The Eden Project, located in a pockmarked landscape on the edge of St Austell, gets mighty busy in the summer. Not Disneyland busy but there are enough car parks — named and coloured after fruits — to run through the spectrum of most vitamin C-based foods. We park in the plum car park and follow a spiral of paths downhill to the reception.
We’re not first-timers to this Cornish landmark, but the spectacle of those two giant biomes always stops us in our tracks. Eden was built into the remnants of an old clay quarry and the biomes don’t actually loom into view until you pass through the ticket barrier. They’re embedded far below: fused diaphanous hexagons that to a child’s eyes — to my eyes too — look as though a giant spider is watching the world from its lair.
“Yee-ha!” screeches a disembodied voice. Above our heads, a teenager hurtles along a zip-wire 100ft above the ground, descending slowly from one side of the giant quarry to the other. The girl’s voice echoes across the quarry, then all falls silent again apart from the buzzing of bees nipping from one flower to another.
We descend from the quarry edge to ground level via a series of zigzags that feature a timeline of the evolution of the Earth. This is pitched in a way that engages children — lots of mass extinctions, volcanic catastrophes — and gives adults a gentle reminder of how life on Earth has played out. One of several art installations intends to represent a vortex of oil slowly draining away, a symbol of finite resources. My son Thomas looks at it then dips his finger in what we assume is water and licks it. “I don’t think it’s oil,” he predicts, an uncharacteristic quiver in his voice.
The rainforest biome — claimed to be the world’s largest indoor rainforest — offers the most fun. Visually it’s the real deal: stunning and uplifting with tree specimens carefully chosen and beautifully landscaped. The heat increases as we wind our way up past mangroves and a replica Malay house to towering dipterocarp hardwoods. Odd snippets stick with the kids: the fact that cola is a plant; and that as the planet warms up, more lightning strikes are happening. At the top, the close mugginess lingers and the cool sprays of mist that fizz from the foliage are welcome. A mid-air walkway gives us a stunning view of the canopy below.
The adjacent biome, that sustains a huge array of plant life from the Mediterranean climate, is less spectacular on the visual front, but the flowers, such as the proteas and fynbos plants from South Africa, are beautifully coloured. The kids are halted by the plants of the high chaparral of the United States — they’ve a whiff of Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote about them.
Environmental messages are everywhere but never preachy. A good example is The Core, an educational area that covers everything from the water cycle to how energy is created and used (look out for the startlingly giant nutcracker sculpture at the centre of this particular theme). A rather mystifying labyrinth with a seed sculpture at its centre calls to mind one of the more abstract episodes of Doctor Who. It’s all good fun but our kids are too tired and scatterbrained after four hours in the hothouse biomes to take it all in — we decide The Core is worth a revisit in its own right.
Hiking our way back up to the car (via the banana and lime car parks) the unanimous vote for the highlight of the day goes to the smoothies in the main cafe. After a sweaty hour in the rainforest biome, these were downed in one. The Eden Project is a perfect example of what to with a disused quarry (a book featuring 1,001 such uses can be found in the Eden Project shop). Another bonus is the shop, which has a good range of souvenirs at prices lower than is usually the case in Cornwall. The kids leave each cradling a cactus.
So that’s what we take away from a superb day out in Cornwall: great smoothies and a cactus the kids name Malcolm.