Cornwall's Garden of Eden rises from clay pit

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The Independent Online

IN A Cornish clay pit, in a scheme ambitious even by the scale of the mammoth Millennium projects now being built across the land, engineers this month begin erecting the biggest greenhouse in the world.

IN A Cornish clay pit, in a scheme ambitious even by the scale of the mammoth Millennium projects now being built across the land, engineers this month begin erecting the biggest greenhouse in the world.

The Greenwich Dome and the new Tate Gallery in Bankside Power station are both arresting at first sight, but neither of the London schemes has quite the sheer shock of scale as the Eden Project.

One end of a hole in the ground, up to 200 feet deep and nearly half a mile long, is to be covered with a greenhouse so big it could contain the Tower of London. Inside it, the tropical rainforests of the world will be recreated, while in an adjacent, slightly smaller structure, the climate and vegetation of California, South Africa and the Mediterranean will be reproduced.

After the planting of 200,000 trees, and up to 4,000 different species and varieties of flowers, fruits and vegetables, from mahogany and ebony to coconuts and bananas, from olives and oranges to bougainvillaeas and oleanders, the botanical garden will have been reinvented for the 21st century.

And tourists will flock in their hundreds of thousands, the "green word" will be spread, a myriad more environmental initiatives will be sparked off, and both the economy and the pride of Cornwall will receive a much- needed shot in the arm.

So, at least, bets Tim Smit, the former record producer and songwriter behind the £80m project. In most people it might seem ambition taken too far, but Mr Smit has a track record of turning the unusual into a huge success: he is the man who restored the Lost Gardens of Heligan. After downshifting with his family to Cornwall, he stumbled upon a forgotten and overgrown Victorian estate. Over the last eight years, he restored it to its former glory, and it is now the most visited private garden in Britain.

If Heligan is a huge success, the Eden Project at the moment is simply huge. The idea of creating the world's biggest greenhouse came to Mr Smit while driving through the china clay wastelands near St Austell, and the inspiration was his love of plants.

Four years later, with the help of £37.5m of Millennium Commission funding, his audacious notion is taking shape. It consists of two biomes, giant conservatories containing plant communities, one representing the humid tropics - the rainforests - and the other the world's warm temperate areas.

Designed by Nicholas Grimshaw, the architect of the Eurostar terminal in London's Waterloo station, the biomes use a lighter material than glass, ethyl tetrafluoroethelene or ETFE. Now that the foundations are securely in place, the erection of the steel frames will shortly begin. It is hoped the visitor centre, overlooking the whole site, will be open next May; with the biomes receiving visitors in spring 2001.

Tim Smit is watching it all take shape with exhilaration. A bejeaned, tousle-haired and stubbled figure, looking younger than his 45 years, he wants the Eden Project to alert people to environmental concerns via entertainment: he is a showman rather than a preacher.

He is confident the project will be a great commercial success. "Every summer, there are nine million people on holiday between here and Bristol with a predisposition to go somewhere," he argued. He wants it to lift up the spirits of one of Britain's poorest counties. Finally, he wants to use the funds it generates to spark off other environmental projects: "I wouldn't have bothered to get up in the morning just to build the world's biggest greenhouse in a pit - I want it to make a real difference."

It certainly will not be for lack of ambition if he fails.

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