On the trail of Sir Thomas Lipton: staying on a tea plantation in Sri Lanka’s Hill CountryBy thotalagala on Monday, March 19th, 2018
A thick carpet of emerald tea plantations cloaks Sri Lanka’s Hill Country. On the southwestern side of the region lies the lovely ‘golden valley’, Bogawantalawa, where amidst a sea of tea, planters’ bungalows overlook mirror-still Castlereagh Lake. Across on the eastern side of the uplands, the landscape is different: tea gardens mingle with pine forests and merge into a natural landscape of crags and mini mountains, lakes and tumbling waterfalls.
It was to this less-visited corner of Hill Country that Sir Thomas Lipton came, intent on selling tea at unprecedented prices to the untapped British working class market directly through his many Liptons stores. Balanced on the edge of the dramatic Haputale escarpment, Dambatenne is one of four estates that he bought and the one that remains a memorial to the canny Scotsman. Not only did he create the plantation and factory in 1890, but he also built a fine house for himself and chose a lofty panoramic spot for picnics, Lipton’s Seat, where today you can sit beside his lifelike statue, teacup in hand, and gaze with him at the astonishing, far-reaching view.
You can’t stay in Lipton’s house (now occupied by the estate manager) but you can do the next best thing: stay at Thotalagala Plantation House, also on the Dambatenne estate. Run along house party lines, it’s a seven-bedroom Edwardian tea bungalow furnished with period antiques and pictures, a gracious evocation of the life of a colonial tea planter. The views from Thotalagala almost rival those of Lipton’s Seat.
First, before going on the trail of Sir Thomas, I made egg hoppers, Sri Lanka’s beloved bowl-shaped answer to a crêpe, sold at roadside stalls. “Come in to the kitchen and I will teach you”, said Chef Paul, when I enquired about this traditional Singhalese dish. We made rice flour batter, rested it, added coconut milk and egg white and then I swirled the mixture inexpertly round a heavy bowl-shaped pan. Once the thin pancake is made, pop in an egg. As soon as it’s cooked, serve with curry accompaniments. Delicious.
Egg hoppers for lunch was perhaps a mistake that day, because tea at Lipton’s house followed a few hours later: homemade sandwiches, cakes and pastries on a tiered stand, served on a white linen-clothed table set majestically in the middle of the lawn. The manicured gardens spread around, with the word Dambatenne picked out in topiary and steps leading up to his spacious and charming gabled bungalow. If you are offered the chance to see inside, grab it, for the huge, airy rooms are highly evocative and quite unchanged since his day.