Be inspired and educated, as well as entertained, by visiting projects which showcase our natural world at the same time as working to protect it.
It’s been a surreal and difficult twelve months. Aside from everything else, the pandemic has demonstrated how quickly normal life can be turned upside down. This kind of crisis could just as easily be caused by climate change as by a health emergency, and the need to protect our planet’s environment, and with it our own human lives, feels more vital than ever. As life gradually heads back to something more like normality, we will, of course, want to get out and about again, and maybe make up for lost time in the process. Beautiful natural environments are particularly appealing when we’ve been stuck inside, and Britain has many to offer. We hopefully already understand that we need to tread lightly when travelling – tourism can easily destroy a beauty spot if we’re not careful. But we can go one step further than treading lightly – by visiting, and in the process supporting, places which are actively seeking to conserve the environment. We’ve talked to some of our best sustainable attractions about the important work they’re doing – as well as the beautiful and restorative experiences that visitors will find to lift their spirits this summer.
The Centre for Alternative Technology
Sited in the UNESCO Dyfi Biosphere Reserve, on the edge of Snowdonia National Park, the Centre for Alternative Technology combines beautiful organic gardens and sustainably managed woodlands with experimental green buildings and renewable energy systems – a visit is both an educational and a restorative experience.
“CAT is probably best known as a visitor centre,” says John Challen, Head of the Eco Centre, “but it’s much more than that. We run postgraduate degrees in a wide range of topics relating to sustainability; our Zero Carbon Britain Hub and Innovation Lab work with local authorities, businesses and community groups; and we have short courses and online events running all year round.”
From May this year CAT will be running new nature experiences at the centre, including gardening for wildlife, and moth and bat nights. These are bookable in advance. Early summer is also the perfect time to explore gardens in bloom, the buzzing of nature, and the spectacular views that surround the centre.
“We inspire, inform, and enable people to play their part in creating a sustainable future for all humanity,” explains John. “A visit to CAT can really give a sense of hope for the future – seeing ways of living that allow people and nature to thrive together is a real inspiration.”
A few minutes from CAT, five luxury yurts are spread over 50 acres. Each is set in a secluded area, away from other guests, and each has its own outdoor wood-fired bath and facilities for outdoor fires, as well as a private eco toilet and shower block.
Living Room Treehouses
Created by local artisans from local sustainable wood, the treehouses are built high in the forest canopy of an ancient woodland. They have solar-powered hot showers, as well as running water from purified local springs.
The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew are a 320-acre UNESCO World Heritage Site, and home to the largest collection of living plants in the world. Kew’s world-renowned glasshouses showcase species from all over the globe, and are vital for Kew’s scientific work, protecting endangered plants.
“Over the past year in particular, we have all come to understand the importance of nature to our wellbeing,” says Rachel Purdon, Head of Sustainability at Kew. “Visitors to Kew can immerse themselves in the beauty of their surroundings, and those seeking to learn more about plants will find a wealth of diversity to explore.”
Spring is a magical time to visit the gardens, with a succession of spring bulbs at their very best – from carpets of crocus on the Great Lawn to swathes of daffodils along the Great Broad Walk Borders. For blossom fans, there are 161 cherry trees waiting to burst into bloom, and the garden is also home to magnificent magnolias and unique rhododendron hybrids. Visitors to Kew are not only treated to a stunning collection of rare and impressive plants, they’re also supporting vital work to protect the planet’s flora. “RBG Kew strives for a world where plants and fungi are understood, valued and protected,” says Rachel.
Just north of London, Birch is a luxury hotel with an eco philosophy. As well as good food and a restful environment, it offers activities which range from pottery and art to baking and gardening. There is also a wellness space, and a new 25-metre lido opening in May!
Heading south west out of London, Heckfield Place is a 50 minute drive from Kew. This grand Georgian building is set in a secluded estate containing woodlands and meadows. Food served in the restaurant comes from the estate’s own home farm, kitchen gardens and orchard, and the spa offers all natural treatments.
Perched near the coast in the north of Scotland, Findhorn is an ecovillage, and also a centre for experiential workshops, conferences and events. “We work from the broadest sense of an environmental perspective,” says Janet Limb, who runs the foundation’s public relations. “The environment is not separate from us, the human species, it is an ecology of all life.”
