Standing on lush green lawn, surrounded by manicured garden beds where bumblebees drift from petal to petal, it’s hard to believe I’m resting on the rubble of London. I’m at Monkey Island in Bray, Berkshire. Set across seven acres, this recently restored Estate has an intriguing history, packed with monarchs, aristocrats, artists and monks – and after the Great London Fire, some city rubble, too.
The barges shipping Oxfordshire stone down the river to rebuild London after the 1666 Great Fire dumped much of the rubble they returned with onto the Thames’ islands, including this spot. Little did they know they were raising the real estate value by giving the island a solid base and lifting it above the flood line. Enter the third Duke of Marlborough, Charles Spencer, fishing enthusiast.
The Duke bought the island as an angling retreat and the Fishing Pavilion and Fishing Temple he commissioned are the basis of the accommodation offering today. The ceiling paintings in The Monkey Room in the Pavilion – now a lounge– are also a legacy. Featuring monkeys cavorting in human ways, the paintings are the work of Andie de Clermont, whose creations also reside in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
In its heyday, Monkey Island hosted a plethora of notable visitors, – Queen Victoria and Edward VII, operatic singer Dame Nelly Melba, composer Sir Edward Elgar and poet Siegfried Sassoon. Writer Rebecca West and lover H.G. Wells spent time here, as did Princess Margaret, along with a red-carpet list of socialites and stars. Closed for the last few years while it went through a rather costly revamp courtesy of YTL Corporation, Monkey Island’s doors are once again open, and I’ve found my way onto the visitor list.
There’s certainly a lot going on. There are chickens in a coop at one end of the island and bee hives further down, past the smokehouse where the Estate smokes its own salmon. A Victorian potting shed is down that way, where some experimental tea-growing is planned and the herb garden has recently been planted. There are more enhancements in the pipeline as well – a pool is on the way for private use by guests and there’s talk of cookery demonstrations in the four-bedroom Long White Cloud building, for a start.
Naturally, the rooms are stylish – think contemporary English country house with a palette of crisp white, soft grey and beige. And although the island is small, there are plenty of places to relax – coffee and cake is served in the lounge on the ground floor of the Temple each afternoon; two shepherd’s huts sit on the lawn, ready for stargazing and marshmallow toasting on clear nights; a secret staircase in the Pavilion leads to an intimate whisky snug above The Monkey Room; and fire pits outside The Monkey Bar burn as the evenings cool, creating a hot chocolate hotspot.
There’s also spa, on a custom-made narrow boat. And it’s not just the spa setting that’s unusual – the tinctures are home-made and treatments like The Monk’s Elixir combine booze, botany and beauty. What could be more relaxing than sipping on monk-brewed ancient herbal tonics pre-massage, as the river swirls along its merry way through the portholes?
On the water, private boat hires are available for a sundowner circumnavigation of the island or exploration further afield. We circle the island on Dragonfly, a 31’ Frolic manned by the charming – and surprisingly young – Captain Tom, who educates us on the wildlife in the area. The boats are a popular transport choice for guests venturing forth to dine on Michelin meals in star-studded Bray. An astounding seven Michelin stars reside here, with Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck and The Hind’s Head and the Roux brothers’ Waterside Inn. Blumenthal also has a more relaxed eatery at The Crown.
Closer to home, The Monkey Island Brasserie, is also dishing up quality produce. The English heritage tomato starter with trio of Nutbourne tomatoes, Bloody Mary dressing, celery salt, Yorkshire fettle cheese and honey pickled red onion is an explosion of flavour, and the wood-smoked pepper risotto incorporates a pleasing crunch courtesy of butter crumble. Each ingredient, whether it’s Creedy Carver duck and scorched kale or freshly caught Hake and fennel veloute, is given the attention it deserves and is presented with panache. The portions are generous, so arrive hungry.
Is Monkey Island Estate worth visiting? A resounding yes. Just don’t expect it to be perfect. The service levels aren’t quite established and it’s all that little bit experimental. With some experience and adjustment under the belt though, the island will be the new king of the swingers.