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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Illuketia Estate

Galle, Sri Lanka

Illuketia is one of the oldest British colonial houses in Sri Lanka. Early 19th century maps suggest the site, located some eight kilometres inland from Galle Fort, was originally developed as a coffee plantation in the 1830s. That decade saw the first real influx of British settlers since the island was seized from the Dutch in the Napoleonic Wars. When a leaf blight destroyed the coffee plantations in the 1870s, the owners rapidly switched to tea, a crop that has been the island’s foremost cash crop ever since. The Illuketia plantation, abandoned during the troubled 1960s, was verging on complete ruin when the present owner, Hans Hoefer, first visited the area in 1990. As founder of the Insight Guides, Hoefer’s career has given him intimate knowledge of more than 135 countries worldwide. But it was Sri Lanka – and Illuketia in particular – that finally captured him.

The house is set upon a hill in the midst of a magnificent rambling seven acre garden. Rugged stone steps meander up the lush slopes into a semi-covered courtyard centred on a rectangular fishpond. An open-air balcony above offers a tranquil space for reading and contemplation. Four doors lead from the courtyard to large airy double bedrooms, each with an ensuite bathroom. The master bedroom, The Hibiscus, features its own sumptuous verandah, the view encompassing a fertile horizon of jungle trees and rice paddies. At the far end of the courtyard, a pair of carved antique doors beckons one into Illuketia’s magnificent living room. Four giant bamboo sofas sprawl invitingly beneath a pair of Balinese chandeliers hanging from a Oriental roof. Two red Chinese lacquer cabinets reinforce the Eastern theme. The interior design is the work of Welsh-born Nikki Harrison, who moved to Sri Lanka with her husband Bob over three decades ago.

The antique doors are from a set of nine acquired from an abandoned Buddhist temple and now set into the white-walls of this vast room. The other seven doors open onto a wonderful U-shaped verandah that loops around the entire room. Food and drink are served in five distinctive seating areas around the breezy, shaded verandah. Some gaze out on to the waterlogged paddy fields, others behold jackfruit, ginger bushels, heliconias and fruit trees. Throughout the day, the sound of nature echoes around the verandah – rumbling bullfrog, chattering cicada, silver-haired monkey, wild bird.

A series of stepping-stones roll down from the verandah through an arch and into Illuketia’s garden. After forty years of abandonment, the original gardens were in a dreadful state when Hoefer purchased the property. However, a year of hard graft by Bob Harrison and a team of ten gardeners has resulted in one of the more unusual gardens in Sri Lanka. Tropical plants of often gargantuan proportions are compounded by grotesque statuary, mythical follies, bamboo groves, luscious frangipani and a dusky, lotus-covered pond. The latter is bordered by another house, the Pond House, with its own separate bedrooms. By the entrance, a patchwork of nursery beds, bordered by railway sleepers, bursting with salad greens and herbs.

After more than 125 years of existence, the Illuketia estate stands as testament to a new age in Sri Lankan history where the colonial ambience of old can merge successfully with the modern desire to escape the anthill and recline amid a tropical fantasia.

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