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The 'Garden of Eden' is in England?

By Doug AlexanderSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 9, 2003



ST. AUSTELL, ENGLAND

In the beginning it was just a wild scheme thought up by an aging rock musician and his friends at an English country inn.

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Nine years later, the idea of creating a "garden of Eden" in the heart of Cornwall has not only come to fruition, it has blossomed into the biggest attraction in southwest England.

The Eden Project has transformed an ugly clay pit near the Cornish town of St. Austell into a plant paradise that boasts the biggest greenhouses in the world.

It's a gardener's delight, from the first sight of its two breathtaking conservatories. The massive croissant-shaped "biomes" erupt from the crater floor, their glistening honeycombed shells mimicking the eyes of a giant insect. These spectacular structures dominate their surroundings - 35 acres of flower beds, shrubbery, and landscaped vegetation interrupted only by pathways, ponds, and festive banners flapping in the breeze.

The Eden Project is an amazing botanical garden, but it's also much more.

"To describe it in one phrase is impossible," admits Eden's media director, Paul Travers, although he tries. "It's the largest greenhouse in the world, it's a wonderful scientific institution ... it's a living theater of people and plants ... it's all about human dependence on plants."

Mr. Travers can be forgiven for relying on catchphrases to describe this effort. He has lived and breathed Eden ever since his best friend, Tim Smit, wooed him from the hustle-bustle of London eight years ago.

Mr. Smit seems an unlikely person to head a project touted by some, with a healthy dose of hyperbole, as "the eighth wonder of the world." Dutch-born and British-educated, he first made his mark in the music industry as a composer/producer in rock music and opera.

After 10 years of jetting around the world, Smit moved to Cornwall in 1987 with his wife and three children to pursue "a quieter lifestyle."

Instead, he stumbled into the world of gardening. Smit discovered in 1990 that he was living beside a long-abandoned, overgrown Victorian garden - " 'Peter Rabbit' meets 'The Secret Garden' in a green ocean of plenty," as he once described it.

Smit and a partner, with a team of volunteers, spent six years restoring what became the Lost Gardens of Heligan, which now draws 350,000 visitors a year.

Smit's desire to do something big - too big for Heligan - prompted him and a few friends to brainstorm the genesis of a second garden, the Eden Project, in May 1994.

A year later, Smit was scrawling sketches in a pub to tempt Travers into being the fourth person to join this venture.

Travers remembers thinking: "If anyone can make it happen, he will, and if I'm not part of it I'll never forgive myself."

Today, he knows it was the right decision. "How often do you get invited to be part of the eighth wonder of the world by a recording artist who knows nothing about horticulture?"

But Smit knew how to excite others with his vision. By the late 1990s his dream to build the world's largest greenhouse became one of Britain's Millennium Projects. It received a $70 million government grant, and soon other public and private investors covered the rest of the $138 million tab.

Construction crews descended upon the derelict pitin January 1999. Aided by teams of architects, engineers, and horticulturists, they took 26 months to sculpt the ugly china-clay crater into a site of beauty.

Since opening in March 2001, the Eden Project has attracted 4 million visitors to England's westernmost county. It has quickly grown into a key stop on the popular coach tours that whisk tourists to Britain's numerous horticultural sites.

Step inside the 'bubbles'

The Eden Project offers acres of gardens within the landscaped crater, but the vast conservatories are the real stars. The pair of bubbled biomes house 125,000 wild and cultivated plants from 5,000 species around the world - everything from South Africa's tangerine- colored desert daisies to the towering kapoc tree, which at 52 feet is the tallest plant in Eden.

These conservatories are themselves a remarkable feat of engineering. Both structures have been built without internal supports to prop up the honeycombed mass of steel pipes and translucent hexagonal foil "windows" that shroud the horticultural collections.

The larger Humid Tropics Biome is, at 790 feet long by 360 feet wide, large enough to cover four NFL football fields and, at 180 feet high, could easily swallow the Statue of Liberty.

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