The sky was blue and dotted with cuddly white clouds. The air was clean and with every breath I took I felt light and carefree. It was one of those rare days of perfect English summer, which take even the locals by surprise.
There was no grayness anywhere to be seen and the habitual threat of a sudden downpour or a constant soul-killing drizzle had been cancelled for the day. Instead the sun was shining high, warming me up to the top temperatures that the British Isles would endure. Mind you, nothing like the crazy baking hotness of the Mediterranean which makes you steam in your own juice. Instead a soft enveloping warmth was inviting me to throw the windows open and welcome the morning in.
It was a day to spend out in the open, exploring, and I couldn’t wait for us to pile in our little red car and drive off. Our destination, it was decided, was going to be the Butterfly World Project – a magical place where a Tropical Butterfly House exists side by side with designer gardens just outside of St. Albans in Herts.
This is where you can get up close and personal with beautiful butterflies – see them hatch, spread their wings for their very first flight and then watch them flutter around the specially constructed greenhouse with lush vegetation and flowering bushes providing the perfect butterfly habitat. After that you can explore a series of fabulous gardens pushing the creative boundaries of landscape design.
Butterflies are one of nature’s wonders, don’t you think? They undergo a profound metamorphosis – from a fluffy or a scary-looking caterpillar (depending on the type of butterfly) to a beautiful creature with amazing wings which weighs the same as two rose petals, but can fly for thousands of miles.
I remember that one year I bought my then boyfriend, now husband, a butterfly farm as a birthday present. In the large box there was a soft netted tube and a leaflet with detailed explanations how to obtain the caterpillars and, consequently, how to take care of the butterflies. He ordered the caterpillars and after a few days a small cup with all five of them arrived in the post. They were tiny and we were to look after them until the metamorphosis had been completed at which point we could release our newly hatched butterflies in a flower garden or other such suitable place.
As at the time I was working from home, I spent a lot of time in the company of the caterpillars in their cup which was filled with the appropriate food for them. At the beginning they were rather cute, but then they started to grow and get longer and thinner and started to twitch and stretch and were rather giving me the heebie-jeebies, if I have to be honest with you.
Eventually, they started to produce these really sticky and long threads and to wrap themselves tightly in them. My boyfriend moved them at the right time to the soft netted tube and we both waited enraptured for our butterflies to be born.
As it happens, we had booked a Barcelona city break so we missed the actual hatching. Upon our return three butterflies were waiting for us (the fourth hadn’t hatched and the fifth, unfortunately, had fallen into the honey we had left for them to eat). They stayed with us for a few more days and then I released them from the window of my rented London flat and watched them fly, first right up in the sky, and then far and far away from me. I had a bitter-sweet feeling of achievement and I felt a little sad, too.
Since then, we have always visited any and all butterfly-related attractions that we have come across. The Butterfly House by the Natural History Museum in London was a particular favourite of ours. And when we read online that just outside of St. Albans – my husband’s home town – a huge attraction called Butterfly World Project was being built, we were really excited and traveled from our then home in Kent to visit it as fast as we could.
The attraction, when we first visited it in 2011, was still in its infancy – the gardens were rather new and an ambitious endeavour to build a huge Biome (I guess a composite word made of ‘bio’ and ‘dome’) with Mayan ruins and ten thousand butterflies flying free in it had not progressed beyond marking the land where its foundations would be laid.
So, four years after that first visit, we were looking forward to returning to Butterfly World, whilst we were spending time in St. Albans visiting my husband’s parents on the English stretch of our travels across Europe this summer.
Once at our destination, we didn’t waste any time. Tickets in hand, we headed first for the Insect Study Centre to watch a handling session where, if you were brave enough, you could touch and hold some exotic and rather large creatures and bugs.
The hissing cockroaches were indeed the stars of the show.
As for this African snail… Did you see its size?! It was huge!
Most importantly, in the Insect Study Centre we came across the butterfly coop. This is where the pupae of the different butterflies reared there were enjoying optimal conditions for them to complete their stunning metamorphosis.
It was quite incredible, really, to be able to see this close how butterflies were coming out of their shells, slowly moving their legs and antennae one by one, carefully unfurling their still wet and crinkled wings and then hanging head down in the coop for a while until their bodies were ready to fly.
We were ready now to explore the Tropical Butterfly House – a long and narrow greenhouse within which the best conditions for butterflies exist. Green leafy plants and flowering bushes had been planted inside, providing the perfect place for the butterflies to touch down in order to relax.
It was hot and humid! My camera lens sweated immediately. I cleaned it and continued trying to snap the beautiful butterflies which were fluttering above our heads.
Usually, when we think of butterflies, we are mainly imagining their stunning wings with amazing patterns, iridescent colours and clever shapes, like this Indian leaf butterfly.
Being so close to them in the Tropical Butterfly House, gave me a chance to focus on their bodies, too – which, apparently, are with the skeleton on the outside. With their little bodies, spindly legs and black proboscis (either tightly curled or unfurled in its length to explore a piece of rotten banana or other delicacy to eat) the butterflies were absorbing to watch.
Just then, something caught my eye. A small ball of fluff ran between the roots of the plants. I tried to focus on it.
It turns out that quails had been introduced in the Tropical Butterfly House in order to eat the spiders living in it.
You see, the cobwebs apparently damage the delicate wings of the butterflies and the quails, by eating the spiders, help preserve the beauty of the butterflies.
On our way out, we had to carefully check each other’s back, in order to make sure that no stowaways would hitch a lift from the sweltering safety of the House to the mild warmth outside. You see, the butterflies love perching themselves on the visitors exploring their abode and several times, whilst we were there, we saw people carefully trying to take a selfie without moving too much, as a beautiful butterfly had decided to land on their arm, their shoulder and even their head. So, it was paramount to check yourself before you walked out of the Tropical Butterfly House, in case you had one or two or more still comfortably sitting on you.
Outside, we followed the caterpillar layout of the Designer Gardens. There is something incredibly beautiful about English gardens – they are always so well designed expressing a clear purpose enhanced by a very colourful explosion of blooms.
The Designer Gardens in the Butterfly World Project explore different themes and you pass from one to the next in a zig-zag motion. My favourite one was where the different rooms of a house had been recreated and then left to be taken over by plants. So, you had the bedroom with a huge bed covered in succulent plants. Then the lounge was overtaken by nature and even the kitchen had succumbed to the power of growth.
Next, we walked through the Individual Gardens created by designer Ivan Hicks. I love the one with the huge pot and gardening tool.
And we finished our walk with a quick stroll through the wildflower meadows, which were a riot of colour and tall grass, perfectly offset by the blue sky.
To our utter disappointment, we realised that no progress had been achieved in terms of the construction of the Biome. I don’t know when it will be finished. I don’t even know when its construction will start. But better be quick, as the idea of having ten thousand butterflies fluttering among Mayan ruins is too amazing for the Biome not to be built.
If you are visiting St. Albans or the area, do give the Butterfly World Project a couple of hours of your time. If you are with kids, you can easily spend a whole day there too, as there is a kids’ corner, a playground, a cafe and a shop on-site. If you are in London, it is best to stick to the Butterfly House by the Natural History Museum, at least until the Biome is a fact.