Visitors from all over the world come to Findhorn to slow down, reenergise, reflect and explore their own purpose. While residential courses are currently paused because of the pandemic, visitors can still explore the ecovillage – including the whisky barrel houses and the Universal Hall, hand built by community members. There is also a café, and two pottery shops, and a beautiful bay and beach a few minutes’ walk away.
“At the Findhorn Foundation we see each person’s life journey in the global context of the evolution of the human species in relationship with the rest of the natural world,” explains Janet. “And this takes place in anaspiring ecovillage demonstrating a way of life that regenerates people and planet.”
Lodges at the Mains:
East of Findhorn, towards Inverness, these architect-designed, five star eco lodges are nestled in a secluded woodland setting. Ground source heating, solar panels, and cellulose insulation help the lodges keep their environmental impact to a minimum, while wood-fired hot tubs and bespoke, locally-made furniture mean that comfort has not been sacrificed in the process.
In the foothills of Ben Rinnes, surrounded on all sides by stunning scenery, is the Hobbit Hideaway. This quirky house, built from wood, straw, clay and stone, will delight Tolkein fans, as well as anyone who wants to stay somewhere unique and sustainable in a beautiful environment.
The Eden Project
Built on the site of a clay pit in Cornwall, the Eden Project’s bubble-like biomes have become an iconic symbol of sustainable tourism. As well as a visitor attraction, Eden is an educational charity and a social enterprise.
Visitors to the project can immerse themselves in the world’s largest indoor rainforest – which includes four distinct types of rainforest environment; a canopy walkway offers views across the biome and the biodiversity platform showcases the range of life in the rainforest. The Mediterranean biome recreates the landscapes of the Mediterranean, South Africa, California and Western Australia, and outside the biomes there are miles of pathways winding through 20 acres of outdoor garden, planted with over 3,000 plant varieties. The project has been focused on sustainability since its inception – using pioneering building techniques, harvesting water on site, and now experimenting with different methods of power generation. Eden has also worked with Natural England to propagate rare native species and reestablish them in Cornwall.
A 30 minute drive across the Lizard will take you to The Scarlet. A luxury eco hotel with sea views, meadow gardens, and clifftop hot tubs, The Scarlet lists the 111 ways that they aim for sustainability on their website.
Kudhva are architectural cabins, specifically designed for the location, just up the Cornish coast from the Scarlet. They are off-grid hideouts, raised high above the ground, with captivating views of the coastline.
Loch Leven is a Scottish National Nature Reserve, and is known internationally for the thousands of ducks and geese that come to breed there. “It’s an important barometer for environmental change,” says Neil Mitchell, the reserve manager.
The loch has been monitored by scientists for over 60 years and current work there is focused on improving water quality, and improving biodiversity.
Visitors to the loch can enjoy spectacular natural scenery and can choose how much of the accessible 13 mile loch circuit they feel able to tackle. In spring expect
to see courtship displays from resident and breeding birds, including the Great Crested Grebe, and the Goldeneye. Into early summer the wildflower meadows come into bloom and the first of the ducklings can be seen bobbing along the shoreline. “If you’re really lucky you might see a grebe carrying its young on its back, or a flash of blue as a kingfisher flashes past,” says Neil. The shore side woodlands are also home to red squirrels.
Around 9 miles east of the loch, is Balbirnie House. This country house hotel was built in 1777, and views from the building extend over lawns and flowering borders, to the 400 acre country estate beyond.
Market Street Hotel Loch Leven
Just 45 minutes from Edinburgh by car, and if you’d rather stay in town, Market Street Hotel is a sophisticated choice. Opened in 2019, the hotel was built on a derelict site in the city’s historic centre and sensitively constructed using locally sourced stone.
Gateway at PEAK
Located near Chesterfield, Gateway at PEAK is a new resort planned for visitors to the Peak District. It will provide accommodation for the millions of visitors that already head to the area each year. Construction is planned to start in 2021.
The Eden Project is expanding into the north – and has plans to transform the Lancashire coastal town of Morecambe. There are plans for indoor and outdoor attractions connecting visitors with the internationally significant natural environment of Morecambe Bay. Scheduled to open in 2024.
Words | Helen Holmes
Lead image: Kew Gardens – Bamboo Garden