The Tea Factory – The unique theme hotel.
[Situated on Hethersett Estate, Kandapola, Sri Lanka.]
Compiled by Ian Gardner in collaboration with G.C.Wickremasinghe and Aitken Spence & Co., Ltd."
Aitken Spence & Co. (AS) had been involved in tea/rubber plantations for well over 100 years as an Agency House. However, plantations were nationalised in the early seventies and the estate agency business came to an abrupt end. Fortunately, Aitken Spence was in Shipping and Insurance and had by then diversified into many other areas of business activity such as printing, tourism, hotels, cargo handling/logistics etc.
With the open economy sweeping the world in the eighties and nineties, Sri Lanka also embarked upon a wave of privatisation. As far as the plantations were concerned, the first step was for the State to hand back only the management of estates to the former Agency Houses, on the basis of transparent bids. Under this scheme, Aitken Spence was awarded in 1992 a group of plantations that included Hethersett Estate on which stands The Tea Factory. As the Director with planting experience on the Main Board of Aitken Spence, G.C. Wickremasinghe took over the management of these plantations as the Managing Director.
During his first inspection of these properties on 29th September 1992, he spotted a magnificent tea factory building silhouetted against the rising sun and the mountains below. The Superintendent who was taking him around the plantation explained that it was the abandoned and boarded up Hethersett factory building and G.C.Wickremasinghe insisted on inspecting it. The factory had been abandoned by the former owners some 25 years earlier. Despite the age of the building and the total neglect after its abandonment, the edifice was in remarkably good condition with the steel structure and the galvanised iron, corrugated sheets intact and rust free whilst the building itself was sturdy. The rarefied air at that elevation (6,800 ft. above sea level) and the cold temperatures would, perhaps, have contributed to the high degree of preservation of the building The building had been reconstructed and modernized in the early nineteen thirties but the Hethersett tea “mark” had a history going back over 100 years, to the late nineteenth century, when teas manufactured at Hethersett had been auctioned in Mincing Lane in London.
On the day of his first inspection, G.C.Wickremasinghe had dictated a memo to Aitken Spence on his decision to convert this ideally located, abandoned factory building into a unique theme hotel whilst retaining the facade and the exterior of the building exactly as the British planters had left it. The inspiration came to him from his planting background and from his overseas travels during which he had visited The Tree Tops Hotel in Kenya and, in Europe, seen conversions of farmhouses and breweries into restaurants and hotels. He had set out, in that first memo, exactly where the reception/public areas, dining rooms, bars etc. should be located as well as the carving out of the guest bedrooms in the 4 upper floors – previously the lofts. On that day, G.C.Wickremasinghe found the source of fresh spring water in the uninhabited mountains 7000 feet above sea level not far from the site. This source provides water for the Hotel and also for the water bottling plant which he set up near the hotel for the commercial production of bottled water. The bottled water plant is in charge of Sivasamy, an old employee of the Hethersett plantation who supported G.C.Wickremasinghe and the management right from the construction stage when there was opposition to the project from the plantation workers trade unions.
During the planning stages, the Tourist Board considered the guest rooms too small for star classification. Consequently, there were moves to broaden the building but G.C.Wickremasinghe did not permit this as he was of the view that the lines of the original building were perfect and any tampering with the façade would be disastrous. He reduced the number of rooms and proposed the construction of a tunnel instead so that more rooms could be constructed outside in the future, if necessary. He did not allow any alterations or additions to the exterior. The windows and woodwork one sees from outside are entirely the originals, as designed by British engineers. The timber used in the old days had been mostly teak from Burma and Jarrah from Australia. The entire steel structure of the building had been imported from Dorman Long of UK. The floorboards of the four lofts are of the original pinewood that was imported from Sweden in the nineteen thirties.
G.C.Wickremasinghe encouraged setting up the first oil fired central heating system in the country on the ground floor of the Hotel. This was designed and implemented by Wijitha Perera, the in-house engineer. He was responsible for all M&E, including steam boilers and re-commissioning of the sprinkler fire prevention system which had been discarded and in a state of disuse for over a quarter of a century. With G.C.Wickremasinghe’s experience in the UK, he was able to advise on the fitting of ceramic tiles on the old unsteady boarded flooring and also on waterproofing in the 57 bathrooms on the 4 upper floors. He also personally chose from the UK, the Dimplex electric heaters for the guest rooms, sofa beds for the suites and wood/coal fireplaces for the ground floor bar and public areas. Thereafter, he selected, locally, the curtains, bed linen, pool tables, garden chairs etc.
G.C.Wickremasinghe designed the layout for a miniature tea factory which he set up in what was previously the Teamaker’s quarters. He obtained some of the rare miniature machinery that was required by searching in Gampola second-hand shops; while the miniature drier was obtained by him from the Tea Research Institute as a gift. The miniature factory now produces some exclusive teas and is visited and highly appreciated by hotel guests.
