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The Eden Project: a Millennium dream come true

Friday 04 June 2004

Our countryside commentator John Sheard left his home in the Yorkshire Dales for rare foray at large, tempted by the huge success of the Eden Project in Cornwall

IT IS difficult to grasp the fact that in six months time, we shall be marking the fifth year of the Third Millennium. With a bit of luck, we shall celebrate it without all the fuss, the profiteering and the downright political incompetence of the Millennium itself.

It would be far too boring to reprise the disaster of the Dome and other politically correct schemes dreamed up by the chattering classes of North London, who were exposed by the events they planned as having absolutely no idea whatsoever what is of interest and importance to the ordinary folk of this realm.

The Eden Project, Cornwall, UK

But, almost five years on, they are two Millennium inspired creations which have stood the test of time and are still going strong. One was small and thoughtful - the work of the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust, based in Clapham - the second huge, grand and a massive boost to another region far from and forgotten by London: the Eden Project in Cornwall.

It takes a lot to drag me out of the Dales these days, and the thought of a near 400-mile drive on Britain's crumbling motorways fills me with dread. But so many friends had made the pilgrimage to this garden of Eden and come back bubbling with praise that, much egged on by my lady wife, we finally decided to go.

And I am jolly glad that we did. For this is perhaps the one single British project worthy of a Millennium - and I am delighted that it has brought so much pleasure to millions of gardening enthusiasts.

It has also put many, many millions of pounds into the pockets of Cornish folk who have much in common with us here in the Dales: immensely proud of their local heritage, wary of interference from Whitehall, lovers of rugby union football, and welcoming to visitors.

Sadly, with many of their traditional industries gone (like tin mining, a rock hard craft once shared by many Dalesmen), they too must attract the tourists to provide the jobs to keep their children from drifting away to the towns and cities.

In creating the Eden Project from what was merely a huge hole in the earth - a china clay pit big enough to house what in fact is a small town - they have given Britain its greenest, most exciting, most modern tourist attraction which, ironically, looks back over the millennia to demonstrate man's age old relationships with plants.

Now there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of spectacular gardens in Britain and a marvellous treat they are too. But the vast majority of them are purely ornamental, with flowers, shrubs and trees taking pride of place.

In our house, my wife looks after the flowers and I grow the useful stuff, the veg. Take me to a stately home and what I really want to see is the walled garden, where the fruit and veg was nurtured by clever gardeners to keep the Big House kitchen supplied with fresh produce all year round.

And although there are lots of pretty flowers at the Eden Project, the vast majority of it is devoted to plants which helped man achieve what we now call civilisation.

Under those huge, space-age domes - the biggest greenhouses in the world - there are growing plants that have fed the people of almost every continent and tribe in the world. But it is not just food.

There are exhibits which show how various plants produced fibres to make clothes, homes, and rope - a commodity used in enormous amounts when Britain was colonising the world in sailing ships.

There is one on the herbs that went into brewing (I liked that bit) and vegetable and salads gardens that sent me green with envy. All the produce grown is used in the centre's own restaurants, alongside meat and fish bought as a matter of policy from small local suppliers.

Best of all, this operation is non-profit making. It employs hundreds of staff, puts millions into the tills of local shops, hotel and restaurants, but any profit is ploughed back into extending the site: a new dome (sorry about that word) is already under construction which will be even bigger than the others. If we must have a flourishing tourist industry, the Eden Project shows how it should be done.

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