Eden Project promises to bring a green revival to Morecambe

Locals are desperately hoping a proposed eco-arts centre will lure tourists back to their resort

“This is a lifeline for us,” the hotelier told Si Bellamy, the head of Eden Project International, at a tourism reception in Morecambe’s Midland hotel. “Everyone in this room, everyone in Morecambe, we would get on our hands and knees to make this happen.” Afterwards, Darren Clifford, a Labour councillor in the seaside town, went one further: “I would be willing to make a pact with the devil to get this done.”

When Cornwall’s Eden Project revealed plans to open an outpost on the Lancashire coast last summer, it sent ripples across Morecambe Bay. There was a mixture of excitement and incredulity: could the Eden Project, the indoor rainforest cum arts venue, really be heading to tired old Morecambe?

The resort has suffered since cheap flights and package holidays began to poison its tourist trade in the 1970s. First there was Blobbyland, when Noel Edmunds was inexplicably given the keys to the town’s beloved Happy Mount Park and turned it into The World of Crinkley Bottom, an “attraction” so attractive it closed 13 weeks after it opened in 1994. Ten years later Morecambe hit the headlines for the wrong reasons again when 23 Chinese cocklepickers drowned in the Bay.

Then in 2014, following the demolition of Frontierland, a ramshackle wild-west theme park, approval was given for a £17m retail and leisure complex that never saw the light of day.

So Morecambrians are understandably sceptical when they hear Eden wants to build an £85m enviro-tourist attraction on the seafront on the site of Bubbles, a much-missed swimming pool. Especially as plans for what it will actually be remain so vague. All they have to go on is a mock-up from the architects, Grimshaw, which shows five pavilions shaped like giant mussels.

It is no pipe dream, insists Sir Tim Smit, the founding father of Eden, who confounded his critics in the 1990s by turning an old Cornish clay mine into a tourist honeypot that attracts 1 million visitors a year, bringing more than £2bn to the region.

“This is more promising than Eden in Cornwall was,” Smit told an audience of Morecambe tourist operators on Tuesday. “It took me two and a half hours to get here today from London. To get to Cornwall from London it’s four and a half.”

Morecambe will be rejuvenated by Eden when it opens in late 2022, he promised, saying: “You see, with a place that has bad luck … everybody starts to believe that bad luck haunts the land and nothing good can ever happen. But the minute Eden opened, people said: wow! They suddenly started to think that the middle of Cornwall was a place you start a career, rather than end it.”

Yet for all the hubris, Eden North can only happen if the government pledges at least £40m of the build cost, acknowledges Dave Harland, Eden’s chief executive. So far the chancellor, Philip Hammond, has chipped in £100,000 towards a feasibility study, adding to the million given collectively by Lancaster University, Lancashire county council, Lancaster city council (which includes Morecambe) and the Local Enterprise Partnership.

The other half will come from private and philanthropic funds, as well as a crowdfunder, said Harland. “We are confident. We have got momentum now. We need to keep going and keep the pressure on. Clearly at the moment conversations in government are a little hamstrung, but there is an end coming to that, one way or the other, and we are going to have a project that is shovel-ready,” he said.

The feasibility study suggests Morecambe’s Eden will be smaller than its Cornish sister, capable of hosting 750,000 visitors a year, paying between £20 and £27 a ticket (with discounts for locals). It will tell the story of “how we as people can benefit from the bay but also how much care we need to lavish on it in order to keep its ecosystem going”, says Jolyon Brewis, the architect.

It will be based around the biggest mussel shell, the “pavilion of wonder”, said Harland. “Within there you will have experiences that you will recognise from Eden – not a rainforest, but certainly plants and places to eat and see art, and kinetic sculptures. Then we want to bring the bay to life in some way, by a series of experiences which may have augmented and virtual reality experiences. Another element will be science-based. The final element is going to be the health and wellbeing aspect.”

“People used to be prescribed a trip to Morecambe for their health,” said Brewis. “What would that look like now? How great would it be if people came to this place because they wanted a great day out but if it was really good for them and ultimately the planet too?”

He talks of building a “21st-century version of a lido” and there could be treatments on offer. He and Harland are also playing with the idea of extending Eden out into the sea via hovercrafts called Bay Rovers.

Eden doesn’t even own the old Bubbles site yet, and already it is changing expectations in Morecambe, said Roger Carter, chair of the Bay Tourism Association. “Not long ago when we talked about Morecambe people said, ‘oh, what a shame about those cockle pickers’. Now they say, ‘is it true? Is Eden project really coming to Morecambe?’”

Attempts to regenerate seaside towns

Redcar’s vertical pier

When the residents of Redcar on Teesside heard of plans for a £1.6m pier on the seafront, they were disappointed to learn that it would be vertical not horizontal. Standing 80ft tall, the Redcar Beacon came third in Building Design’s Carbuncle Cup for worst new building in 2013 and attracts TripAdvisor reviews such as: “The people of Redcar wanted their normal pier to be rebuilt but the council said no and, instead, built this monstrosity!!!”

Margate’s Turner Contemporary

The Turner Contemporary gallery opened in JMW Turner’s old town in Kent in 2011, designed by starchitect David Chipperfield at a cost of £17.5m. Half a million people visited in its first year and Margate has become a favoured location for trendy east Londoners looking to trade in their one-bed apartments for seaside town houses.

Boscombe’s surf reef

Opened in 2009, the Boscombe Surf Reef was the first surfing reef to be constructed in the northern hemisphere and was supposed to double the number of “good” surfing days in the Bournemouth resort. Alas, the reef was shut because of safety concerns in 2011 and it lay dormant until 2014 when the council rebranded it as “multi-purpose” venue that surfers complain has made them a “laughing stock”.


Helen Pidd North of England editor

The GuardianTramp

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