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Jurassica in Portland: Michael Hanlon on why it will be a asset to Dorset

PUBLISHED: 09:00 13 July 2015

The proposed Jurassic Aquarium at Jurassica

The proposed Jurassic Aquarium at Jurassica

Archant

Jurassica is the vision of Michael Hanlon, a science writer who grew up in Dorset. He puts the case forward for why this exciting new venture in a Portland quarry will be an asset to the county

Dorset is home to one of the most extraordinary and spellbinding natural treasures in the world, a magnificent resource which means this small English county can hold its head up with global monuments such as the Grand Canyon and the Alps. I am talking about the rocks of the county’s Jurassic Coast – rocks which contain some of the most important and bizarre fossil creatures ever to have been unearthed by Man. Here we find not only dinosaurs but the menacing sea monsters of the Jurassic and Cretaceous seas, huge pliosaurs some 60ft long, snake-necked plesiosaurs and dolphin-like ichthyosaurs.

So significant is this treasure trove that fourteen years ago the United Nations decided to award the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Status. And so significant are these fossils and the story which they tell that four years ago I began to wonder why no one had built anything that would do justice to what lies beneath our feet.

And so Jurassica was born. The project is, in essence, a plan to create a huge visitor attraction on the Isle of Portland in which, under a huge translucent roof 300 feet across, visitors will come face to face with the often terrifying menagerie that is preserved in the ancient strata of this part of Britain. Immediately Jurassica caught the public’s – and professionals’ - attention. Sir David Attenborough agreed, after several glasses of quite filthy red wine drunk around an African camp fire (where else?) to become our patron (how I came to be sitting round a camp fire with David is another story). We wanted an architect and along came the world’s best- the Italian genius Renzo Piano, who has never built a boring building in his life.

Part museum, part entertainment and all spectacle; Jurassica will be a first. But to get this project off the ground we need money – a great deal of money. About £80m is the reckoning, and so along with developing the idea the last few years of my life have been spent in a deep and persistent search for cold hard cash.

Our first attempt met with success. Last year, through the Dorset Local Enterprise Partnership, the government handed us a development grant of £300,000 to see if Jurassica was feasible as a concept. It turns out that it is. We garnered the support of local businesses and private individuals, some of whom came to us with chequebooks open. We made ourselves a charity, formed a team of trustees and executives, then turned an idea into project. Among our trustees is none other than Tim Smit, who created the Eden Project in Cornwall through sheer force of will and charm.

Then, the day after the General Election, our first setback – a knock back from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), whom we had asked for a £16m grant. I was more surprised than anything else when I heard the news. I thought the HLF had missed a great opportunity. My initial concern was to reassure the team that it was business as usual. And then to reassure the people of Portland that a project which promises to bring hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of pounds annually to the area was safe. It is, and the continuing support of our private backers, including the wonderful Hall & Woodhouse Brewery, and Colonial Leisure, an Australian-Anglo company with extensive investments in the county, ensures that this will be the case.

Our plan was – and remains – to open our doors in 2021. When we do, visitors will see not only collections of beautiful and unique fossils presented in unique ways, but the latest technologies which we are developing to bring the lost world of the Jurassic back to life. This will be old-meets-new, celebrating the persistence of the amateur collectors and their cabinets of specimens, to Japanese animatronics, immersive landscapes and 3D virtual reality displays. We will have a magnificent restaurant too, and yes, Tanglefoot ale (the finest in the world) will be available. Jurassica will happen, and it will make this county a better and richer place. Not a single member of the team, including myself, is doing this for personal gain. We are doing this because we believe in it, love the idea and the place, and want it to succeed. It is now a certainty, not a mere belief, that it will.

Find out more at jurassica.org, facebook.com/jurassica.org and Twitter @TheJurassica

Do think Jurassica will be an asset to the county? Let us know your thoughts. Email the editor helen.stiles@archant.co.uk, drop us a line via pen and paper or tweet us @dorsetmag #opinion #jurassica

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