Archive for September, 2010


Friday, September 24th, 2010

Sri Lanka, Sunday 26 September 2010.

Greetings from Sri Lanka to subscribers old and new. This week’s newsletter is an object lesson.


When I bought a 4-stroke three-wheeler recently (see Newsletter No.18) I became curious about the origins in Sri Lanka of this extraordinarily versatile vehicle.

The fact that it is known in India as an auto-rickshaw is an obvious clue to its descent in design and convenience from the hand-pulled rickshaws of the late 19th century.

Following its importation to Sri Lanka in quantity in the 1980s the auto-rickshaw three-wheeler began to replace the Morris Minor as the taxi of Colombo and the country towns.

From a print I have in my library, I see that it took 90 years after the first three-wheeler took to the roads in Sri Lanka (nee Ceylon) for a motorised version to be introduced. The Graphic in its issue of 11 November 1893, published illustrations of “A Ride In A Ceylonese Tricycle” based on sketches supplied by the Ceylonese artist, J K Van Dort.

In what is irrefutable evidence about the existence of three wheelers in Ceylon long before a motorised one arrived from India, a sorry tale is unfolded.

The captions begin: “In a remote village, Spindle Shanks, Esq., seeks a conveyance. A curious contrivance on three wheels turns up. It is Hobson’s choice with friend Shanks, and he steps in.

“The motive power,” the caption reads, “is supplied from behind and Shanks does the steering. Two coolies toil painfully with it up a steep ascent, and pause a while on the summit for a mouthful of fresh air.

“The carriage descends the hill easily and rapidly. One of the coolies stumbles and loses his hold on the vehicle.  His companion is unable to cope single handed with the machine.”

It concludes: “Spindle Shanks makes frantic endeavours to steer clear of dangers. A capsize at the foot of the hill is the consequence. A good Samaritan appears opportunely.”

Full story:


Many years ago, when there was an auction at the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, which began life as Governor Edward Barnes’s hill country residence in 1831, I successfully bid for a box of junk. I found it contained dozens of rein-nickel cups, each with a handle and the hotel’s crest.

Last week, a photographer came to my cottage and took some photos for a new book being prepared about the history of the hotel.

The problem is: what are they? They have a handle but don’t have a pouring spout so weren’t used for sauces. Bearing in mind that The Grand Hotel was where gentlemen stayed while hunting game in the area, could these possibly be hill country stirrup cups, used for serving a hot (and hopefully alcoholic) drink for riders on horseback after they returned from the chase?  Any ideas?

Then, Time, let not a drop be spilt:

Hand me the cup whene’er thou wilt;

‘Tis thy rich stirrup-cup to me;

I’ll drink it down right smilingly.

Sidney Lanier May 1877


Here’s another odd object, one I bought in the hill country town of Bandarawela last week. Made of scrubbing brushes it now stands on my door step as a boot scrubber.

Planter’s Bungalow

Ever on the look out for new places to stay, I was thrilled to discover a guesthouse called simply enough: Planter’s Bungalow.

It’s located in the hill country at 1,000m above sea level, above the main A23 road linking Ella with Wellawaya. A restored planter’s bungalow, 11km south of Ella, it is a treat for those who want to retreat to nature with every comfort, good food and fine conversation, if the host is in residence.

There are three double bedrooms, including one with a lounge that could have come from the pages of House & Garden with its impressive outdoor patio atmosphere indoors. A bijou cottage in the garden has a small bedroom with a bathroom the other side of its terrace as well as a patio kitchen and dining deck on the roof.

Converted by a retired Brit and his wife, this is an elegant bungalow where visitors dreamily feel totally at home. Incredibly this costs only US$45 a night for two people, with breakfast.


A book to read (or write your own) while staying at the Planter’s Bungalow could be The Big Beat Scene, my account originally published 50 years ago of the pop scene, now available with a new foreword and afterword, from