The Eden Project

The Eden Project came about through a series of chance meetings, a collection of mid-life crises and a desire to do something wonderful but dominated by the thoughts that we all have when sitting at a kitchen table, not brainstorming in arid offices in an attempt to be innovative.

Eden: born in a garden

The genesis of the project (not to make a pun), was The Lost Gardens of Heligan near Mevagissey in South Cornwall. The gardens of Heligan had been derelict since WW1 when a majority of the gardeners of the estate perished in the trenches. Its owner, distraught at the end of an era, retired to France, let the stately home and fenced off the gardens which slowly crumbled away and were overgrown until I came upon them in 1990 with the then owner who had recently inherited them. Knowing my background in archaeology he thought I might be interested in joining him on the first foray, with a machete, through the undergrowth.

That day I fell in love with an idea to restore the whole gardens: the productive walled gardens, vegetable gardens, woodland walks and sub tropical valley, to tell the story of the men and women who had made these gardens rather than the story of the owners. An award winning documentary followed and the gardens, restored by a huge team of volunteers and enthusiasts became the most visited private gardens in the country. None of us, save for Peter Thoday and Philip MacMillan Browse knew anything about gardens at all. Peter had been the brains behind the TV series “The Victorian Kitchen Garden” and Philip had recently retired as the boss of the Royal Horticultural Society’s gardens at Wisley.

Sowing the seeds for growth

We learned that the public had an enormous appetite for growing and a desire for a story that they instinctively knew was important but that no-one was telling them. We learned too that children from all the neighbouring schools could be excited about gardens if you told the stories in a way that gave plants a mystique they never previously understood. An idea was born.

We learned that you need to get the local community involved and you need to trust them and be open. We began to understand that big projects need to be treated like a stage play with a powerful script and good lines for a wide range of people so that everyone felt they had their moment in the footlights. Lastly we learned that civil servants trained for a lifetime to say no, can be changed if the tale speaks to them as people.

Assembling partnerships in a pit

Pub conversations about building a fabulous lost civilisation in the crater of a volcano with a culture based on the plants on which we depend, in no time at all became “The Eden Project”, architects Grimshaw, engineers Hunts, environmental engineers Arup and Landscape Designers LUC joined McAlpines (the two brothers working together for the first time in 40 years). All worked at risk captured by the tale we spun and The Millennium Commission, The EU, The Cornwall Council and the Borough Council all began to pledge their cash towards it provided the others would do the same. Our then Finance Director, Gay Coley was the caller in this country dance and suddenly we were there.

A pit was found, a deal done, favours called in and ministers captured in writing making promises to each other. Experiment followed experiment although we couldn’t call it that because innovation means tried and tested to a civil servant, new to an entrepreneur. A risk free project was described in the teeth of eye watering jeopardy and building began and the public came and were captivated watching it grow out of the bottom of the pit. It opened with a gentle hurrah of all the team and their families quietly reflecting on the achievement as the crowds waited outside for their first step inside. Since that day, March 17th, 2001 we have welcomed 14 million visitors and put around £1.2 billion into the Cornish economy. We have 437 full time staff and 2400 suppliers, almost all local. We are possibly the nation’s number one Social Enterprise.

Community consultation, hope and belief

Our experience with the communities around us taught us that real consultation is a fabulously powerful thing and without it we would never have found the course for the road that we had to build in order to open. It taught us too that Eden had become as much a symbol of hope and possibility as it was a scientific foundation with an entertainment brief.

This led us to work all over the world starting pilot projects such as Gardens for Life, the peace Garden in Kosovo, The Big Lunch, the Homeless Gardens at Chelsea and so on. Soon it was not about gardens at all, it was about finding the attitude that enabled people of good heart to express themselves and to contribute to solutions.

Working with Richard Sandbrook

One man led this philosophy from the start, our friend Richard Sandbrook, the original pragmatist with a heart of gold. His humane conviction that no-one had the solution, we all did and that most of the problems were caused by (particularly) male vanity, led Eden to position itself as a place in which opposite could meet, where conversations could be reopened with the baggage left outside, where friendship and the presumption of good will were the norm. To him we dedicate the notion of talking round kitchen tables by wine-light. To him we attribute the need to be curious about everything and to realise that most things are connected if only you search hard enough.

Looking to the future

Our future will be to drive the idea that people need to take responsibility for living with the grain of nature and that the encouragement of working with your hands to effect change leads to intellectual insights book learning cannot give you. Eden is about making the world a better place, bit by bit, step by step with an open heart and a pirate grin. All these things come from the DNA of Richard and we miss him very much.

We hope that within the next 18 months our HOW2 building on our Northern Rim will have a marvellous intimate conversation centre and we are all agreed it shall bear the name – The Richard Sandbrook Centre. Here good thoughts will be aired and solutions shaped by Richard’s approach to life explored. One of the greatest problems we will seek to overcome is how you make environmentalists – polymaths, who, as said by Richard’s great friend and mentor, Dame Barbara Ward, “Have a duty to Hope”.

August 2013