In 1987, a London-based record producer by the name of Tim Smit moved to Cornwall to escape the high-pressure world in the capital. He was keen to make a name for himself in new fields and, being a life-long devotee of both Cornwall and horticulture, wanted to devise something to bring tourism and prosperity to this poor area of southwest England. Tim was instrumental in restoring the Lost Gardens of Heligan, near Mevagissey, and following this triumph, he decided to explore the possibility of a site where the relationships between humans and plants could be explored on a grand scale.
There were two major problems: first, a suitable site large enough to accommodate Tim’s vision, and second, the money required to fulfill his dream. Tim encouraged two well-known horticulturists, Phillip McMillam Browse and Peter Thoday, to join his “think tank” and succeeded in organising a £25,000 grant from the local council.
Architects were found and presented with the formidable challenge of creating the “eighth wonder of the world.” They took up the challenge and designs started to flourish. Two of Britain’s largest civil engineering contractors were brought in and offered to lend the project a significant amount of money, only repayable if the scheme proved a success.
The Millennium Fund recognised the fantastic work that was in its infancy here and eventually coughed up an initial grant of £37.5 million pounds. Now they needed a site upon which to build this wondrous spectacle.
Cornwall was once the china clay capital of the world, with the area around St Austell riddled with pits and workings, some more than 200 years old. There was a pit that had just reached the end of its useful life at Bodelva, about 3miles north of St Austell. It was 200 feet deep and well over a mile in circumference, and enclosed in an area of 35 football pitches. After negotiations, this was acquired from English China Clays, who had no further use for the pit, which had no level ground, was full of water, had no soil, and was overrun with gorse and weeds.
Work began in earnest to clear the site, requiring round-the-clock work by a team of bulldozers and giant dumper trucks to shift more than 1.8 million tonnes of earth and rock after the estimated 43 million gallons of water were pumped out.
Further grants were obtained, allowing whole sections of the pit to be shaved off, in-filled, ballasted, and secured. This all took 3 years, using the most ecologically sound materials available at the time. About 18,000 gallons of water per hour drain naturally into the pit from the surrounding countryside. This was channelled and harnessed to provide all the water the finished project would require. Some 2,000 rock anchors at up to 11m long were driven into the pit walls to stabilise them, after which came some 85,000 tonnes of soil made from recycled waste.
A final design for the biomes had been agreed between the various parties. This comprised a two-layer steel curved space frame, known as the “hex-tri-hex,” with an outer layer of hexagons, the largest of which would measure 11m across, and the occasional pentagon, plus the inner layer of hexagons and triangles bolted together in a similar fashion to a child’s construction kit. The transparent foil windows were made from three layers of ETFE, an ethylene-based co-polymer that when inflated would form a 2m-deep pillow. ETFE has a life span of 25-plus years, transmits UV light, is nonstick and self-cleaning, and weighs less than 1% of the equivalent area of glass.
The construction lasted for 3 years, with the project opening its doors to the first fare-paying visitors in 2000. It rapidly became the premier tourist facility in Cornwall, then the southwest, and then southern England. People had never seen or experienced anything remotely similar. It was truly a fascinating and mind-blowing spectacle set in such unique surroundings. Eden set its sights realistically and expected to receive three quarters of a million visitors during its inaugural year; in fact, more than 3 million passed through, way beyond any expectancy or prediction. That figure continues to climb and shows no sign of easing up.
It has, without a doubt, been a stunning success story. Future developments include using the Arena to stage concerts; the development of The Food Theatre; the covering of some of the exterior routes, making all-weather walking tours more enjoyable; and, last but not least, further biomes, the next of which is planned to be the Desert.
Eden will grow and blossom, just as its very own exhibits do, enabling it to represent in the most modern of ways mankind’s indelible link and dependency upon plants of all descriptions.