Darjeeling is one of the great centres of tea production. And after the journey to get there, Amar Grover needed a thirst-quencher

Most Mondays at around 9am in Calcutta's commercial heart, about 100 traders gather to inspect and buy dried leaves. To the uninitiated, theirs is a strange language, an exuberant patter of "BOP" and "FOP", "first flush", "dust" and "orange fannings", yet their earnest business is a venerable part of Britain's favourite beverage.

Most Mondays at around 9am in Calcutta's commercial heart, about 100 traders gather to inspect and buy dried leaves. To the uninitiated, theirs is a strange language, an exuberant patter of "BOP" and "FOP", "first flush", "dust" and "orange fannings", yet their earnest business is a venerable part of Britain's favourite beverage.

Calcutta's tea auctions began in 1861, 20 years after the first consignment of Indian tea was shipped to London. India's north-east is the world's largest producer of black tea, with the bulk of this year's predicted 830 million kg originating in Assam. Yet I was en route to Darjeeling in West Bengal, the "Queen of the Hills'", whose brew - often championed as the champagne of teas - has shaped the fortunes of this endearing little town.

Nearly 600km north of Calcutta and perched on a 2,100m ridge just short of Sikkim, Darjeeling, or "place of the thunderbolt", combines hectic bazaar with lofty wisps of the Raj. Originally part of Sikkim, this once sparsely inhabited spur was first leased to and later annexed by the East India Company. Its altitude suggested sanatoria for ailing officials while proximity to Nepal and Bhutan hinted at potentially substantial trade. The first tea gardens were encouraged by the superintendent, Dr Archibald Campbell, in the 1840s and they soon dominated the hill station's affairs.

Even now, part of Darjeeling's appeal is simply getting there. From the hot plains down at Siliguri, Hill Cart Road winds up through the foothills past scattered hamlets and villages, tea plantations, coniferous forests and groves of bamboo. Built in 1839, the road remains the town's life line, and it has long shared it with the "Toy Train", or Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), arguably India's most celebrated line. The diminutive two-foot gauge appears implausible. Almost shaving the corrugated eaves of trackside houses and shops, the railway's ink-blue carriages seem comical. Its utter charm and the beguiling puffs and pants of its plucky steam locomotives belie the fact that the DHR was built to solve a serious problem.

Before it opened in 1880, the journey from Calcutta took five or six days, involved one train, two ferries and several tongas or bullock carts. In short, communications and goods haulage were poor and expensive; the tea industry needed something faster and cheaper. Not everyone took it seriously. In 1903, on his way to crack Tibet, an already well-travelled Colonel Younghusband affectionately called it "a most ridiculous little railway".

For many visitors today, the train is tortuous, taking the best part of a day to cover 88km. If you're short of time and patience, and fancy a bit of steam and soot, hop aboard at Kurseong, just 30km short of Darjeeling. It's a gasping slog up to Ghoom, India's highest railway station, before a short tooting trundle down into town. Gone are the days when railway officials questioned the wisdom of alarming names like Sensation Corner and Agony Point for its many loops and Z-shaped reverses. The demanding terrain required clever engineering solutions and they climax at Batasia Loop, its bridge-and-spiral configuration upstaged only by the exhilarating sight of 8,586-metre Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain.

In a town whose lanes drop into teeming bazaars, and where terraced construction gives way to tea estates that plunge into deep subtropical valleys, Kanchenjunga crowns the skyline. It is a beautiful peak and even from central Darjeeling, you can gaze effortlessly at the several vertical kilometres of snow and ice that mark the Indo-Nepalese border.

The Queen has fared rather less well. Her arteries, Hill Cart Road in particular, are often choked with traffic while her visage is cracked and wrinkled. I heard several stories of old hands - former planters or schoolgirls - returning to nurture fading memories or recharge a childhood idyll, and weeping at the cruel blemishes of time, if not progress. Yet for most first-timers, Darjeeling's faintly melancholic appeal rises above her insidious neglect.

