Travel: A park on the wild side

At Britain's latest theme park, which opened yesterday, bugs run wild and motorists pay double.
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In the Eighties, the cartoon character Roland Rat came to the aid of the sinking ship that was TV-AM. Now tourism chiefs in South Yorkshire hope that a rotting rat will enhance the county's appeal.

The Doncaster area has not figured highly in my travel plans in the past. It is chiefly notable for possessing one of the most dismal junctions for hitch-hiking in Britain (the A638/A1M intersection, if you care), and for the handsome Conisbrough Castle.

At about the time Roland Rat was gaining viewers and boosting earnings for Britain's commercial breakfast television station, the 12th-century castle keep was presiding over the degeneration of a community, and an industry. Denaby Main colliery, which previously sprawled across the north bank of the river Don, was a casualty of the collapse of the coal industry in the Eighties. The whole economic raison d'etre of the community vanished, thousands were thrown out of work, and the future looked as bleak as the broad valley scarred by years of exploitation. The then prime minister, as I recall, mourned the passing of Roland Rat and TV-AM rather more than the death of Denaby Main and its neighbour Cadeby Colliery.

Putting a cost on such degeneration is impossible. The cost of regeneration, though, is clear: pounds 40m. To build the first of three phases of the Earth Centre, the Millennium Commission paid half, with matching funds from local authorities and industry. Good Friday was an appropriate day to launch this theme park: the theme is the sins of man against the planet, and the car park is miles away. Motorists take last place behind rail, bus and cycle travellers; then, when they get to the ticket office, they face the ignominy of paying nearly twice as much as those who arrive by more environmentally friendly means. The Earth Centre is largely about muck, and it doesn't muck about when professing its "green" credentials.

So is the place so suffocatingly earnest that a visit is about as interesting as been berated all day long by Swampy? No; you realise fun is to be had as soon as you climb aboard the "Octos" - despite the Latin root of the name, this is a bizarre seven-person bicycle, where riders sit on saddles that ring a central chassis. The pedal power is pooled to steer a (wobbly) course whereby one person gets to steer and face forward, while everyone else has the unsettling experience of moving in a different direction to the one being pedalled. The Earth Centre certainly moved for me.

So far, no one has commandeered the Octos to explore the rest of the site - probably just as well, given the gradient at which the 400 acres of landscaped slag lean into the Don valley. "Site" is the right expression at the moment, since the scarred earth bearing the Earth Centre has the look of being several seasons short of a harvest. The most notable sproutings at present are non-organic: bright and bizarre sculptured trumpets along the Japanese-inspired Rokkaku Trail.

Sir Walter Scott once described this part of Yorkshire as "the most striking and beautiful landscape in all of England", which suggests he didn't get around much. The Earth Centre is an attempt at some natural healing after centuries of full-on exploitation.

Inside the space-age modules that dot the once-scorched earth, you discover an inspired series of exhibits detailing man's relation with the planet and cautioning future generations about the high stakes for which the people of the 21st century will play. An international squad of designers has been brought in to provide dramatic, thought-provoking exhibits about the grievous bodily harm wrought on Earth by, for example, the fossil fuels that once conferred a degree of affluence upon Conisbrough.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust - which brings us back to that rotting rat.The bugs have largely taken over the microcosm of planet Earth found at DN12 4EA. They reign supreme on the cadaver of the unfortunate rodent (let's call him Roland), who is busily decomposing in the Nature Works cabin. Here, a former miner, Steve Bedford Clark, has concocted a giant version of a biology experiment of the kind you'd never be allowed to conduct at school. In the creepy-crawly room, he says, the aim is to create a DIY food chain: "There's a huge great tube that contains lovely green algae. Next to that's a cone with some smaller invertebrates, and then we've got pond boxes of varying sizes. Get a jamjar, go to the taps that are attached, and build your own freshwater food chain." It's bug-eat- bug in here. And after all that, the brew is released back to the wild, or at least into the pond outside.

If you prefer to eat and drink from a more conventional catering outlet, you're in luck. The caterer at the Earth Centre is Yorkshire's celebrated restaurateur, Michael Gill. His cafe is named eatorganic@earthcentre, and, besides "healthy food which sustains you and the planet without ill- effect", it offers the most politically correct range of coffee I have ever seen, including New Guinea Organic.

Refreshed spiritually as well as physically, you are ready to visit the cathedral-sized limestone shell opposite for the most dramatic feature in the entire place. The Planet Earth Experience uses a cathedral-sized area to combines sound, light and detritus from man's rampage through the planet. Imaginative; inspired; enough?

To become a successful tourist attraction these days, the Earth Centre will need to compete hard to justify the huge investment; not just with places like Alton Towers, but with the Meadowhall shopping centre and even poor old Doncaster Rovers FC. Its chief executive, Jonathan Smales, believes it can. "It's a pretty sexy day out at the Earth Centre - pleasure with purpose."

The Earth Centre (01709 512000) opens 10am-6pm; pounds 4.95 (pounds 8.95 for car users)