Welsh show London how it's Dome

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The Independent Online
THIS IS the other Dome. The National Botanic Garden of Wales, one of the Government's flagship millennium projects, is giving its big brother in Greenwich a lesson in style, content and marketing.

Where the Millennium Dome's exhibition will last just one year, the developers of the Botanic Garden - which has the largest single-span glass dome in the world - are talking in terms of 50-year projects. Its total cost of pounds 43m is just a fraction of Greenwich's pounds 750m bill - and with little of the bitter criticism and political point-scoring that has soured the London Docklands project.

The garden, set in 568 rolling acres on the edge of the Towy Valley, near Carmarthen, will be twice as large as Kew when it opens at Easter 2000. Within five years, more than 500,000 visitors a year are expected. Admission for adults will be pounds 6.20, considerably less than for visitors to the Dome. Last year, while the grounds still resembled a glorified building site, more than 8,000 visitors joined guided tours.

The 110-yard long, 60-yard wide glasshouse, designed by Sir Norman Foster, is the centrepiece, home to tropical plants and sections of forest transported from New Zealand, Chile, Mexico and China. It will also house other flora from endangered Mediterranean-type climates across the world. Around the grounds at the former Middleton Hall of Sir William Paxton, a wealthy 18th-century merchant banker, more than 12,000 plants are already in place, while the final total is likely to be 100,000. The local climate, which last year received three times as much rainfall as Kew, is mild and ideal for plants to thrive.

As part of the Millennium Commission's remit, which requires its projects to contain a hefty scientific element, there will be "hands-on" educational centres and a research centre for the study of plant evolution and conservation. A herbal garden and research centre will explore the role of alternative medicine and the work of Welsh herbalists, known as the Physicians of Myddfai, 800 years ago. Visitors will also be able to walk to a large- scale organic farm within the grounds.

The inspiration for the gardens came partly from the Rio Conference on Climate Change in 1992, in a visit by Professor Charles Stirton, director of the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

"Rio sowed the seeds of change but not much has really changed since then," he said. "When people talk about `sustainability', they are really talking about sustainable consumerism.

"But it has to be more fundamental than that. Recycling tin cans is doing a minuscule amount if other things don't change."

The exhibitions are aimed at giving visitors a choice in the kind of world they live in, he added. "We need a massive change in the way we work, the way we build communities and how we live our lifestyles. When resources around the world are running out in 40 years' time, this place will survive."

The Botanic Garden project is doing its best to lead the way. All human waste on the site will be recycled through reed beds, and a "Biomass" centre will pulp local regrown timber to produce all the energy the site requires. Where possible, local stone and building materials have been used and horses have been preferred to tractors in transporting some loads within the grounds. This increases the benefits to the local economy by employing farriers and vets.

"The traditional coal industry has declined and local farming has taken a bit of a knock," said Gary Davies, marketing manager of the gardens. "In terms of jobs, tourism is important to the area now. Changing the perception of South Wales is an uphill task, but you can't find a slag heap any more for love or money."