Though it is close to afternoon when we reach Yercaud, the hill station nestled in the Shevaroy range of the Eastern Ghats around 1,500 metres above sea level, is still blanketed in late winter mist. Even the wild monkeys, relentless watchers of the highway traffic from the plains to the top, seem to be in a pensive mood, as motorists switch off the air-conditioning and open their windows to let the eucalyptus-scented breeze in.
Thanks to the lockdown, Yercaud’s winding roads and bylanes are quiet these days, though the lakeside sellers of fried chilli fritters and steamed corn are back in full force.
The recent construction boom has changed Yercaud forever, with its verdant fruit orchards and coffee plantations slowly giving way to real estate projects meant for the well-heeled. Some of the heritage structures though, especially those attached to plantations, have reinvented themselves as homestays with adventure tourism activities built into their packages.
The Tipperary Bungalow, a colonial-era house that is considered to be among the oldest buildings (approximately 120 years) in Yercaud, is one such property, perched upon a mini peak of its own.
The house is part of the eponymous 70-acre working coffee farm that also cultivates jackfruit, avocado, banana, wild turmeric and pepper.
On any day, visitors to the property — now functioning as a heritage bed-and-breakfast homestay — set in four acres, can expect to see local fauna like gaur and spotted deer from the veranda that opens out to views of the valley below from the master suite.
Like many relics of the British Raj, Tipperary Bungalow has a storied past that lives only in oral recollections. “Though my father purchased this property in 1970, we weren’t really aware of its original British owners, the Dickens family, until quite recently,” says N Satyendran, a former engineer and commercial pilot who runs the estate today.
Clan of coffee growers
Whether the Dickens family of Yercaud was related to the famous Victorian author Charles Dickens (1812-1870) remains debatable in the absence of any documentary evidence, but there is little doubt that this India-based British clan did much to develop the commercial cultivation of coffee and other crops in the hill station.
“My great grandfather Alfred Ernest Stark Dickens (1844-1898) came to Yercaud in 1881; he had five sons and five daughters, and most of them were in the coffee business. Before that, he grew coffee in Ooty. Five generations of our family were based in Yercaud from the 1880s until 1950s, so there were at least 15 coffee plantations, each with their houses, run by us in that period,” says Anna Dickens, over a WhatsApp phone call from London.
Approaching her 80th birthday, Anna is perhaps the Tipperary Bungalow’s last link to its British owners. She visited Yercaud in 2005, and was reportedly moved to tears when she saw her birthplace (she was born here on August 7, 1941). According to family sources, the Tipperary Bungalow was already part of the estate that Alfred Dickens had purchased. Anna says that it was maintained as plantation guesthouse for some time before it was used as a family home.
A visit to the cemetery at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Yercaud shows the number of members from the Dickens family who are interred here.
“My aunt Gwendoline and her husband Leslie Dickens were the last occupants of the Tipperary. They sold the property in the 1950s before leaving India,” says Anna.
Considering that Yercaud got its first metalled roads only in the early 20th Century, the Tipperary and other buildings of its vintage in the hill station are obviously great examples of native engineering using rudimentary infrastructure.
“We have tried to maintain the original style of the building, though quite a bit of it was in disrepair when we acquired it,” says Satyendran. “The polished red oxide floors are still the same, and the thick stone walls keep the building insulated from extreme cold and heat through the year.”
Anna remembers the Tipperary as being a popular meeting spot for the local British community. “We were a very musical family; and I played the antique grand piano that is still there in the reception room when I visited in 2005, though we don’t really know how it was transported up there in those days!” laughs Anna, as she recounts hearing stories of people being carried up the rough mountain trail to Yercaud by bearers.
The Dickens had a very busy social life, she adds. “We used to have picnics, dance and tennis parties very frequently. And people also used to dress up a lot, because I’ve got photographs of my aunts in fancy dress as well,” says Anna.
The dance floor of the Tipperary has long been demolished, but one sturdy tennis net post is a silent reminder of those leisure-filled weekends of yore.
Ties that bind
Anna’s father Alfred M Dickens, studied locally in the Montfort School, like many British children in those days, and later served in the Royal Navy. “We left Yercaud during the Second World War, and my mother and I stayed in Bandra, Bombay for a few years as my father was posted on war duty.
“We left India in 1947, and soon the rest of the Dickens family also started moving out. I miss Yercaud, even though I was there for a very short while. I remember dal and rice being my favourite Indian dish as a child,” says Anna, who has worked as an actress in theatre and films, and later as a professional artist.
As the wind sighs through the ancient willow tree guarding the Tipperary Bungalow, the mist clears, and then clouds up the area once again.