I spent most of yesterday on buses, heading out of town to a west coast haven to escape the bustle of the season. I stepped off the third and final bus into the blustery darkness to the sense that it was late in the evening, whereas in fact it was barely 5pm. It had already been dark for almost 2 hours. However, I had departed before sunrise.
A chance conversation has led me here. A “you wouldn’t happen to know of..” question which brought the perfect answer. A little place to pause, reflect, walk, gently explore, read, write and exercise my rested camera.
And the most apt place to rest my head. This is a place where the rooms have no TV, but have a bookshelf with selection of carefully chosen books, and a radio beside the bed. There is a lounge with a writing desk, views of the hills and loch, kindred spirits and plenty of space to be.
In the lounge yesterday evening, I overheard a short conversation between two of the other guests. Both seemed to be visiting alone, but to know each other a little. Each seemed to be a seasonal visitor here and they exchanged pleasantries about their travel, the weather and such like. This took me unexpectedly and rapidly back a decade and a half, to a Christmas in the distant past and in a far away land, in the hills of Darjeeling, north eastern India.
It was a Christmas break, back then, during the time I was working in Nepal, and my leave included a week or so in the Darjeeling hills. There were a few nights in a modest hotel, with a heater in the middle of the room attempting to defrost the chilly air, a bucket of hot water delivered in the morning for showering and views of the Himal and Kanchenjunga at sunrise if you peeked out the window on tippie toe.
Darjeeling had surprised me. I had imagined a hamlet, nestling on top of the middle hills. The Darjeeling I arrived in was much greater, a large town perched precariously on a number of hills, buildings constructed in layers on top of each other defying gravity and challenging the hills to hold them.
Travel plans changed however, and with an extra day to spend in the town, I needed to find a room for the additional night. Preferably a room which was a little warmer and more comfortable. It just so happened that the night was Christmas Eve.
Although many places were booked up, I discovered that there was space in a lovely, quaint old place. However, they would not allow a Christmas Eve booking for one night only. You had to stay two nights, and check out on Boxing Day. Conversations ensued and eventually, the booking for two nights was confirmed.
The Windamere was not any old hotel, it had a standing which it worked hard to maintain. This was a place full of character and charm, with a music room, afternoon teas served in a drawing room, a labyrinth of rooms crammed with antiques and period pieces of furniture, kept warm by heavy brocade curtains and with walls filled with old photographs and artworks. I later learned that part of its reputation was due to its Christmas festivities. As I checked in, I began an experience which combined Christmas with a quirky Himalayan colonial character.
There was an atmosphere of building excitement and anticipation as guests greeted each other that Christmas Eve – familiar faces from many Christmases past. Not only did guests come from afar, but they seemingly came year after year. This was like a family get together. I had also not known that the reputation of the Windamere went far beyond Darjeeling. Guests of many nationalities arrived from near and far, including Hong Kong and Europe and were welcomed by an elderly Jackie Chan lookalike with a clipped English accent and his charismatic wife, to the Christmas festivities.
As the sun set over Mount Kanchenjunga on that Christmas Eve, the programme of entertainment and activities began. There were class cabaret acts from London, Sydney and even a dancer who had regularly performed can-can at the Moulin Rouge. We would sit in one of the drawing rooms in upright seats only a few feet away as the performers went through their repertoires. Conversations between the guests compared previous years entertainment, always favourably, and congratulated the hosts on putting together another excellent programme. I learned that many of the guests had been living overseas and no matter where they were now based, they would always travel back to the Windamere for Christmas. I imagine it would feel a bit like “home” without returning to the weather and frenzy of Christmas in the UK or elsewhere. Apparently the Windamere has been hosting a Christmas programme since 1939.
That Christmas Eve evening packed with entertainment, chit chat and a mix of Indian, Nepali and western cuisine ended at a respectable hour and everyone retired for the night. Darjeeling is cold in the winter, and there were real fires in hearths of the rooms, lit by the staff while guests were at dinner choosing between their preferred options. It was important to get to sleep while the embers were still glowing, so that you would not be too cold.
I was wakened on Christmas morning, abruptly by loud banging on a nearby bedroom door. Disoriented, I could not work out what was happening. Seconds later, it all became clear as hearty voices began belting out the carol “Silent Night” as loudly as they possibly could in the cold pre-dawn air, destroying the previously silence of the night. Wonderful irony! The hammering came to the next door, and then a few minutes later, to my own. A wrapped Christmas gift was thrust into my arms by one of the chorists with a cheery “Merry Christmas!” in freezing chilly air, before she quickly moved to the next room. My chilled fingers opened the parcel to find a hand-knitted scarf inside. How apt.
A series of activities ran through Christmas Day, managed and led by our hosts, with adults and children being taken through each. I have a vague recollection of the hostess leading a line of children for their encounter with Santa Claus to receive their gifts, through the dank winter air.
That Windamere Christmas experience has rested in my memory, slightly hidden as it did not match with much of my experience of Nepali and Indian life. I would always shy away from colonial and western activities and so to engage with this had been incongruous, yet intriguing. Not forgotten but slightly out of view. Until now.
My current experience is very different. It is one of choice and while there are similarities, there are more differences. I do see that we seek out certain experiences. In the same way as it seemed that my fellow Windamere guests sought out a particular Christmas experience, I find that the same is the case here, many years and more than a continent away. However, it seems that visitors here are similarly seeking to find an escape from the frenzy and pressures of a modern Christmas, and are looking to find a place to disengage. And perhaps engage with like minds and similar souls. I have enjoyed gentle conversations this past day where although strangers, we have a great deal in common.
It is warming that the landscape of north western Scotland reminds me of days in the hills of Darjeeling where in both places people seek out like minds. It is a powerful reminder that we are fortunate to be able to do this in the most humbling and inspiring of natural surroundings and company.