I have a weakness for Raj-era things. In this attempted recreation or imitation of the homeland, Britain, they seem to become something else and not quite here or there. The passing of time simply does the rest. Take heading into the heart of Sri Lanka’s tea country, preferably on the charming little railway from Kandy up past Nuwara Eliya in the highlands.
Though part of the so-called Main Line originating in Colombo, by the time it leaves Kandy it almost feels like a Himalayan mountain railway. Craning one’s head out of the observation car’s windows, you wonder if the tracks might have been laid in the 1880s as much for a pleasurable challenge as for practicality. Nuwara quickly become a retreat, if not a playground, for fusty old colonials drawn to its cool climate and conservative clubs. Here they might imagine they were back home somewhere between the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands.
Today, as the little train chugs up through verdant valleys, over rocky gullies and round countless hills, the scenery is distinctly Sri Lankan. Strands of forest give way to the lines and swirls of myriad bright green tea bushes that contour the open landscape like an immense mosaic. Clusters of pickers, usually Tamil women, add splashes of colour with their yellow, scarlet or amber saris. The tea factories look starkly functional, like outsized shoeboxes with numerous windows and gleaming corrugated iron roofs.
Nuwara Eliya remains a popular hill station though the clientele is now mostly Sri Lankan. There’s a ‘season’ of racing, flower shows and family-oriented gatherings. Hotel names like The Grand, Windsor and St Andrew’s suggest those old colonial sentiments still have an almost novel currency. Perhaps it was the chill air or pure gluttony but I readily succumbed to lashings of marmalade at breakfast, sponge cakes at tea time and muscular roast beef and pork dinners topped off with custard puddings ‒ all rather appropriate as there’s little to do up here except walk off those heavy meals in the hills or perhaps play golf.
The Raj-era pantomime climaxes at the time-warp Hill Club, a baronial-looking place with sentry boxes and velvet lawns. It’s a rather snooty private club with an almost comical air of formality ‒ such as white-gloved waiters ‒ but it does accept guests. I strolled in with my chick merely for an evening drink, quite prepared to be mistaken for, say, a travelling salesman but was politely offered temporary membership (“on a daily basis only, sir”). Then I was directed to the cloakroom and its choice of cast-off jackets and risky ties; some non-members mock the dress code pertaining to the formal dining room and the once men-only bar.
Now suitably, if not stylishly, attired, we browsed the lobby adorned with old pictures, mementos and pedantic memoranda summarising stiff regulations. We checked out the bar and peeked into the snooker room. Formerly, women visitors were forced to use a discreet side entrance and when I joked about these ‘good old’ days the chick gave me the filthiest of looks. Sometimes it just isn’t worth going back.