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Secluded in hillside tea plantations are bunglows recalling part of Sri Lanka's recent past. Royston Ellis and photographer Gemunu Amarasinghe set out to discover some of them in this monthly series.
The road to Kandapola winds through hillsides both forested and tea-clad. There is a range of hills where close-cropped tea bushes climb almost to the summit but at the very crest are knots and tufts of trees. The tallest cluster of trees, at 6,400 feet above sea level, and looking quite ill-kempt on the skyline, conceals the plantation bungalow known as Goatfell.
It is tempting to speculate that the estate's unusual name came, perhaps, from an incident in the late 19th century when a herd of goats may have plunged over the precipice at that spot. Or did the estate take the name of its first planter, a Mr. Goatfell? More likely, the plantation was named Goatfell by a homesick Scottish planter after the modest mountain of that ilk on the island of Arran, west Scotland.
The bungalow, located high above Kandapola, tops a hill and faces east, with a view of Ragala in a distant valley. The eastern side has lost its trees with only a lawn, with a bench at the view point, before the deep slopes covered in tea. The venerable trees visible from the road line the southern side and create a lush, blustery, almost Swiss-Alps, setting for the bungalow.
Goatfell no longer has a planter in permanent residence. It is a bungalow used for visiting officials and by those connected with the building of The Tea Factory Hotel at Hethersett, some 20 minutes drive through the hillsides of tea. As such, it is only basically furnished, a fine example of a plantation bungalow which has the so-called 'hard furnishings' of its owning company and none of the personal property of a planter occupant.
Fortunately, the Goatfell bungalow has been well served by its current company proprietor. Strict instructions were given for the ceilings (of plywood panels) to be painted brilliant white and the walls a contrasting barley white. The handsome wooden doors have been spared the painter's brush and instead have been polished lightly giving a distinguished, warm touch to what otherwise could have been a forlorn and cheerless place.
The bungalow's exterior is duabed with the pebble dash stucco of suburban houses in Britain but it serves to insulate the walls. The red slates protruding below each window have been smothered with cream paint so the aesthetic impact of the bungalow's appearance has been subdued. The pebble dash, too, obscures the thickness of the bungalow's exterior walls which is at least 18 inches. The interior of each window has a broad, polished wooden window ledge, wide enough to be a seat or shelf.
The bungalow was built in 1948 although a date set into the garage wall at the back of the bungalow tells of an earlier building, dated 1923. Its late 1940s origin is apparent from its utilitarian style. Rare for a planter's bungalow, there are only two bathrooms shared between the five bedrooms. Lots of guest rooms with attached bathrooms, as in bungalows of earlier decades, would have been considered unnecessary in the 1940s since good roads and motor vehicles made it possible for visitors to return whence they came, instead of having to stay overnight.
Goatfell was designed as a planter's home, not as a guest house. Ironically, it is used now solely for accommodating company guests.
Lucky are those privileged to stay at Goatfell, especially if assigned the master bedroom. With a wall of aluminium framed Crittal plate glass windows, this room offers a stirring view of sunrise over the distant mountains, without having to get out of bed (as long as the curtains are open).
An Edwardian dresser of gigantic proportions almost fills one wall and there is a fireplace with logs ready to light. Like all the rooms in Goatfell, the master bedroom has several doors. There is one to the bathroom, which has the original period tub and cumbersome telephone type chrome shower, and one to the corridor and one to an anteroom. This anteroom could also be a bedroom with access by a door to the corridor and to the main bathroom.
A few pieces of traditional bungalow furniture have been kept in place. There is a leather topped desk in the corridor, and a magazine trolley. One of the bedrooms has an old writing desk and a Queen Anne style dressing table with oval mirror. The entrance lobby to the second bathroom and bedrooms is lit by sun streaming through a skylight.
With French windows opening onto the tree shaded southern lawn, a sitting room has built-in cupboards and is currently used as a bedroom. This leads to a delightful corner sitting room with picture windows facing both east and south. Its simplicity of furniture and bright daylight make it like a room in a summer house.
A door from that room opens onto the main lounge, off the entrance hall. Alcoves with glass shelves are set into its corners with concealed lighting to highlight any ornaments displayed on them. The dining room, pantry and kitchen back onto the bungalow's service area where there are staff quarters above the garage.
Goatfell is blessed with wide windows filling every room with sunlight, although when the weather is dull and chilly, the effect could be depressing unless the log fires are lit. The lack of frills (those ornament shelves are bare) is actually stimulating, enabling the visitor to feel quickly at ease, instead of inhibited by precocious dust-gatherers and coffee-table tat.
Plantation bungalows of modern vintage, like Goatfell, were built as practical, not permanent, residences. In good hands they can be as charming, albeit simple, as older buildings.
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