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Follow the brown signs

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A lepidopterist called Clive, a gigantic ant and a very hungry caterpillar

After spending most of the weekend sitting inside working hard on the design and images for my exciting new website, I thought that Sunday afternoon should be reserved for some brown-signing proper. Autumn for me is all about getting out and enjoying the romantic long shadows the low sun casts, wrapping up against the cold, seeing new things and having a nice cup of tea in a little attraction cafe afterall. I’d been told about a brown sign with a butterfly on it just off the M25 at junction 21a in Hertfordshire near St Albans (I’m slowly accumulating a massive list of recommended attractions with brown signs) so I looked it up, and to my joy I found a pretty exciting project happening on this former forgotten wasteland just off the motorway.
The brown sign leads the way to Butterfly World, which is an attraction set to become the biggest butterfly experience in the world. The project is a significant (£27 million) work in progress which is opening to the public throughout various phases of it’s development. It is currently in phase II but by phase IV, in autumn 2011, the attraction will see a massive 100 meter diameter biome (like the ones at the Eden Project) as it’s piece de resistance, housing 10,000 butterflies and becoming the biggest walk-through experience in the world, complete with rope walkways, Maya caves and ruins, streams and tropical rainstorms. Despite my initial dismay that the biome pictures on the website were only an artist’s impression and I wouldn’t get to experience this tropical glory quite yet, phase II still looked exciting and I do love visiting new attractions in their early days so we decided to give it a go.

And Phase II didn’t disappoint (despite it’s lack of biome), the site is impressive with every minor detail thoughtfully designed and planned out. This is the view from the air, there’s a Chrysalis lake, 12 designer gardens that make up the caterpillar (bottom left) and the huge chalk butterfly (where the biome will be). Genius, no? There are also over 20 acres of wild flower meadow, a study centre, butterfly breeding house, tropical butterfly house, sculptures and (my favourite) massive beehive toilet buildings, here’s a picture, I loved them.

To begin we went straight to the tropical butterfly breeding house, and not just because it was boiling in there and freezing outside. The minute we walked in we could see (or not see, as the case may be) the difference… steamy.

Butterfly World is the brain child of Clive Farrell and he is a chap who really knows his stuff (not the chap you see pictured above, that’s just Chris who wholeheartedly admits to knowing very little about butterflies, pupae and the like, so there’s really no point in firing lots of questions at him, I discovered). Mr Farrell is not only passionate about butterflies, he’s also (importantly for us) totally dedicated to educating visitors about everything butterfly related, going to show just how important everything from our environment, farming methods, garden planting, education, understanding and conservation of butterfly species is for much wider earthly issues. Butterfly numbers tell us a lot about our environment and can even be used to indicate potential significant dangers, studying and using this knowledge of butterflies could even help limit future environmental crises. We all like a good quote from Sir David Attenborough now and again and here’s what he says about this project: “Butterfly World is seeking to help reverse an environmental catastrophe”. Cripes, strong words Sir David, my eyes and ears were wide open.

Information boards are everywhere, I especially liked this one…

Did you know The Very Hungry Caterpillar is 40 years old? Well he is, he’s just had his birthday in fact, and is still as popular as ever. He’s even got his own edible garden to celebrate (bottom). I was sad to miss the “real” Very Hungry Caterpillar though (top) who was apparently a big player in the phase II opening this autumn. Boo. How I would have loved my photo taken with him. It would have made it as my profile picture on Facebook man, fo sho, lol.

The study centre was our next stop which was satisfyingly packed full of real (dead) butterflies in Petri dishes (a bit creepy) and real (alive, eeek) cockroaches, stick insects and caterpillars, all munching away happily on their leaves in their big plastic pots. There was more information, activity sheets, colouring in and quizzes in there than even I could get through, and that is an impressive feat let me tell you. I liked spotting the weirder names of some of Britain’s native butterflies and identified my favourite caterpillar, the massive squashy yellow fellow below, who I thought looked like a very happy characterful type. It does, rather ironically, turn into the rather scary and ominous looking Death’s Head moth, which I certainly wouldn’t like to meet on a dark night.

Deaths Head Hawk Moth, Larva

Deaths Head Moth

Here is the study centre below, with more adults getting stuck in than children as you can see, just goes to show the ageless appeal that colouring in a big caterpillar truly has.

Next stop was the wild flower meadows which were absolutely beautiful and full of colour despite it being late October and freezing cold. I do like a slightly overgrown and unkempt feel to things (it explains my outward appearance most of the time) and the gorgeous meadows invite you casually enjoy them by ambling around and appreciating them in a refreshingly different way to more formal and structured gardens. Here are some pictures…

Because Butterfly World has been deliberately planted up and laid out to attract butterflies and various other flora and fauna the site could be at risk of having little to keep the visitors’ attention in the winter months, but the genius of this place is that props and garden design have been made a very big part of the attraction. Rubbish, flint, wire and bricks and an array of other random materials have been used to build walls and lead you into amazing gardens and insect heaven, here are just a taste of the delights…

Sculpture and art can be found at almost every turn, the expected and the unexpected abound…

With so many interesting gardens, all commissioned especially for Butterfly World, we found ourselves exploring and chatting about each one for ages (we got chucked out in the end, as ever). Here are my 2 favourites, the first is called Through the Flower Pot and makes you feel just like you’ve swallowed a potion from a bottle labelled “DO NOT DRINK”…
This is the Enchanted Garden, with Crabapple trees being trained around mirrors which will eventually hold them, clocks and chairs dangling from the eaves, planted up bedrooms with fireplaces and spiral staircases leading to nowhere, it was a great place to explore.
Sadly the tropical butterfly house only got a quick visit from us, for 2 reasons: 1) flying insects tend to make me do an inane hand-batting action around my head, an affliction I have no control over which I feared may inadvertently kill any butterflies that came near me and 2) it was way past closing time and a staff member came in and told us to leave.
Alright, I could go on about this place for another 10 pages, so I will stop my raving now. Needless to say it was a great attraction and I can’t wait until autumn 2011 when it opens permanently. Phase II opening has been extended until after half term this week (31st October 2010) and with excellent activities like apple pressing, face painting (I’ll be The Very Hungry Caterpillar please), pumpkin lantern making and a million other great things to do I am frankly very jealous of anyone with a child who might be lucky enough to be visiting. Enjoy!