I strolled through town, past Old Darjeeling photographs displayed in the windows of Das Studios, beneath the creamy walls of St Andrew's Church and on to greener, cleaner roads whose bungalows and houses have names such as Oakden, Kenmure Point and Campbell Cottage. Beyond the Mall (Frank Ross Chemists and Glenary's Restaurant & Café) and above Chowrasta (Oxford Books & Stationery) - the town's pukka-most square - stands the Windamere Hotel.

Originally built as bachelor quarters for tea planters, it became a hotel in the late 1930s. Its Edwardian airs remain undiminished. White-gloved waiters serve breakfast on monogrammed plates from a menu typed daily. Signs in the parlour urge guests not to "lie supine on the hearth, or sleep behind the settees", nor rearrange the furniture so that "comfort may be shared in fair proportion by all". Each drink from the bar gets a written receipt. Afternoon tea is a ritual. There are hot-water bottles. Behind this exquisite fustiness lies a fascinating family history with links to Tibet and Sikkim, much of it told in framed cuttings, pictures and letters.

Like the old hotel, some of Darjeeling's tea production is of another era. At the Happy Valley Tea Estate on the flanks of town - almost the only estate among around 50 to encourage visitors - I came to see part of the process. Like stretches of the DHR, a quick look at its wooden and corrugated sheet buildings suggest it had closed long ago. In fact, this is one of the oldest gardens, and while some say it is a shadow of its former self, the antiquated equipment is absorbing.

Of the two main methods of tea manufacture, Darjeeling's is virtually all "orthodox" and accounts for around 5 per cent of India's yield. After its women pickers have filled baskets with the required two-leaves-and-a-bud, production entails a four-step process: withering, rolling, oxidation and drying. At Happy Valley's dim factory, which seems to blend Heath Robinson and the Adams Family, they still use Sirocco Tubular Heaters from Belfast, Britannia Rollers, a Balanced Sifter and - my favourite - a Britannia Balanced Pucca Tea Sorter with mesh trays to grade leaves. Of the five grades on this particular estate, our beloved tea bags comprise the fifth.

Below the factory spreads a mosaic of waist-high tea bushes contouring the steep hillside. For most pickers here, the work is as hard as it is picturesque. Industrial unrest is not the only problem; ageing bushes, falling prices and, some say, a dip in quality have all hurt the business.

Hints of the sahib planters' good life - not so grand these days - remain at the Darjeeling Club, another of the town's institutions. I dropped by one afternoon to acquire temporary membership and sip scotch beneath ibex skulls lining a long veranda. Major Rana, the club secretary, greeted me warmly and presented its modest facilities. "We don't just want any old members," he said, making me glad I had shaved but sad not to have a jacket. Most are still of the planter mould and that's rather how he likes it.

There's a plaque near reception noting past club presidents and secretaries, and wholly British names dominate up to 1970. Until recently, one of its regulars was a former British planter and veteran Darjeeling resident, but he was now ill and recuperating down on the plains. A snow leopard pelt hangs in the billiards room along with a set of Snaffles paintings that depict hunting scenes with captions like "The Best View in India". The club has old-fashioned lodgings, too, and I was briefly tempted.

But on a chilly autumnal evening, all drizzle and mist, there is only one place to be, and there I mellowed before a cosy fire, brandy in hand. A framed ode penned by Jan Morris hangs in its parlour:

"As the glow of Kanchenjunga

Fades with the passing of each year

When the whistle of the Toy Train

Dies at last upon my ear -

In my heart I still shall cherish

Dear old Windamere."


How to get there

The author travelled as a guest of Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk, which features Darjeeling as part of its 16-day "Grand Tour of Eastern India" and also includes Kolkata, Sikkim and Assam. Prices start at £2,495 per person, based on two sharing, including return British Airways flights from Heathrow to Calcutta, transfers, b&b, some meals and guided sightseeing.

What to do

Calcatta's tea auctions take place at Nilhat House, 11 RN Mukherjee Road near BBD Bagh. For information contact the Calcutta Tea Traders' Association (00 91 33 222 01574; www.cttacal.org).

Happy Valley Estate is open daily Tuesday to Saturday from 8am to noon and 1pm to 4.30pm. Admission free.

Further information

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway operates several daily trains, with regular services to Kurseong, New Jalpaiguri and tourist specials only to Ghoom. For more information visit www.indianrail.gov.in