June 9, 2017

Echoes of the past

The Scots are a tremendously mobile and resourceful people.

Over the last couple of centuries these resourceful people took their talents in engineering, mining and tea and coffee growing to the ends of the earth and were instrumental in founding and building some of the great institutions we still see today. Including most of the fabled tea estates here in Sri Lanka.

But travel also engenders a sense of longing for home. Especially in the area around Castlereagh lake. What better way to remember home than naming your own Bungalow against somewhere you are fond of. Somewhere that invokes memories of a life far away.

Thus, the Bungalows at Tea Trails built between 1888 and 1925 carry the memories not just of times past, but also of places far away.

Norwood. Tientsin. Castlereagh. Summerville. Dunkeld.

Each one significant in its own right.

From Tientsin, named after the original Chinese village home of the first tea seedlings that were brought to Sri Lanka in the 1840’s, to Dunkeld, built at the high point of the Roaring Twenty’s in 1925.

Each Bungalow built is in a style both reminiscent of the period and encompassing the features prevalent at the time.

Because they accommodated not only the Estate Manager but also his family, they had to be spacious, cool and evoke a feeling of presence. After all, the manager was totally responsible for everything that happened on the entire estate. He was judge and jury in all tea matters as well as in all things local.

Accountancy. Shipping. Quality Control. Human Resources. Even Botanist. Every aspect of the production process was controlled from this unique place of responsibility.

That was aside from his familial responsibilities.

House management, Schooling for his children and Health matters amongst a myriad of others all came under his jurisdiction. And, of course, being somewhat isolated at the time, it was life in the raw.

And life meant literally birth and death. People got ill and the nearest doctor was miles away. So dealing with everything that life could throw at them was a daily occurrence.

It is no wonder that Tea Trails are proud to name many of the individual suites in their bungalows after the managers through the ages.
In Norwood Bungalow, for example, the suites are Hazel, Irvine, Andrews, Trevaldwyn, Jeffery and Wyatt. Names that conjure up pictures of mustached men in pith helmets, suit and tie.

These were the people who helped build countries; guarded their employers’ investment; dealt with any number of issues either on the spacious verandah or under the humming fan in an interior office that smelled of tea, Cinnamon and polish.

Of course, they also relaxed. In earlier times, it was G & T’s on the verandah, dinner with neighbouring managers, billiards or snooker on a table imported from England or perhaps hunted small game to add to the evening table.

Today, those same rooms that once echoed to the sounds of a working life are now home to the pleasures of guests enjoying a restful holiday in one of the most beautiful locations in the world.

They look out on the same views our previous occupiers did, hear the same sounds echoing over Castlereagh Lake, experience the same balmy climate; hear the same birdsong as they wake. Even play billiards on the same table.

Only the hunting is not available – unless with a camera.

Standing in the shadows of history and closing your eyes, you can almost hear the echoes of the past come tumbling down.

The first cries of a newborn in the Jeffery suite and the raising of celebratory drinks with senior staff; the tears flowing as a respected manager or overseer leaves for far shores, the raised voices when quality does not meet expectations and the hushed whispers when the plantation owner makes a visit.

To a child born in the Jeffrey Suite it would have been a magical childhood. Of belching steam trains and sedate bullock carts; swimming in cool, rocky pools; listening to Radio Ceylon as it brought news from near and far; collecting Bananas and Mangos in season; oil lamps throwing dusty shadows and rustlings in the roof as insects and small mammals moved around.

There would have been the medical emergencies of scraped knees and perhaps more serious issues to be dealt with. Then it would be off to the local Ayuverdic doctor to be treated with poultices or, in more serious cases, a message would be sent to the European doctor in Kandy to jump in his Austin 7 and make the perilous journey up rutted roads and sandy tracks to Norwood.

Of course, life and facilities have moved on. Today, the Tea Trails Bungalows have all the mod cons you’d expect of a 6 star private hotel; advanced medical services are just minutes away and international standard cuisine is expected and delivered daily.

Where are the descendants of those newborns now?

Just as the Plantation managers arrived here in Sri Lanka, many of their offspring were sent off to boarding schools in the old country.
Travel was, of course, not the speedy journey we experience today. Perhaps a month or so in a hot and humid cabin on the steamer via India, Egypt, Naples and Gib. Loaded down with a steamer trunk and letters to relatives, they spent a few years enduring the cold privations of an English Boarding School.

Letters would be written back and forth containing news of events at least 6 weeks old. Stamps would be collected and swapped and notes read avidly on the up and coming Ceylonese cricketers and forthcoming tours.

Today, the internet, air travel and the mobile ‘phone have consigned many things to history and we can only experience some of the things that previous visitors did some 95 years ago. Travel brings us together, but one thing still puzzles many.

With the discovery of new lands, new friendships and interests, what happened to the offspring of plantation managers and owners??

We’ll never know as family histories are hard to discover – even with genealogy websites – but, if they were anything like their forebears, it’s likely they either settled back in the old country or spread their own wings for foreign shores. Australia? Canada? The United States?
These are the events that have gone before you when you stay in Norwood Bungalow.

The ghosts of generations past can still be heard as you look out at dusk on a warm evening on the verandah. With eyes half closed can you hear the honking of horns as trucks arrive to collect the sacks of precious tea? Can you smell the evening scents of Bougainvillea? Can you touch the mirrored surface of old Teak wood? Can you taste the aroma of curry in the lingering air?

And there will be similar experiences at any other of the, now luxury, bungalows at Tea Trails.

If walls could speak they would speak of fun times and hard times; of the worry of war; the joy of independence; of private and public lives of planters, managers and staff who lived and worked in this magical place and who enriched their own and other lives.