As a rule, if you want to go to a lovely country house hotel, the outskirts of London are not a good bet. Too many Ricky Gervais-type office away days render the spas and golf courses hideous. Flocks of hen nights and herds of stag dos mean laminated menus with great heaps of chips swimming on seas of ketchup.
So how to account for Bray, which is only 15 minutes down the M4 from Slough. and yet home to two of the UK’s five three-Michelin-starred restaurants? It’s also one of the very prettiest villages in England, with tiny white half-timbered houses and winding streets that can only just accommodate the huge Bentleys and Jaguars purring up and down between Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck and Alain Roux’ Waterside Inn.
Clearly, sensible folk have been coming to this Thames-side beauty spot to enjoy a gastronomic break from the big smoke for decades. In fact, make that centuries, since the third Duke of Marlborough built himself a fishing lodge on a little island in the river almost exactly 300 years ago.
It is said that Monkey Island was created after the Great Fire of London when barges towed burned rubble upstream away from the capital. But it is also possible that rubble from the Blitz was added. Either way, it doesn’t do to dig too deeply under the soil for fear of what you’ll uncover. Nor would you be allowed since the Duke commissioned an architect to build a two-storey fishing temple and an octagonal fishing pavilion on the island.
These two immaculate white pepperpot buildings are now Grade I listed. One of them is part of a very sumptuous suite, and the other hosts the eponymous Monkey Room with its witty and disrespectful original frescoes of monkeys disporting themselves as simian Venuses. Above, and up a secret staircase, is the new Whiskey Snug with its enviable collection of single malts.
Though both the temple and pavilion have extensions bolted on to create a hotel and restaurants, they haven’t been overwhelmed by the new additions. In fact, because the island can’t be completely covered by hotel buildings, YTL hotels which owns the property has had to be extremely imaginative about expanding.
This means that the spa operates out of a lovely narrowboat afloat on the Thames, so you lie in the Floating Spa Barge having a massage watching light reflected off the water play on the ceiling of the massage room. Much more relaxing than listening to whale music two floors down in a hotel basement. And instead of a new cocktail bar they’ve got a cocktail caravan set up for the summer so you can stroll to the wilder end of the seven-acre island (I’m using wild in its loosest sense here, but this is where the chickens are kept, and the organic vegetable patch) and watch the sun go down with a very nice Americano.
Equally, since they can’t add any more rooms to the 30 they already have on the island, the hotel’s management is buying up the houses nearest the hotel on the mainland. These, as you’d expect, are the comfortable homes of affluent commuter-belt stockbrokers of the 1920s. In fact, the Formula One driver Sir Stirling Moss was brought up in one of them, Long White Cloud. His father was a dentist in Bray as well as a racing fanatic.
Who knows how the house looked in his day, but today the Monkey Island team has done Long White Cloud up in creams and pale wood and it was extremely elegant. It was also interesting to see what hotel people do when left in charge of a domestic kitchen. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the Fisher and Paykel drawer dishwasher envy. And that huge collection of glassware…
Long White Cloud is one of six private residences that are managed by Monkey Island, and this is really the future for very high-end holidaying. If you’re a famous name and you want a bit of privacy, or if you just like to keep to yourself, hotel holidaying can feel uncomfortably communal. So a whole house to yourself, but one that’s smoothly and expertly managed by a hotel to five-star standards is a perfect compromise between getting away from it all and having to muck in.
What’s more, since they’re private and self-contained, such residences don’t have to close even when a hotel does. So you can plough on right through a pandemic in the lap of luxury.
In normal times, because you’re so close to London, and all those astonishingly excellent restaurants, as well as Pinewood Studios and lots of other big, international businesses, there are almost endless ways to pass the time. That’s if you want to do more than just lie around in the large and beautiful garden at Long White Cloud overlooking the absurdly pretty view of Monkey Island across the river.
The hotel offers falconry, or at least hanging out with, and learning about, some extremely large and beautiful birds, including a blue buzzard eagle from Peru and an Australian kookaburra. As I headed towards my facial on the spa boat, a huge tawny owl with hot angry orange eyes watched me crossly from his perch and did that A A Milne thing of turning his head entirely round on his shoulders so he was looking backwards.
But his gaze was no more compelling than that of Yeoh Tiong Lay whose bespectacled bronze sculpture, sitting in an ornate chair, stares over the water towards Long White Cloud. Mr Yeoh was one of Malaysia’s leading billionaires and his conglomerate, YTL, bought Monkey Island. He was hoping to revamp the hotel so he could celebrate his 90th birthday there in splendour. Sadly, he died aged 88 in 2017, but surely his shade would be delighted with how the hotel has been brought to life.
Being so close to London, they can’t entirely escape the dreaded corporate away-day market, but the management here is imaginative and intelligent, and so, instead of whiteboards and blue-sky brainstorms, they offer a survival course run by TT Adventures with a leader who takes part in extreme marathons, mountain climbing and so on. In no time, we were learning how to light fires using cotton wool balls, building shelters, creating harnesses to get one another down from fictitious mountainsides, and finding out how you decide what’s safe to eat and what isn’t if you’re suddenly abandoned on a desert island that isn’t half a mile downstream from two of the world’s great restaurants. It was a brave person who first put a nettle in their mouth… Anyway, the morning was extremely fun and genuinely useful. I’ll always know which way is south from now on.
There was also a really delightful Italian beekeeper who came along to teach us the ways of the bee. They are creatures so complicated and enigmatic that when Sherlock Holmes was tired of detecting, he took to studying the lives of bees. We also had a visit from Sergio Pignagnoli who owns Bee Friends, which has hives in Berkshire and Surrey. Pignagnoli really seems to take the idea of being friendly with his bees very seriously, talking about them as he would about a group of interesting, quirky people he knows, and being extremely careful not to upset them or hurt them in any way as he harvests their honey. He dressed us in pleasingly complete bee outfits, including gauze headgear, and introduced us to the little striped insects in Monkey Island’s four hives, gently easing them out of their honey chamber and talking about the caprices of apian queens. Though the Monkey Island monarch was shy and didn’t feel like showing herself to us that day.
Of course, many of the hotel’s clients come to feast at Bray’s famous restaurants. To get them there, they can charter the Dragonfly which is a motorboat of great vintage elegance – though she’s only 10 years old. Monkey Island serves English sparkling wine called Harrow & Hope which is made by a local wine maker, Harry Laithwaite, in Marlow and this goes perfectly with excellent Essex oysters and a short potter upstream on board the Dragonfly.
The food at Monkey Island doesn’t aim for three Michelin stars, but since Heston serves things like salmon poached in liquorice, snail porridge and red-cabbage gazpacho, we can’t say we minded. Instead, if you’re in one of the separate houses, the chef will cook you a superlative barbecue in the garden of your own house, or in winter, deliver a five-course feast to your own private dining room. But they serve up an excellent prawn cocktail and burger and what on earth could be nicer as you sit looking at a very Wind-In-The-Willows Thames as the light gradually fades and the Canada geese get ready for bed.
Nightly rates at Monkey Island Estate's Long White Cloud are from £1,400, subject to length of stay and a minimum three-night stay is required over summer weekends. To book, contact firstname.lastname@example.org +44 (0) 207 657 8200 www.monkeyislandestate.co.ukInternet Explorer Channel Network