It's about nine in the morning when we begin to feel underdressed. Women float down the platform in linen dresses and straw hats, harking back to some forgotten era. We, however, are fine with that. We're not getting on the 9.23 for the golf clubs and colonial high teas. We're doing it for the journey. In this case, as they say, the ride is the destination.
Having said that, the Ella to Nuwara Eliya train is nothing special either. There's no Orient Express luxury here. The closest we come to a dining car is the man with the greengrocer style shouts as he hauls baskets of rustling roasted peanuts and crisp spiced puri, the grease seeping into their newspaper nest. Again, no matter. It's the windows we're after here, the views as we're whisked out through the tea plantations and up through the clouds.
Ella is fine, nice, a little tourist town, with all the home comforts from beanbag cafés and wood-fired pizza to happy hours and overpriced laundry. It's a reassuring start point for a whole host of lovely walks, which are exactly what we can't do with a four year old. Not our four year old, anyway. Trains though, are another ball game. The baby can wriggle around, you don't have to walk anywhere, and you can take snacks. It's a win win situation.
As the train pulls out of the station, we learn the first lesson fast and realise we've wasted our money. First class is a sealed and air conditioned box. Ten times cheaper at £3.50 for the four of us is second class with no footrests but an ability to open the windows and doors. So we perform the opposite of an upgrade, open the biscuits and sit back, the view becoming our TV for the day, a series of scenes from other people's lives.
Pupils in their uniforms play and skip and gossip, dazzling specks of brilliant white on the rust-coloured rectangle of a school playground. Packs of stray, same-coloured dogs nap through their suicide missions in the middle of the road. Washing dries on hot tin roofs.
Further up, pareo-clad men watch as the train rattles through, their hourly soap opera, their scheduled commercial break. On a rare patch of flat ground, batting practice gets underway on a makeshift cricket pitch. And then of course, there's the tea, its carpet of glossy green leaves studded with the brightly coloured clothes of the pickers. Magenta and cyan and yellow, working hard and fast under the hill country sun.
We could have jumped off at Haputale for a glimpse of Lipton’s Seat, but somehow we didn’t research enough to realise it was there. Between teething and weaning and hardline negotiations with a four year old, something’s gotta give. So we sail on through and head on up, heads out of the windows like dogs in cars on a hot day.
The clouds are entertainment in themselves, the vast valleys acting as their playground. Some just hang out in mid-air, taking in the view. Some sneak in, blurring the lines of the landscape. One rises cartoonishly, high above the hills. Another pours itself between two layers of green, white and frothing like steamed milk. And suddenly the sky turns and we're inside the clouds. The trees are silhouetted against their flat, pale grey. The world goes through a sudden conversion to black and white.
We have reached our destination. A tuktuk ride and eight hundred rupees gets us from Nanu Oya station to Nuwara Eliya. Famous as the Brits' favoured retreat from the heat when Sri Lanka was Ceylon, the town is still clinging to its history with the odd red postbox here and Edinburgh sign there. But it's a surreal world, an awkward series of juxtapositions. Grand hotels with manicured lawns and topiary dinosaurs clash with corrugated shacks and dreary tourist restaurants. Also, in true English style, it's raining. A lot. So, in true Di Francesco style, armed with our DIY high tea of takeaway cake and a punnet of strawberries, we get the hell out of there and hop back onto the train in time for sunset. Unambitious? Maybe. Weak? Probably. But happy? Definitely.