Tucked away on a secluded stretch of the Thames Monkey Island is a perfect retreat for burnt out Londoners
Words: Will Moffitt
Nobody knows the precise reason for Monkey Island’s exotic moniker. That guessing game is all part of the fun during a visit to this idiosyncratic luxury hotel on the banks of Thames island, near Bray.
Some point to the clergy, specifically the monks who settled close to the fish-tail-shaped slice of land christened Monks Eyot (island) in the Middle Ages – the possible root of the modern name. Others pin it on the third Duke of Marlborough who bought the place in 1723 for an angling retreat, eccentrically slathering his octagonal fishing pavilion with ceiling murals depicting monkeys doing country sports.
The Duke escaped to his fishing idyll for two decades before passing in 1758, leaving a more obvious reason for the island's unique name: rumours have long circulated that the mentally ill George III was banished here with a pet monkey.
Etymology aside, Monkey Island is still very much a place of refuge, a riverside estate reformed by YTL hotel group into a luxury hotel with its close proximity to London bringing a stream of guests seeking to escape the urban drone.
The hotel is divided into 11 Barn and 25 Temple Bedrooms along with four terrace bedrooms, the most decadent of these being the Grade I listed Wedgewood Suite, an elegant room overlooking leafy green lawns.
General Manager Guiseppe Pezzolla leads me on a tour of the estate, spilling tales of the island’s past. Around 1870 the estate’s conspicuous pearl-shaded Pavilion became a riverside inn where drinks were served through the bar window. It was the start of a golden era where visitors included Edward VII, who came to enjoy afternoon tea here, along with Sir Edward Elgar, who worked on his First Symphony Violin Concerto in a house on the adjacent bank. War poet Siegfried Sassoon ventured here too; as did novelists H.G Wells and Rebecca West, with West's 1918 novel, The Return of the Soldier, centred on a steamy affair on hotel grounds.
Below: Monkey Island's Grade II Temple structure and Grade I listed Wedgewood Suite
The Duke's old idyll was linked to the shore by a footbridge in 1956 before a banqueting room was cantilevered over the river, accommodation was extended and dinner dances sent laughter and live music ringing out across the banks. The party peaked in 1964 with the Oxfam Ball where 1,400 guests descended for dancing, fundraising and cabaret with the rich and famous. The hotel’s country style residences, available for private hire, were once home to Elgar, along with Formula One legend Stirling Moss and Thunderbirds creator Sylvia Anderson.
In recent years Bray’s local celebrities have composed Michelin-star morsels rather than symphonies with gourmands drawn to The Waterside Inn – the wildly successful restaurant helmed by the Roux brothers who cemented their fame with Mayfair’s Le Gavroche – and Heston Blumenthal’s ever inventive The Fat Duck.
Monkey Island’s brasserie might be less lauded than those ventures, but its food, much of it locally sourced, is delicious. The Orkney hand dived scallops served with celeriac puree and suffolk chorizo are a personal highlight on a menu devised by chef Justin Gabriel-Brown who does brasserie staples with a flourish.
For main course there’s an option of pan roast wild stone bass with sea asparagus or confit gressingham duck with puy lentil cassoulet, but it’s hard to look past the wagyu beef ribeye steak from New South Wales – the chef recommends medium rare.
Below: Monkey Island brasserie with menu devised by chef Justin Gabriel-Brown, further down: the floating spa
Outside of the brasserie there’s much fun to be had partaking in the estate's cocktail masterclass where charming head barman Sebastian Herzog whips up drinks with a signature twist, dispensing the origin stories behind speakeasy classics.
Wellness seekers are advised to head to the estate's floating spa, a bespoke barge moored on its banks. Cocooned on the boat rocked by lapping water you'll feel at one with the Thames and a million miles from London.
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