I am in Sri Lanka, preparing to sleep in the bedroom of Lord Louis Mountbatten. Or at least I think it’s his bedroom. I am in Kandy, about 130km up from Colombo, tempted by the Mountbatten Bungalow, which advertises itself as the “alleged residence of Lord Mountbatten” when he was Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, Southeast Asia, in World War II. That word “alleged” both intrigues and annoys me and before leaving Australia I email anyone with the slightest potential of confirming that it is indeed the former home of Mountbatten when he moved to the then Ceylon to fight the Japanese.
Inquiries to Broadlands, the Mountbatten estate in England, and nearby Southampton University, which keeps the family archives, shed no light and emails to other related organisations remain unanswered.
I turn to Mountbatten’s daughter, Lady Pamela Hicks, descendant of Queen Victoria and cousin of Prince Philip. She was 15 when she joined her father in Ceylon in 1944. Her son, the designer Ashley Hicks, writes back: “My mother looked at the photos and said she didn’t really remember the bungalow well enough to say…She remembers it was very small, and the house in the pictures looks bigger, but that may be just in contrast to the other houses they were living in.”
I recall Lady Pamela’s comments as I arrive at Mountbatten Bungalow, a splendid old timber building with a hexagonal front and a green corrugated roof. The six-bedroom Mountbatten house, built in 1900 on a mountain outside Kandy, has been sympathetically renovated with the contemporary addition of an infinity pool; its lush grounds include six modern holiday chalets.
I’m given the main bedroom at the back of the bungalow, an impressive 64sq m suite, including bathroom, which I’m told was Mountbatten’s room. It’s air-conditioned and simply furnished with a coffee table and chairs in one corner, wardrobe in another and, in the centre, a four-poster bed festooned with a muslin mosquito net. After dinner the rambling house is deathly quiet as the staff have cleaned up and retired and I am the only guest.
I contemplate the size of my room and wonder if Mountbatten ever strode across it. It feels a little spooky, particularly when the bedside lamp inexplicably goes off. I decide that’s my cue to get to sleep, until a few hours later an animal, probably a monkey, runs across the metal roof. The next day the bungalow is enlivened by the arrival of two young French couples and two older Australians. After breakfast, on my quest to track down Mountbatten, I am driven to Royal Palace Park in the city, where a large Japanese field gun, captured in Burma and presented by the supreme commander, sits in the middle of a small pond. It’s been painted garish silver, matching the surrounding six concrete lions.
A friend from Sydney, who is staying at a nearby hotel, phones me to report he has stumbled across a room where Mountbatten stayed. We meet for cocktails at the hotel’s Mountbatten Bar, which the supreme commander is said to have frequented. The manager of the historic hotel is proud of its Mountbatten links and is keen to show me the suite with adjoining ante-room, both with views across the lake to the revered Temple of the Tooth.
The suite is decorated with official photos of Lord Mountbatten and his wife, the fabulously wealthy and scandalous socialite Lady Edwina, while a large oil painting of the pair hangs in the corridor outside.
After finding two Mountbatten homes in Kandy that just leaves, according to my research, a military hut in the Royal Botanic Gardens. Next day we drive 5km outside Kandy to the gardens at Peradeniya, which trace their history to 1371 when a king kept court there. Lord Mountbatten used the park as the headquarters of the Southeast Asia Command, and his private quarters were within the barracks. I’m keen to see what’s left and also find a tree he planted.
My driver, translating with great enthusiasm, explains to the staff at the gates that I have travelled from Australia to find traces of Mountbatten. Disturbingly, the name triggers no visible signs of recognition. The staff haven’t heard of Mountbatten but the manager of the gardens, who has been summoned by radio, arrives on a motorbike and tells me to climb on the back. We tear down the central avenue to a tree which, to my delight, bears a plaque proclaiming Mountbatten planted it on July 21, 1945.
It’s among dozens of trees planted by royalty and heads of state. Nearby I see a plaque of Queen Elizabeth, dated April 20, 1954, when the new monarch was on her six-month world tour, accompanied by Mountbatten’s daughter Lady Pamela as a lady-in-waiting. Prince Charles planted a tree in 2013 when he visited the botanic gardens to see where Lord Mountbatten, his beloved great-uncle ‘Dickie’, worked. He would also have seen the flat and grassy ‘Great Circle’ in the centre of the gardens where once stood the barracks, home to 5,000 men.
I now have three possibilities for Mountbatten residences — mountain bungalow, hotel suite and demolished military hut — and in the absence of evidence to the contrary I decide all are his former homes. Filling in the blanks, Mountbatten must have stayed at the hotel when he arrived in Kandy, camped at the hut in the barracks when war work demanded, and escaped to the mountain retreat whenever he could get away.
Then I read something that threatens to derail my theory. Mountbatten actually lived in the former governor’s pavilion in Kandy, now one of the official residences of the president of Sri Lanka. So I approach the gates to the pavilion, next to the Temple of the Tooth, but I can’t see past the security post, although from photos the colossal white colonnaded building does look like somewhere Mountbatten would have resided. But it doesn’t gel with Lady Pamela’s memory of the house as being very small. After Ceylon, Lady Pamela moved with her parents to the palatial 340-room Viceroy’s House in Delhi (now home of the president of India) in 1947. She remained there throughout her father’s term as last viceroy of the British Indian Empire and the first governor-general of independent India, the subject of the recently released movie Viceroy’s House.
Lord Mountbatten had two daughters. Lady Pamela’s older sister, Patricia, Countess Mountbatten, died last month aged 93.