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Freestyle Thursday: Voyage round my grandmother

Where do you think this is? On the fringes of a Home Counties golf course, perhaps? Looks that way, and yet the mock Tudor exterior and very English 1950s hotel interior are deceptive.

This very familiar looking architecture is in fact in Malaysia, and while sorting through old photos I was reminded of the trip I took there a few years ago to retrace a significant journey my grandmother had taken there sixty-odd years ago. Then, the building was a school, and she had gone there to teach art. By the time I went, conveniently, it had been turned into a hotel.

The place is called the Planters Country Hotel (then it was known as Bala's Holiday Chalets) and it's in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands. If you've been to that part of the world you, too, will have marvelled at this bizarre colonial-era throwback: lush tropics and hot spices mixed with 1940s suburban English architecture and cream tea on the lawn. It's quite wonderful.

Anyway, the journey was about a glimpse of the past and a delve into my grandmother's endlessly fascinating love-life (mentioned in this previous post, as I cleared out her house after her death in 2012, age 101). I wrote a travel piece about it for a magazine at the time which I thought I'd share, in case you're up for a longer read than usual. I also have included some more snaps I took of the place. Love the mosaic tiling... the curvaceous chairs... the incredible garden swing-seat... and the fact that it conjures up, perhaps, a more everyday middle class 1950s design aesthetic than the ones we pore over at specialist midcentury furniture fairs and in coffee table books.

"A gin and tonic for the Major, please"
A truncated version of my travel piece, written in 2007:

My gran back in the day. She was doing
good for a single mother pushing 40
In the fantasy I was always going to take a boat to the Far East. It would have been the most authentic way to begin my pilgrimage to northern Malaysia, to retrace the romantically dramatic journey my 96-year-old grandmother made there in 1953.

Then, she was an charismatic and beautiful single mother in her late 30s; recently divorced from the first of her three husbands... and nursing a broken heart after splitting with a lover she adored more than any of them. Putting it all behind her, she got herself a teaching job at a British school in Malaysia, then called Malaya and a British colony since 1896. She remained until the country gained independence in 1958.

My grandmother boarded a ship which sailed through the Suez Canal to the island of Penang (or “the pearl of the Orient” as she always refers to it, with a nostalgic sigh, “where flowering trees line the streets”). And who should be waiting on the quay when she arrived, but her ex-lover – desperate to win her back. It could be the plot of a tear-jerking black and white film and I’ve always been drawn to the glamorous-sounding setting where it all unfolded.

At the E&O
I want to visit Penang’s elegant Eastern and Oriental Hotel, or “the E&O”, a stunning colonial throwback where my grandmother has described having drinks on the terrace, followed by the Cameron Highlands on the mainland, where the school she taught in has been turned into a guest house – and the setting where her romantic plot turns sour.

Unfortunately passenger liners haven’t gone from England to Malaysia for decades and so, casting aside visions of Agatha Christie plots and cocktails on deck wearing Grace Kelly dresses, I book my plane ticket. But rather than flying direct to Penang, I start in neighbouring Singapore and make my way up the left hand side of Malaysia by train, which allows for a couple of stop-overs. It’s a long journey – at least two days, with the last leg on a sleeper train which, even in 1st class, is pretty basic, then a ferry across to Penang. The journey itself turns out to be nothing special – it bypasses the best scenery, and my first train has a blaring TV disrupting the peace. I wish I’d splashed out on the Orient Express which, I discover too late, you can get from Singapore up to Bangkok, above Penang. It would have fitted the theme perfectly.

When I finally arrive at the E&O in Penang’s Georgetown, sadly I see no flowering trees in the streets. Instead, I am shocked at how built up the place is with ugly modern developments. But inside the hotel it’s like stepping back in time. Built in 1855, It is the sister hotel to Singapore’s Raffles, and the white building’s imposing entrance is manned by a guy in long socks, khaki shorts and a pith helmet. You can almost hear the ghosts of former guests calling one another ‘Old Chap’ and swapping aristocratic gossip by the pool.

I try to picture my grandmother here. The romantic reunion with her lover didn’t work out – and when they parted, she angrily told him that she’d marry man who asked her. She found him in the Cameron Highlands – and marrying him, she says, was the biggest mistake of her life.

View from a window at our destination
The six-hour journey – down country, but up a lot of hills – to the Cameron Highlands from Penang is hair-raising. One stomach churning hairpin bend follows another, and our taxi driver seems to seize upon each as an opportunity to overtake blind and at full pelt.

We distract ourselves with the increasingly verdant scenery unfolding all around us; padded green hills undulating into the distance, ostentatiously lush and set against the cobalt blue skies. Tea plantations, strawberry farms, forest and jungle roll richly above us, towards the 1800-metre peak of the expansive hill station.

Finally, just outside the town of Tanah Rata, our goal reveals itself as we round the corner of a private driveway. In all its mock Tudor splendour. The incongruous 1930s English architecture of the Balas Holiday Chalets is typical of the region, which – because of its cooler climate – was a favourite spot for colonial Brits.

It could be time for tea in Hampshire, not northern Malaysia

Loved these floor tiles

The place has been meticulously restored – 1950s black and pastel mosaic tiles cover the floor; low mid-century padded armchairs sit elegantly in the drawing room and the bar has horse brasses, a roaring fire and a black and white framed photograph of the Queen and Prince Philip with a baby Charles and Andrew.

Memorabilia from former students of what was once the Slim School are pinned up in a corner. I can just picture the story my granny told me about the time General Slim himself came to visit, and her giggly friend – caught without a hat – swiftly fashioned one out of a tea-towel.

The white swing seat, visible at the back of the garden
A white painted iron swing seat rocks in the neatly manicured garden, where we spend a rather surreal few hours having the guesthouse’s famous "English afternoon cream tea" to the backdrop of cicadas and the call to prayer wafting across the jungle canopy from a local mosque. It’s absolutely lovely.

You could spend days just gazing at the views – which I imagine my grandmother must have done as she contemplated how her life might have been had she not rushed into a quickie wedding with the handsome man with the pencil moustache she’d only known for a few weeks.

On their wedding night, in a story that she manages to turn into a witty anecdote, her new husband informed her that he would not be performing his husbandly duties because "Mummy says it’s rude". (Poor chap. My grandmother was not renowned for her empathy, though we of course only ever hear her side of the story.) Far less amusingly, they endured a 25-year sexless marriage.

The kind hotel owner took us to this house, where my gran lodged with colleagues while teaching. 
The last chapter in her love-life – husband number three – may have had a far less exotic setting (a pilgrimage to Devon doesn’t have quite the same ring of glamour). But at least they were happy.

Post by Kate. Photography (bad): Kate Burt Photography (good): Planters Country Hotel

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