Friday 26 July 2019 6:13 pm

The secret of Monkey Island: A hidden retreat in the Berkshire countryside

You would be hard pressed to find a foodie who hasn’t heard of Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck at Bray. But where to stay on your foray into the Berkshire countryside?

Thankfully the bucolic Monkey Island in the Thames has just reopened as a picturesque retreat, comprising a 30-room hotel, brasserie, floating spa on a canal boat, kitchen garden, beehives, chickens and smokehouse.

Two stops away by train from Paddington to Maidenhead (plus a quick cab ride), Monkey Island is perfectly placed for Londoners wanting to relax and recharge while dining at Heston’s gaff or Bray’s other three-Michelin-star restaurant, The Waterside Inn.

The island’s two grade I-listed buildings, originally a Palladian fishing pavilion and temple built for the third duke of Marlborough, an ancestor of Winston Churchill, had to be carefully restored.
The jewel in the crown, the handpainted ceiling panels of the pavilion, depict monkeys punting, fishing and hunting, and date from 1738.

The history of the island can be traced back further to its use by monks in 1197. When barges travelled up the river to collect stone from Oxfordshire to rebuild London after the great fire of 1666, they deposited debris on Monkey Island, forming the ground guests stand on today. The buildings have been added to over the years, but the present owners were not allowed to add anything else to the footprint, hence no outdoor pool.

The exterior of the hotel

Thankfully they were permitted to open out the restaurant terrace to make the most of dining on the waterfront. This is Three Men in a Boat and Wind in the Willows territory, and it feels idyllically private watching motor boats as they pootle past.

Because no additional building was allowed, the owner YTL (which also owns the Threadneedles Hotel and the Gainsborough Bath Spa), has had to cram the bedrooms into a small plot. The resulting rooms are so ‘cosy’ that if one of you bends over to pick up a sock, the other person has to step outside.

The décor, by Champalimaud of New York (they did the Carlyle), is pretty, but without a great deal of identity (except for the lush botanical wallpaper and fabrics in the public areas). The bedroom lighting, for example, seems confused: a contemporary bow-tie spot lamp, an industrial pendant, a traditional wall light… what is it trying to say?

For a special occasion, the Wedgwood Suite is one of the island’s charming historic rooms, restored to its former glory with signature blue ceiling, white plasterwork and wood panelling. But you come for the setting, and the gardens are a triumph, combining architectural planters with swathes of natural borders, all among the mature trees and gently flowing Thames.

Once the garden furniture arrives, it will be a lovely spot to doze off after a Michelin-star lunch.

Monkey Island Estate, Bray, Berkshire;; Double rooms available from £275