The Earth Centre in South Yorkshire, built on the graveyards of two great collieries, at Denaby Main and Cadeby, west of Doncaster, claims to be the world's second biggest classroom (the world itself being the first). The 400-acre site so far features 14 main attractions on 26 acres, surrounded by an ecology park and the River Don.
It was one of the first and biggest of the Millennium Commission's landmark attractions to open, funded by some pound;60 million from the National Lottery. And since it opened last April around 20,000 children have made educational visits, with 40 per cent from primary schools. The centre also has plenty to offer secondary pupils, GNVQ and higher education students, says Glen Strachan, the head of education, with resource packs to support teachers.
The Planet Earth Experience is the first to greet visitors. Images projected on to enormous glass panels in a huge gallery give a kaleidoscope effect, taking viewers from a busy motorway to the relative calm of a rainforest.
Visitors can tour a full-scale sewage treatment centre and investigate the story of water. They can savour the delights of forest, bog, dry and terraced gardens, and see the Kaki peace tree, a sapling from one of the five trees to survive the Nagasaki bombng in 1945. At the Nature Works centre is the chance to catch and examine small creatures and then release them into an outdoor wildlife pond. The site also includes the refurbished Conisbrough railway station.
Very young children can enjoy the large adventure play area, which features a variety of giant letter boards, number games, pulleys and levers, while older ones can climb the 16-metre play tower.
The centre is continuing to develop: phase two, a pound;22 million project, is on schedule for opening in July. Attractions will include a solar canopy at the entrance to a plaza and a 28-metre tower, which will house exhibitions and animations about sustainable lifestyles.
Jonathan Smales, chief executive and moving spirit behind the centre, is already looking forward to phase three. Its crowning glory will be the Ark, a futuristic building with 9,000 square metres of exhibition and events space. He envisages it to be as innovative as the Crystal Palace was for the Great Exhibition in 1851. That should put this poor corner of South Yorkshire firmly on the map.
Earth Centre stand E30
Denaby Main, Doncaster DN12 4EA, tel 01709 513920, e-mail email@example.com, www.earthcentre.org.uk