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Kevin Berry finds an environmental theme park sprouting from the slag-heaps of his childhood in the South Yorkshire coalfields

The Earth Centre has been described as "an environmental theme park" but it will be much more than that by the time it is finished, with the help of Pounds 50 million from the Millennium Commission.

The location of the Earth Centre has an almost spiritual significance. That its site is in South Yorkshire's lower Don Valley is marvellously appropriate. The River Don once flowed through a landscape as fair and inspiring as any in England, reminiscent of parts of the Loire Valley in France, but that was before the search for coal began.

The villages of Conisborough and Denaby soon had huge collieries stretching remorselessly down the valley. These eventually met to exploit a rich seam of coal, but in doing so they soured the land.

It was the industrial landscape of my childhood - pit heads, tight ranks of terraced houses, smoking chimneys and goods trains that pulled huge wagons loaded with coal or iron ore for the Sheffield steel works. When the miners changed shifts the traffic seemed to stop for an age as streets and pavements were filled with a tide of grey-faced, coughing men.

Conisborough Castle overlooked the twin collieries, a defiantly white structure built in Norman times. Sir Walter Scott set part of his novel Ivanhoe in and around Conisborough. Visiting the area well before the Industrial Revolution, he had admired the landscape.

Some years ago I went back to show my own children the view from Conisborough Castle. We travelled up through a pleasantly agricultural area. From the top of the keep I looked down the valley and was astonished to see no sign of the collieries. Yes, there were railway lines, but now only two remained; otherwise, it was as if a giant's hand had brushed away all trace of what I remembered. Everything had gone except the slag-heaps and even they were beginning to look green. Nature was reclaiming its territory.

The Earth Centre is beginning to take shape on one of the former colliery sites near the river, where massive slag heaps give it a dramatic backdrop. The site covers 350 acres of derelict but geologically fascinating land. As the impetus for the creation of the Earth Centre came from the Earth Summit in Rio, the Centre is intended to be a living laboratory and a place where green issues will be treated holistically.

When it is finished, one of the slag heaps will have a pavilion called the Ark nestling into it. Glowing at night and twice the size of St Paul's Cathedral, it will look like a butterfly just about to settle.

However, at the moment the Earth Centre is very much in the initial stages, coming to the end of the first year of a five-year plan, which will culminate in time for the millennium celebrations. Some of its futuristic buildings have been completed, plants and shrubs and trees are growing, a vineyard has been established and there are many events planned for this year; the first in-service training days have already been held. The centre's attitude is that children should be participators in its experiments, projects and thinking.

The credo of sustainable development and living is apparent everywhere, from an experimental row of compost bins to a huge animal shelter designed to keep warm naturally. The compost bins are all shapes and sizes and materials because the gardeners are looking for the most effective bin and the best compost material. The shelter is kept warm by the soil swept up against its walls and soon the roof will have a thick turf covering, one of many ideas borrowed from the Third World.

As well as many streams, there are nine ponds, some ornamental, with a large community pond for serious pond dipping. Aquaculture experiments are in full swing, crops are being irrigated and water is cleansed through a reed bed system. The first building completed was an aquatic ecology centre with a fish hatchery.

There are plans to buy a local farm and turn it over to sustainable, organic methods to provide food for visitors to the Earth Centre. Eventually, the centre will have a hotel and conference facilities as well as educational facilities, and overnight accommodation. In an echo of that theme park description, planners speak calmly of making the Earth Centre the principal visitor attraction in the UK.

There is easy access from the nearby railway station which has connections to Doncaster and the main East Coast line. A large car and coach park will be built, well away from the centre, for visitors arriving via the motorway just over the hill. On site, visitors will use only environmentally friendly transport. The river and nearby canal will be developed for transport and a wharf is under construction. Cycling is encouraged and the centre is close to a proposed long-distance cycle route.

The Earth Centre is also creating jobs in an economically devastated area. Businesses with environmentally friendly ideals are being attracted to the site, and when it is completed, the centre will provide work for 800 people.

The Earth Centre, Kilner's Bridge, Doncaster Road, Denaby Main, near Doncaster, South Yorkshire DN12 4DY. Tel: 01709 770566. Opens in April

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