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West of Eden

Stuart Macdonald in Cornwall, UK

'It seems that all of the ingredients are present at Eden for a truly enlightening day out, yet somehow along the way the recipe appears to have been mislaid'

Deep in a steaming jungle valley something stirs. Through the sweeping fronds of giant tree ferns, the keen eye will spot a large pond, speckled with water lilies and drifting green weed. The view towards the heavens is obscured by an abundance of coconut and desert palms, interspersed with bristling thickets of bamboo and towering pines. This is all to be found in the southwest of England and yet for once it is not the much vaunted Eden Project. This place is Eden creator Tim Smit’s previous baby, the intriguingly named Lost Gardens of Heligan.

The Lost Gardens are twenty minutes drive from the Eden Project, to the south of St Austell. They are disappointingly well sign-posted, which is really a bonus, as it allows for more time hacking around in the undergrowth of the Lost Valley and the sub-tropical Jungle. Due to their close proximity, myself and my party went in search of both the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens one sunny, Sunday afternoon.

Much has been written about the Eden Project as the sole millennium work to exhibit any relevance or success. When placed in comparison to such gargantuan cock-ups as the Millennium Dome, it is easy to see why. However, this is not really what the Eden Project is all about. It ambitiously sets out to represent and explore the bond between humankind and our environment. Unarguably, this has been done in a spectacular manner through the two immense biomes, yet one is left with an uneasy feeling that this is a case of quantity triumphing over quality.

It seems that all of the ingredients are present at Eden for a truly enlightening day out, yet somehow along the way the recipe appears to have been mislaid. There is potential for huge numbers of visitors to the innovative site in the bottom of an old quarry. Unfortunately, it is just as likely that large numbers of these visitors will depart disappointed with what they have experienced.

There are many good ideas at Eden, but the project would benefit from more informed and accessible sign-posting, as well as a larger variety of points of general interest. This latter improvement would mean that the enthusiastic crowds won’t all find themselves trudging round the two biomes in sweltering heat, fighting past hordes of screamingly bored children, intent on destroying the remaining handles on the perplexing banana machine.

We had arrived at the Eden Project just after 11am and, in spite of the site’s reputation for spawning large queues, had walked straight in. We spent around three and a half hours in the complex, which meant that (after a bite to eat in the nearby harbour town of Mavagissey) we arrived at the Lost Gardens towards the end of the day and largely had the place to ourselves.

The Lost Gardens were ‘found’ by Smit and his team in 1990, during the course of an arduous summer’s exploration of the wilderness which was once the Tremayne family estate. Smit had stumbled upon the work of a local architect who had drawn a rough plan of the way the Tremayne gardens were in their original state. The estate had fallen into disrepair following the start of the First World War and although the team had heard detailed local accounts of valleys of palms and exotic ferns, they were sceptical of what may remain.

What they found exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations. A wide variety of the imported species which had originally formed the gardens remained, if severely stunted and starved of light by rampant rhododendrons. The four ornamental ponds which make up the southwestern Jungle section of the Gardens, were found purely by chance and excavated with the help of the National Rivers Authority. Further east, the Lost Valley oozes serenity and after the hustle and bustle of the Eden project, we gratefully soaked it up.

There were also the dilapidated kitchen and walled flower gardens in the northern area of the grounds, which are traditional to old style English country homes. Again, the brambles and weeds had taken over, but the bones of what had once been immaculately tended glasshouses and borders remained. These have all since been returned to their former orderly glory, with the original citrus and vine glasshouses notable highlights.

The restoration project has since been underway for eleven years and in that time, the largely voluntary workforce has managed to recreate something very special. In contrast to the Eden Project, the Lost Gardens of Heligan has the immediate advantage of age. The original plants (of which a large proportion remain) are mature and the planning which took place almost a century ago, has resulted in some truly inspiring settings.

The Eden Project strives to present itself as the new and innovative kid in town – a shining example of how man can live in harmony with nature. Yet, in the contrived eco-systems of the biomes, there are no birds and insects or any of the wildlife which helps to make areas such as the African deserts or South American rainforests so distinctive. At Heligan, however, there is something just as profound and infinitely more satisfying taking place – an example of man recognising and bowing to the superior power of nature.

The inclusion of both exciting projects in one day provided an intriguing juxtaposing of the old and the new. The majestic sweep of the giant bubble-wrap biomes is impressive, but is placed in perfect perspective by the tranquillity and quiet industry of a working Victorian garden. Plenty of visitors to Cornwall will discover the delights of the Eden Project, yet it would be a tragedy of biblical proportions were they not also to lose themselves in the Lost Gardens of Heligan.

© Stuart Macdonald 2001

The Lost Gardens of Heligan

Adults £5.50
Senior Citizens £5.00
Children (5 - 15 yrs) £2.50
Children (under 5) FREE
Family £15.00
(2 adults + up to 3 children)

Open every day (except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day).
Main Season - 10am - 6pm, last tickets at 4:30pm.
Winter - 10am - 5pm, last tickets at 3:30pm.

Heading south on the M5, join the A30 at Exeter. Past Bodmin, leave the A30 for the St Austell Road (A391) and continue on to St Austell. From St Austell take the road to Mevagissey (B3273) and follow the brown tourist signs to "The Lost Gardens of Heligan".

The Eden Project

Opening times:
Open every day except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. 10am–6pm (Last entry 5pm)
Admission prices:

Individuals Groups (10+)
Adults £9.50 £8.00
Children (5-15yrs) £4.00 £3.00
Under 5’s free free
Seniors (60yrs+) £7.50 £6.50
Students £5.00 £4.00
Family £22.00 -

You'll find the Eden Project to the east of St Austell, signposted from the A30, A390 and A391. Cornwall, England

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