut, baobab and pineapple or dairy-free mint chic chip.
The Eden Project’s commitment to ecologically sustainable, ethically sound food and drink comes at a cost – prices here are on the high side and some visitors feel they don’t represent good value for money.
The Eden Project is open seven days a week, from 9.30pm until 5.30pm. You must book a timed slot. Opening hours and activities might be affected by the coronavirus, so check the Eden Project’s website for the latest information before you visit. The website also offers a detailed accessibility guide.
Tickets cost £28.50 for adults, £15 for children aged 5-16 and £75 for two adults and two children. The Eden Project is a registered charity: if you treat your entry fee as a donation, you can visit as often as you like for 12 months. The zip wire and other Hangloose activities are not included in the admission price, so visit hanglooseadventure.com for details.
The Eden Project is in Bodelva, Cornwall PL24 2SG (01726 811911, edenproject.com). It is signposted from the A30 and the A391/390. It’s half an hour by bus from St Austell railway station to the Eden Project. Check that the 101 service is running before you travel (tinyurl.com/ychgl3yp).