Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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The following story is extracted from 'Living in Sri Lanka' by Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2006)

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The Edens – Galle

Leynbaan Street, Galle, Sri Lanka

Jack and Jo Eden have been keeping a close eye on properties in Galle Fort since they first visited in 1997. In 1999 they acquired a villa on the Fort’s Pedlar Street and restored it to such acclaim that friends from overseas were swiftly inspired to do the same. The business expanded beyond the Fort walls and the Edens now manage or market upwards of twenty top-end villas along the south west coast.

One of the hazards of owning a villa in a stunning location like Galle is that one is rarely free of visitors from afar. And, in those early days at any rate, where else was there to stay? In their first two years at Pedlar Street, the Edens registered 326 visitors in their guest book. The villa was an elegant two-storey property with much charisma but somewhat lacking in spatial freedom. It’s original purpose was to serve as a weekend retreat, not as a principal home. ‘We feel we will stay in Sri Lanka forever but we needed to get somewhere that we could all call home and in which we felt comfortable raising our children [Maddie and Nico]’.

In March 2003, a particularly run-down villa came on the market. Built in the early 18th century as a private residence for the Dutch military commander in Galle, the villa had ultimately come into the possession of a Muslim family living in Colombo. The villa was situated on Leyn Baan Street in the Court Square, an area populated by lawyers and magistrates working in the nearby courts.

At first glance, the property was not enchanting. ‘It looked like a bomb site’, recalls Jo Eden. The principal building was used for mushroom storage, most of the fungi having long ago rotted onto the mud floor. Mounds of overgrown rubbish and rubble ran the length of the property, culminating in a derelict shack.

Restoration began the instant planning permission was granted in December 2003. Any work likely to cause noise had to be conducted by night, lest the nearby court proceedings be disrupted by pneumatic drills and such like. As the debris was removed, so the villas’ antiquity began to reveal itself – shards of porcelain, old green schnapps bottles and a hefty lead cannonball emerged from the mud.

The 18th century structure remains largely unchanged, right down to the doors and window frames, restored to their original natural colour. The roof was replaced with a Javanese inspired bamboo ceiling, set beneath a thin sheet of protective cement and capped with terracotta tiles. A convincing mock-tile floor of egg-white cement was poured on the mud floor, creating instant sophistication.

A modest doorway on the side of Leyn Baan Street leads into a vaulted hallway bedecked with portraits of Jack Eden’s forebears. His great uncle Sir Anthony Eden was Prime Minister of Great Britain; another ancestor, Lord Auckland, was Governor General of India in the early 1850s. A self-portrait by Sir Timothy Eden, Jack’s grandfather, has inspired many Sri Lankan friends to murmur with raised eyebrows at the darkness of the man’s complexion. The hall leads directly into a wide, high-ceiling kitchen – unusual for Sri Lankan homes where kitchens are often tucked discreetly to one side. A coat of samara brings out the imperfections of the otherwise untouched kitchen walls. Resin-coated railway sleepers are reincarnated as counter-tops and crockery cupboards. Colourful works by local artists adorn the wall casting a buoyant, uplifting spirit upon the room. To the right of the kitchen, a simple living room, a sanctuary of books and board games.

Double doors in both the kitchen and living room open onto a spacious courtyard of flourishing but controlled vegetation. Verandahs of trellised colonnades run down either side of the yard, the fretwork inspired by the Kasbahs of Morocco. To the left is the dining area with a mural by Nuria Lamsdorff. An outdoor shower is concealed behind its farthermost wall. To the right, a two-storey extension with the children’s imaginatively painted bedrooms below and the Eden’s master bedroom above. After so many years of entertaining house guests, the Edens are now delighted to say they no longer have a guests’ bedroom. ‘The house is totally designed around us and how we like to live’. When friends come to visit, they rent a nearby villa.

Click here to view James Fennell's Sri Lanka photographs.