A review of Monkey Island Estate, Bray-on-Thames

Monkey island swings into life: A bohemian 18th-century fishing lodge in the Thames has been transformed into a hotel – and it’s quite a catch

  • Monkey Island Estate lies on an island in the River Thames in the village of Bray 
  • Stephen Bayley visited and had a few ‘quibbles’ – there was no full length mirror
  • Chef Will Hemming, once of The Savoy, sources local produce where possible

There are a surprising number of islands in the Thames. Canvey and Sheppey, of course, but also smaller curiosities: Glover’s Island at Richmond and D’Oyly Carte Island, Weybridge, for example. 

And less than an hour’s drive from central London is an island which presents visitors with a near perfect retro-Georgian idyll.

In 1738, Charles Spencer, great-great-great-great-grandfather of Winston Churchill, bought Monkey Island at Bray to celebrate his love of angling. He built a fishing lodge and a fishing temple. 

Pristine: The new Monkey Island Hotel and its immaculately prepped grounds

Pristine: The new Monkey Island Hotel and its immaculately prepped grounds

In those days angling was a pursuit of the privileged classes, affording opportunities for contemplation after nights of carousing and days of punting.

And let’s not forget that The Admiralty gave Lord Nelson Pharoah’s Island, also in the Thames near Weybridge, as a fishing retreat to recover after the rigours of battle.

Monkey Island’s lodge and temple — designed by Robert Morris, a pioneering vegetarian — were and remain buildings (Grade I-listed) of such imposing presence that they would certainly be denied planning permission in nearby modern Maidenhead.

Later, in 1744, when Spencer became a duke and was upgraded to Blenheim Palace, Monkey Island became known as Marlborough’s Folly. A hotel opened here in the 1840s and was soon served by the first generation of recreational steam launches.

At the time he discovered the island, Spencer had been attending a rowdy local party given by The KitKat Club, ‘men of wit and pleasure’.

The Swinging Sixties commune of Eel Pie Island shares with Marlborough’s Folly a reputation for good-natured dissipation, but the Monkey Island name has religious origins. Originally inhabited by a branch of Merton Abbey, it was first known as Monks’ Eyot, ‘eyot’ being Middle English for ‘Island’.

Historic: A picture, above, of the original lodge and temple

Historic: A picture, above, of the original lodge and temple

Today, you approach an ambitious new YTL hotel on the island through Bray and over a motorway bridge. If this sounds disappointing, the effect is quite the opposite. The M4 could be centuries away. You park, cross a pedestrian bridge and discover shimmering white Palladian stucco and greenery, just as Morris intended in 1738.

The sight is designed to impress. Chickens roam the immaculately prepped grounds, which provide monkish herbs for the kitchen and for elixirs used in the floating spa, a converted narrow-boat.

In 2015, when the late Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay, a Malaysian construction firm founder and chairman of YTL Hotels (named after his initials), bought the old hotel, it was gruesomely run-down. It was overwhelmed by ad-hoc additions and Monkey Island hosted crestfallen weddings.

Chef Will Hemming, formerly of The Savoy

Chef Will Hemming, formerly of The Savoy

A New York firm called Champalimaud was charged with the interior design of 27 rooms, three suites, a bar and the brasserie. They have thrown the complete decorator’s manual of effects at the project, working in a style which will become known, if I have my way, as Airport de Luxe.

It is neither fully antiquarian, nor frigid boutique minimalism. There are leather buckets with magazines, balls of rope, hand-painted wallpaper, scented candles (soon to become taboo) and rug art aplenty. All signifiers of quality ambitions. But there are quibbles. Patterns clash; a generous free-standing bath has nowhere to lay a book or towel; there are no full-length mirrors; the chair and writing desk are horribly misaligned in height; and there is no mirror adjacent to the hairdryer.

There are glamorous ghosts on Monkey Island. Its louche appeal extended even to the decadent King Edward VII. Rebecca West and H. G.Wells were lovers here. In a hut on the riverbank, Elgar composed his violin concerto. Just upstream was Bray Studios, where Hammer horror movies were filmed in the days when blonde stars cruised this part of the Thames Valley in powder-blue convertibles.

The big question is how Monkey Island Hotel fits into the complex gastro-ethology of Michelin star-struck Bray, with its sauce Nantua at the Roux Waterside Inn and its snail porridge at the Blumenthal Fat Duck? The answer is, very well.

Chef (Welsh) Will Hemming, once of The Savoy, sources local produce where possible and treats it with respect and precision.

Glamorous ghosts: The decadent King Edward VII enjoys lunch

Glamorous ghosts: The decadent King Edward VII enjoys lunch

Overlooking the river, we ate home-smoked salmon, 35-day dry-aged steak tartare, duck breast sausage roll. A very good bottle of Sicilian Grillo was a reasonable £29.

A charming conceit is a tiny attic Whisky Snug, for reclusive tastings, a modern folly by the genial general manager, Lee Kelly, who has been given something of a free hand with arrangements.

After a glass of Monkey Shoulder, I had no difficulty summoning the ghost of Charles Spencer and feeling like a man of wit and pleasure myself. Monkey Island does that to you.

TRAVEL FACTS 

Nightly rates at Monkey Island Estate start at £275 per night in a Temple Room. To book, call 01628 623 400, or visit monkeyislandestate.co.uk

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