In the hotel itself, G.C.Wickremasinghe had the large engine that had been the main source of power for the old factory, relocated and set to work at a slow speed. It now rotates the line shaft and pulleys that have been retained to give the guests some idea of how power was transferred to individual items of machinery in the old days by using camel hair belts.
On the question of a logo, G.C.Wickremasinghe decided on the logo used by the British to advertise Ceylon Tea during the British Raj. They had a teapot with the letter “T” carved out inside. The only change he made was to replace the “T” with the Sinhalese word for tea, “Thé”.
The conversion, the interior decor, furniture etc. were designed by Nihal Bodhinayake, Chartered Architect of Nihal Bodhinayake Associates. The structure had to be strengthened to accommodate the weight of the 57 rooms, beds, cupboards, the other furniture, fixtures and fittings plus the weight of 57 attached toilets with baths. Designs to strengthen the structure and the structural changes that were necessary were provided by Mr.B. A. Dayananda, Chartered Engineer of Dayananda Associates. The main Contractor was Link Engineering Ltd.
G.C.Wickremasinghe had Chandana Kuruppu as his Project Manager. Apart from seeing the project through to an outstanding conclusion, Kuruppu handled the 99-year lease of the factory building, and the surrounding 25 acres for the project, from the Land Reform Commission. At that time it was the longest lease granted to any private sector organization by the Land Reform Commission. He also negotiated with the local authorities and politicians for the Kandapola – Hethersett road to be tarred at Government expense. As a result, a bus service was inaugurated from Nuwara Eliya town to Hethersett. This was a boon to the neighbouring villages whose people had previously encountered severe hardship in getting to town to sell their produce, seek medical aid etc.
The Tea Factory Hotel has contributed greatly to the economic development of the surrounding Hethersett village. G.C.Wickremasinghe insisted that youth from the labour “lines” should be given preference whenever employment opportunities arose and the hotel paid the cost of the transformer for the supply of electricity to the labour “lines”. Generous donations were made to the local kovils and crèches.The following advertisement describes one of the many awards won by The Tea Factory:
For the year 2000
G.C.Wickremasinghe had the privilege of attending this ceremony and speaking at length with H.R.H. Prince Charles about this project. The Prince was extremely interested in it as it had revitalized an abandoned British building with a rich history; and provided great economic benefits to the neighbouring villagers.
The Tea Factory also won the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage 2001 Awards Competition. G.C.Wickremasinghe and Roshan Fernando, the then General Manager of The Tea Factory, collected the award certificate jointly at the award ceremony held in Hong Kong at the beginning of 2002.
In regard to the history of the Hethersett factory and estate, an examination of Land Registries reveals that the first owner of the property was William Flowerdew who had obtained this virgin Crown land, 6,800 feet above sea level and six degrees from the equator, in 1879 from the government. He named it Hethersett, after his home village in England, and proceeded to plant various crops such as cinchona and tea.
The original plantation consisted of 250 acres of which he planted 150 acres in cinchona and the original factory was built between the late 1880s and the early 1890s; the latter being severely damaged by fire during or after the First World War. It was completely rebuilt and modernised in the early thirties a couple of hundred yards from the old site which is now occupied by the crèche.
The new factory produced about half a million kilograms of some of the best Ceylon Tea each year for nearly 50 years. Even the original basic factory built in Flowerdew’s time produced some excellent teas and on one occasion, in 1891, its silver tip tea was auctioned in Mincing Lane, London, for £1.10s.6d a pound - 30 times the then average price for a pound of tea.
The factory was closed in 1973 due to cost-cutting and the fact that the machinery had become obsolete.
Flowerdew’s house, a log cabin, built in about 1883, is now nowhere to be seen and on its site, a modern Superintendant’s bungalow has been built. This is now occupied by the Assistant Superintendent of the Hethersett Division.
From 1900 to 1925 a Mr.Mac Tier was Superintendent and lived in the original log cabin; a fact stated to G.C.Wickremasinghe in 1996 by Mac Tier’s daughter, then in her nineties and living in Devon, England.
In order to get some insight into to the Flowerdew family, G.C.Wickremasinghe visited the charming English village of Hethersett in the South West of Norwich, England, where the Flowerdews had been a prominent family. He was able to trace the Flowerdew lineage back to the year 1470. They had been a landowning family and had become somewhat unpopular when they acquired and fenced off vast
extents of land which had always been used in common by the villagers of Hethersett. This led to the most important event in Hethersett’s history and it took place in 1549 when there was an uprising and Robert Kett and his men tore down the hedges that had been put up on Hethersett common by Flowerdew’s ancestors. Robert Kett, a martyr and one of Hethersett’s greatest sons was found guilty of treason, imprisoned in the Tower of London and subsequently hanged.
These events may have compelled many of the Flowerdews to leave their village because it is recorded that William Flowerdew (the first owner of Hethersett Tea Plantation) was born in Aberdeen Scotland and baptised at Angus Dundee on 17th October 1831.
Other Awards won for this hotel:
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