How sensitive lips led Tim Smit to discover the Lost Gardens of Heligan

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Last week I met a man who has survived not one but two fatal airline crashes.

I say survived but actually he was never on board either plane. I'll explain in a moment.

I was interviewing Sir Tim Smit, the extraordinary man behind the famous Eden Project ("the world's largest greenhouse") and also the person responsible for finding and restoring the beautiful Lost Gardens Of Heligan, both huge success stories.

Sir Tim is a walking, talking success story in his own right and turned out to be one of the most fascinating and impressive people I have ever interviewed. I don't say stuff like that very often.

He was meant to be talking to me about how through sheer indomitable persistence he got the massive Eden Project off the ground, turning a clapped-out clay mine into what some have described as the eighth wonder of the world.

But we ended up discussing his deeper, personal experiences. He is a great believer in how seemingly insignificant events can be doorways into momentous, life-changing occurrences: tiny wormholes briefly connecting us to parallel worlds - if we seize the moment.

For example he told me that the reason he saved the Lost Gardens Of Heligan was "because I have sensitive lips".

Uhh? He explained that years ago he'd gone to see a Cornish farmer about buying some fields on which to rear pigs. The man told him he was too late, the land had just been sold. He gave him a cup of hot coffee as compensation for a wasted journey.

Tim just wanted to be off but his sensitive lips detained him. The coffee was too hot so he was forced to stay and make pointless small talk while it cooled.

Pointless, that is, until the farmer mentioned he had just inherited a property called the Heligan Estate and believed there was some sort of mysterious lost garden up there. Tim felt a great light flash on and knew instantly his destiny was upon him.

He seems to have some sort of sixth sense. Under my questioning he somewhat reluctantly admitted that sometimes he can indistinctly glimpse the future.

Like the time he was at Paddington Station and suddenly felt inexplicably compelled to race towards the nearest public escalator.

He got there just in time to catch a woman who had tripped and plunged into the gap over the side. He thinks he may get it from his mother. And so we come to those aircraft crashes.

In 1958 when he was four years old Dutch-born Smit was about to board KLM Flight 607-E from Amsterdam to New York with his mum.

But it turned out there was only one seat left on the plane and she didn't fancy having a wriggling toddler on her lap all the way across the Atlantic so she decided to take the next flight. Hours later the plane plunged into the Atlantic 110 miles west of Shannon. All on board were killed.

A few years later, again with his mother and about to board a flight to the Far East, the prepubescent Tim suddenly came out in spots. His mother suspected measles and once again cancelled the tickets at the last moment.

This plane crashed too and all were lost. Both doomed flights are the only ones in his life that, after checking in, he didn't actually board. Make of it what you will.

Sir Tim Smit gives public talks that are often described as motivational. They are much more than that - they can change the way you look at life.

Read Richard and Judy's Express column in full here.

Picture credit: Twitter @photomonthly