The quest for Eden

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Miraculous transformation: A living botanical exhibition where mine pits once stood. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan
Miraculous transformation: A living botanical exhibition where mine pits once stood. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan

If you are bored of castles and cathedrals, Eden holds the promise of a new experience.

it is clear that there is a delightful obsession here with everything green.

SOUTHWEST England is where you find Eden. This is a wonderful garden, an amazing assemblage of plant species from around the world. There are palms, cocoa, sugarcane, mangoes, bananas, tropical fruits, bamboo and pineapples from the hot and humid tropics. And then there are herbs, olives, grapes, perfume plants and cacti from the warm temperate climate. All of these in the heart of Britain. Giving it the grand title of Eden, therefore, seems fully justified. Many would consider it a conservation showpiece.Eden is in Bodelva and the location is well served by road and rail. If you are starting from London by train, your destination is St. Austell in Cornwall, which has a quiet, quaint and well-preserved railway station. A First Western train from Paddington can bring you here in a few hours, adding a bonus of panoramic views of the sea off Plymouth. Several houses appear precariously perched on cliffs towering over the waves.A first class ticket on the train ensures a steady supply of a range of beverages and snacks served airline-style. A well-stocked pantry that is easily accessed embellishes these offerings, the vestibule doors between carriages swishing open automatically without complaint.Cornwall, together with Devon, stakes claim to some classic vistas of Britain. The southwest coast is a path that woos tourists with 350 km of coastline and some really long, beautiful walking trails.

Enchanting vistas

The rugged beauty of the landscape is difficult to miss. If you drive from any part of eastern England towards Cornwall and land's end, you come upon broad moors and enchanting vistas that evoke the scenery of the literary classics. This is Lorna Doone country.The object of our attention, however, is Eden. There is a branch line bus from St. Austell that takes you to the project if you arrive by train. By road, you drive along the A30, A390 and A391 to Bodelva.Once you reach the project location and move towards the centre, it is not difficult to appreciate what everyone is talking about. The landscape is refreshing and verdant, enlivened by the calls of birds. In the middle of this redoubt of the nature lover are massive domes, their white, translucent honeycomb skin hiding an engineering marvel and a permanent living, thriving botanical exhibition.Unlike the Millennium Dome in London that appears doomed to fossilisation after opening in 2000, the domes of the Eden Project, which was also built as a turn-of-the-century project with substantial funding from the Millennium Commission, have turned out to be vibrant.Walk around the gardens in the outdoors of Eden, watching real flowers and the birds. You can spot Britain's national bird, the red-faced robin with ease.The profusion of greenery at Eden is the evolution of an idea incubated by Tim Smit. It is hard to believe that this site was a 60-metre deep clay pit in the 1990s, a landscape overrun by giant excavators digging deeper for profits from China clay. As with all mining, there came a time when it had been robbed of all that it had to give, leaving a giant expanse the size of 35 football pitches, vast parts of it gouged out.The story turns even more incredible, when the visitor learns that no soil was lifted from elsewhere to turn these lifeless caverns into real gardens - a staggering 83,000 tonnes of soil was made especially for it from organic waste, sparing the much more ecologically important and depleted peat that is found in parts of Britain.Walking around Eden, it is clear that there is a delightful obsession here with everything green. All the food waste from the campus (and there is a lot of it left behind by a million plus visitors a year) is composted in a giant Susteco composter from Sweden, to be returned to the plants as fertilizer. This idea is called Waste Neutral and there is even an interpretation centre on the campus for children. The water that drains into the Eden area is used both for gardening and to flush the toilets. The power is either "green tariff" (produced using renewable sources) or from domestic solar photovoltaic and wind turbines.A short drive from Bodelva-St.Austell in the Devon-Cornwall circuit is Exeter. In this town of medieval churches, a catacomb, mint and inspiring cathedral, even a brief sojourn can create indelible memories.

Medieval ambience

Much of Exeter can be explored on foot and the best place to start is Cathedral Yard, in front of the Royal Clarence Hotel. Look east and you find the spires of the stately cathedral rise into the misty morning. As the rays from the sun continue their inexorable climb, Exeter stirs to life, the Tudor buildings in the yard bathed in the warm glow. At No.1, Cathedral Close is Mols, proclaiming its antiquity: 1596, the golden sign above the door says. The reconstructed base of this building with a contrasting décor of white walls and large black windows hosts coffee houses and tourist shops. A short walk to high street brings more such period architecture into view, some of them sporting interesting bay windows, colourfully painted wood panels and other architectural motifs.Driving into Exeter, an ancient town with a wise outlook that reserves many of the narrow streets for humans rather than cars, may require the use of the Park and Ride facility operating every 10 minutes from suburbs like Matford. Leave the car in the special parking lot and ride into town in one of the bright blue and yellow buses with the creative logo that proclaims proudly, "tackling congestion, pollution, rush hour, wheel clamp, bottleneck, restrictions... in Exeter."Southwest England has a lot more to offer to those who have the time, inclination and liberal budgets. Newquay, St. Ives, Penzance, Falmouth and Truro are all eager to welcome travellers. For visitors who are jaded by castles, cathedrals and the countryside, however, it is Eden that holds a new experience. One that takes them to far off lands with real banana plants, rubber, rice, coconut palms... magically, all of it in Britain. The only thing missing is the teeming insect and animal life.G. ANANTHAKRISHNAN



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