The Thames is England’s artery. Starting in Gloucestershire and widening out into the English Channel, centuries of history wash along its shores. Most intriguing are its islands that crop up along its 346km length, and none more so than Monkey Island, which in June, will reopen as a 30-room hotel; a multi-million project for the Yeoh family who run YTL Hotels, including the Gainsborough Hotel & Spa in Bath.
The history of Monkey Island goes back over eight hundred years.
Thirty miles from London, reached by footbridge from the Berkshire village of Bray, Monkey Island’s first recorded inhabitants were a 12th century order of Augustinian monks. In 1723, the island was bought by the 3rd Duke of Marlborough, who turned it into a place of pure recreation.
Marlborough was responsible for the two fishing whimsical pavilions, built by Palladian architect Robert Morris. These lie at the heart of the new hotel, their original murals, one covered in singerie; monkeys aping human behaviour, the other with mermaids, have been painstakingly restored.
The islands within the Thames add to the river’s beguiling history. Photo credit: Steve Parsons/PA Images/Getty Images
As time went on, it became a place for 19th century Eton schoolboys to flash the cash, for royalty to picnic on and writers to escape to, including HG Wells and Rebecca West. There has always been a bohemian edge to its stucco buildings and lawns. In the 1960s Monkey Island became a royal party place, hosting Princess Margaret and her set.
Reached by footbridge from the village of Bray, Monkey Island covers just seven acres but now there is room for hives and smokehouses, just as the monks would have done. Due to open in June, Champalimaud Design, responsible for the Carlyle Hotel in New York and the Dorchester in London, has overseen the decor. The look will be restrained, with leather and almost a pared-down Art Deco feel to the rooms rather than country house pastiche that the Palladian-style architecture would suppose. With the small number of rooms and the extensive restoration needed, Monkey Island, has all the hallmarks of a passion project.