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Up to the hills…Mussoorie

| 13 Feb 2018

The signs on the switchback road up to Mussoorie offer plenty of useful advice about speeding. “Caution and care make accidents rare,” says one. “Speed thrills but kills,” says another. We sadly don’t spot an old favourite – “Hurry hurry, spoil the curry” – but maybe we’re driving too fast to notice.

Mussoorie

Over 30 years of coming to India, it took us a long time to discover Mussoorie, 6,000 feet up in the Himalayan foothills and the nearest hill station to Delhi. Once enticingly known as “the pleasure capital of the British Raj”, it’s an alternative to three more famous hill stations: Darjeeling and Shimla in the North, Ooty in the South. Visiting all three, my wife Clare and I took instantly to these high-altitude summer outposts. They may have expanded hugely since the British left in 1947, but they mostly retain their charm – and, for today’s Brits, a real historical resonance. There are still bungalows called Cosy Nook and Sunny Bank, The Laurels and Primrose Villa, Westward Ho! and (wistfully) Wisteria Cottage. There are Cotswoldy churches, winding lanes and old colonial stores selling cream crackers.

So: three hill stations down – what next? How about Mussoorie, our friend Virgil Miedema suggested. Virgil is an American with an interest in British India perhaps surprising in someone born in North Dakota. For many years, he worked (in soya beans) and lived in Delhi, where he spent Sunday afternoons exploring overgrown British cemeteries and relics of Mutiny days. It was harmless and legal and his family smiled indulgently. Looking for a weekend bolt hole, he discovered Mussoorie. It straddles a narrow horseshoe-shaped ridge, with vast panoramas of sparkling snow-capped mountains on one side and equally vast panoramas over the plains on the other. A century ago, it appealed to sahibs and memsahibs keen to escape the scorching Indian summer. In their sola topis and sunhats, they passed their time pleasantly with picnics, tea dances, roller-skating and scenic walks around looping Camel’s Back Road.

They played bridge at the Happy Valley Club, watched films at the Electrical Picture Palace, which had its own string orchestra, and, above all, busied themselves with intrigue. The imperial officials were often back in Calcutta or Delhi, or eight hours’ drive away in Shimla. Their wives, however, were here in Mussoorie, ready to let their hair down and loosen their morals. As Hugh Gantzer, a long-term Mussoorie resident once told me: “You had a lot of young chaps coming up to meet grass widows whose husbands were down on the plains – with obvious results. A Separation Bell used to be rung at dawn so the chaps could leave the ladies’ bedrooms, and the prestige of the Raj was maintained.” All this fascinated Virgil and he visited regularly. We joined him two or three times, catching the overnight train from Delhi to Dehra Dun – ten years ago still a quiet, compact town, now booming with shopping malls. We had breakfast and then took a taxi up to Mussoorie on the helter-skelter road, twisting and turning round the hairpin bends for 20 miles and watching the speed.

The stunning views from Mussoorie

The view from Mussoorie

We emerged in fresh, cool air and spent weekends walking the lanes, exploring the bazaar and watching the evening wood smoke wreath around the pine trees down the valley. It was a place to recharge. Virgil went back to the US ten years ago and that seemed to be that as far as visiting Mussoorie was concerned. More recently, though, we heard welcome news of the Savoy Hotel, one of the town’s most intriguing buildings. Opened in 1902, this vast pile, with its turrets and sprawling wings, became the focal point of imperial life. As India’s largest purpose-built hill-station hotel, it played host to Nehru, the Dalai Lama and various kings of Nepal. Kipling had the occasional drink in the bar; there were dusk-to-dawn foxtrots and quicksteps, and plenty of fancy-dress balls where Brits could dress up as Britannia.

Since 1947, however, the Savoy had gradually faded into a melancholy mausoleum, a ghost hotel. When we visited it in 2001, the wind whistled through the ballroom, the bedrooms had a forlorn chill and the waiters’ coughs ricocheted down distant corridors.  Mr Negi, the mufflered 88 year old receptionist, reported: “When the Second World War started, it was very very very rush.” And now? “Six rooms only occupied, sir.” The news a couple of years ago, however, was that the Savoy had been rescued, lavishly restored to its former splendour and renamed Fortune The Savoy. We decided to go and see…

“The Savoy magic is back again,” says the sign at the gate. It’s a bold claim, but even in its heyday, the Savoy can rarely have looked so plush. The rooms combine unostentatious charm and luxury, the chandeliered restaurant is vast but friendly, the grounds are immaculate, with statues and fountains – and, if the music piped across the lawns rather lets the side down (Twist and Shout… Leaving on a Jet Plane), well, the views over the glistening Himalayas compensate.

The Savoy Mussoorie

The Savoy, Mussoorie

We stroll along the Mall, Mussoorie’s main street. With its restaurants and gift shops, its hoopla stalls and shooting galleries, it suggests an Indian take on a British seaside promenade. The New Raj is out in force – the well-paid middle-class Indians who flock here at weekends to take cable cars, ride ponies and smile at sheepish-looking honeymooners. We explore primrose yellow Christ Church, probably the oldest British church in the Himalayas. Established in 1836, it clings to a steep marigold-strewn slope and is packed with memorials: to George Logan, First Assistant to the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India; to Dora (Dollie) Hickey, “organist of this church”; to dozens more. Like the Savoy, the church has been impressively restored, thanks in part to the enthusiasm of Virgil Miedema, who, since leaving India, has collaborated with his daughter Stephanie on Mussoorie and Landour: Footprints of the Past.  It’s an absorbing read and a mine of information for anyone interested in British India.

Landour is a smaller, quieter hill station a couple of miles along the ridge, which gradually dwindles to little more than a ledge, with houses and shops perched precariously. Beyond its busy bazaar, it feels bohemian, pleasantly away from it all, blessed with peace and quiet, and crisp mountain air. We discover high-quality handicraft and fashion shops and revisit Mr Prakash’s celebrated grocery store, here since 1928. Its shelves stacked with yak cheese from Sikkim and home-made peanut butter and jams (“Our gooseberry is very famous”). And there’s Rokeby Manor, a stylish guest house with colourful ethnic-inspired décor and furnishings that you might at a pinch, call rustic-boutique. We’ve earmarked it for our next visit.

On a chilly morning before setting off back to Delhi, we take a taxi to the home of the Skinner Singhs, one of Mussoorie’s oldest families. In its high-ceilinged living room, the heavy curtains are drawn at midday to keep in the warmth of the two stand-up electric heaters. With its venerable furniture and ancestral portraits, it preserves a strong atmosphere of “the old days”. “If you look very closely, this carpet has been well danced-on,” says Sylvia Skinner Singh before going off to organise coffee and biscuits. “The monkeys come and steal the guavas,” says her 90 year old sister Lillian, with her regally permed hair, leading us out onto a veranda scattered with cane chairs and potted geraniums. She points out what would be a spectacular view, if the valley weren’t swathed in dense mist. Conversation turns to the glory days of the Savoy. “All the rajahs and maharajahs used to patronise it; they came in their personal rickshaws with liveried coolies,” she says. “You went to the tea dance, then stayed for the cocktail dance and then the boys would go and change into dinner suits. The maharajahs would present the ladies with pearl necklaces as mementoes. We saw more jewellery here than we ever did in London.”

It seems tactless to mention the Separation Bell.

Cox & Kings can include Mussoorie in a tailor-made holiday to India. Find out more here.

Stephen McClarence has visited India more than 20 times and writes regularly about his travels there for The Times and Telegraph



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