It was back in March 2001 that the Eden Project first opened its doors to the public. No-one quite knew what to expect of an environmental showcase set within a disused china clay quarry. As it was visitors stood aghast as they emerged from the ticket hall to get their first glimpse of the vast site set below them and the attraction has gone on to welcome over a million visitors each year and tell them something of our relationship with and responsbility to the botanical world around us.
We speak to its creator Tim Smit as he reflects on The Eden Project's 10th birthday.
When did you first conceive of the idea for the Eden Project?
In 1995 on looking at the clay district that runs down the spine of mid Cornwall and seeing huge spoil heaps and deep holes. Everyone called it the moonscape and referred to it as beyond redemption. I, on the contrary saw visions of Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World and imagined a civilisation discovered in the crater of a derelict volcano. This civilisation would be based on art, technology, husbandry of plants and have a distinctive culture. I wanted people's mouths to drop when they saw it, a bit like that famous lithograph of David Livingstone first coming upon the Victoria Falls. From there the story naturally falls into place. Once you dream of something by looking at it in a different way the world and the opportunities it holds - change. The clay was land with ocean views and a century of destruction that could be remedied!
How easy was it to get it up and running?
Impossible to say because I have no idea what the difference between easy and tricky is in this case. It seemed impossible on day one, a bit of a gamble on day two and a challenge worth taking to the limit on day three. I always promised myself that we would take it to the point where there was a brick wall we couldn't walk through or climb over. Luckily every time we came to a wall we found, once we were really close, that there was a door to go through. The major secret I think was determinedly to use the word 'when' not 'if'. Psychologically this is important.
How many years in the making?
We started work at 1pm 17 October 1998. We opened fully completed on 17 March 2001 having opened for a six month exhibition before full opening to allow the public to enjoy seeing the construction in progress. Also, between 18 October 1998 and the spring of 1999 we lost 134 days to continuous rainfall. The worst weather in Cornwall's history until....1999/2000. Amazing that the once-in-a-hundred-years nightmare scenario should happen in consecutive years.
What was the first plant planted?
The first proper exhibition plant planted was Kapok, the most spiritual tree in the pantheon of Amerindian Shamans. It was 12m tall and planted with a crane on my birthday, 25 September 2000.
Who/what has inspired/influenced you the most in Eden’s creation?
My love of Cornwall and the ambition to create something that would make people see Cornwall as a phoenix rising, not a place in decline.
Has Eden lived up to your dreams?
Nothing can live up to your dreams, but Eden's success has been very humbling and rather than triumphalism we feel a tremendous sense of duty to make all the effort worthwhile and for Eden to really make a difference to the world. If all it was was a theme park we would have wasted so many years of our lives, for nothing.
Highlight of the last 10 years?
Live 8, 'Africa Calling', 2 July 2005. Eden became Africa for a day. Sublime moment? The address to the artists on stage from Nelson Mandela. Magic. There were many moments that day including a paparazzi scrum around Angelina Jolie who came to Eden for the event and made a speech.
What role do you consider Eden has to play in the 21st century?
To provoke interventions that make people realise they can change the way they live and the place they live to make their own version of Eden. Creating a climate of engagement around ideas of community, neighbourliness, sharing, new business models and so on... Eden should simply create constant memorable moments that inspire others to have the confidence to make their own. Exciting times to be alive and social networking makes me feel very hopeful that the 'good people' can win out over the cynics.
What about the recent floods?
Tragic for our neighbours, devastatingly damaging at Eden, but we rebuilt most of it in a week and opened again and the event was fantastically positive because it reminded us of how good it is to work here and why we love our colleagues for their commitment. Also it was great to feel the weight of support and encouragement for us from all around Cornwall. It felt as if Eden really belonged to everybody.
What hopes do you have for the next 10 years?
To live, to be content, to make Eden the most potent environmental encourager and messenger in the world and for us to remain humble yet ambitious, driven yet careful and most of all passionate and curious.
Who would you most like to have dinner with (past or present)?
Brunel, Joan of Arc, Phillip Pullman, Mohammed Ali, Genghis Khan and my Great Aunt Cecily.
If you weren’t involved in horticulture what would you be doing?
Not a lot of people know this about Eden…
It is hoping to become completely energy independent by 2012 with the first deep geothermal plant in Britain to a depth of 5km.
Eden Project, Bodelva, Cornwall PL24 2SG.
Tel 01726 811911, www.edenproject.com
Concessions (60 and overs, and students*) £12.80
Children aged 5–16, £6 (or Free from 1 Nov to 18 Feb)
Children aged 0–4 Free
An edited version of this interview appears in the March issue (171).