“His first and last love was tea” reads a plaque at the Ceylon Tea Museum. In 1852, James Taylor arrived in Sri Lanka with the mission to explore the agricultural possibilities of tea on the island. The life of such a pioneer tea planter was certainly not an easy one. The rugged jungle terrain and remote location could be a challenge for even the heartiest of souls.
He is credited as the first to commercially plant tea in Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon in the tea world). Taylor had visited Northern India in 1866, where he learned tea production, thereafter returning to Sri Lanka. The Loolecondera estate, which had been growing coffee, was interested in cultivating tea and charged Taylor with the task. The forested hills lie on the outskirts of the ancient capital city of Kandy in the south-central part of the island. In 1867, Taylor planted 10 acres of tea plants. Using crude but effective tools, he managed to manufacture tea (first on the front porch of his bungalow) and forged what would quickly become a booming industry. By 1872, a proper tea factory had been built and the first shipment of tea from the garden – a whopping 23 pounds – left for London in 1873. By 1880s, most of the former coffee plantations had been converted to tea due to the effects of a coffee-rust fungus that had spread rampantly beginning in the 1860s.
On the recent World Tea Tour to Sri Lanka, the group visited this historic estate, which is still functioning today. We enjoyed a tea tasting and private tour through the historic factory, which is still maintained in the old style. The wooden floors and withering troughs (many factories use concrete and modern materials) resonated with the stories of the past. The factory and gardens are currently state run. The tea fields are beautifully manicured and at the same time grow in harmony with the somewhat rugged terrain. Wildlife abounds on the estate and monkeys and birds of numerous varieties call it home. Some of the descendants of Taylor’s original bushes can still be found in a more remote section of the garden.
One of the highlights of the visit was a trek to the site of Taylor’s cabin, where he first made tea. Its remains are carefully preserved in a garden that is surrounded by tea fields. We also visited Taylor’s “Seat,” a scenic overlook that offers a panoramic view of the valley below. It is said that he would spend time there to contemplate his challenges and accomplishments as well as meet his lady friend for private moments. The wind whistles through the trees and rocks provide a sense of stark solitude among the carpet of green bushes that surround in all directions. Witnessing the results of all Taylor’s and others’ hard work in creating this sanctuary of tea, we felt quite honored to have the chance to see it in person.