Monkeying about on The Thames!
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Monkeying about on The Thames!

Louisa Walters has a relaxing time not far from home

Louisa Walters is a features writer

Floating spa
Floating spa

If I tell you about a beautiful island to escape to for a luxury break, you’ll assume it’s in the Caribbean and needs a 10-hour flight. Wrong! It’s only 40 miles away and you can be there in one hour.

Monkey Island is by the Thames in Bray (in fact it’s in the Thames!). Originally the haunt of angling monks in the 12th century (this is where the monkey name comes from), it was used as a fishing retreat by the third Duke of Marlborough (Winston Churchill’s great-great-great-great-grandfather) in the 1720s. The Duke’s white, stuccoed fishing temple and pavilion now form part of a beautiful, luxury hotel. Staying here means being on historic ground, as the island was reclaimed from flooding in 1666 when barges dumped rubble from the Great Fire of London.

A multi-million pound refurbishment by YTL hotels has resulted in a magnificent property with small but beautifully appointed art deco style bedrooms in the white-bricked pavilion and six cottages, three of which are in the village. Botanical wallapers make a striking statement in the communal areas and reflect the beautiful English country gardens. Food, drink and banqueting take place in the pavilion, with its panoramic terrace overlooking the river.

The bedrooms offer stunning views

It felt appropriate to choose the ‘View over the Thames’ cocktail at The Monkey Bar with gin, lavender and G&T foam, before heading into the restaurant for the tasting menu. The simplicity of the dishes, the beauty and freshness of the ingredients (many of them foraged on the island) means that this dining experience is a strong contender for best-in-town; when you consider that Bray has three Michelin-starred restaurants, this is a fine accolade indeed. Head chef William Hemming has been poached from Simpsons in the Strand and has installed kitchen gardens and a smokehouse, from which we enjoyed beautiful smoked salmon with goats’ cheese curd and delicately pickled cucumbers for a first course. Heritage tomatoes with feta and Bloody Mary sauce were bursting with sweetness and juice, while smoked pepper risotto with salsify packed a hearty flavour punch. Smoked haddock with colcannon mash was a gentle lead into a truly stunning lamb with dauphin potatoes (my favourite) and purple cauliflower. Making sure we enjoyed the very best of British, the chef then served the best (and I really do mean that) sticky toffee pudding I have ever had, with date puree and clotted cream ice-cream.

Whisky lovers will be tempted by the snug, a hidden gem of a room located at the top of a tower up a narrow winding staircase, devoted to Scotch. After a few wee drams, we wandered through the grounds to a handcrafted bespoke Shepherd’s Hut, where we sat by the Fire Pit and snuggled up with warm throws and a boozy hot chocolate while toasting marshmallows.

The View over the Thames cocktail

Breakfast the next morning was a treat. By now it was warm enough for the doors to the terrace to be opened while we enjoyed a small but beautifully presented buffet and eggs royale with eggs laid by the hotel’s own chickens just an hour earlier, and smoked salmon smoked in the hotel’s own smokehouse.

The buildings on the island are listed, meaning no extensions are allowed. This presented a quandary when it came to deciding where to house a spa. The Floating Spa – a bespoke barge moored on the banks of the Thames – is the ingenious solution. I was tempted by the Floating Massage, but opted for a Four Gems Graceful Ageing Facial. This was 90 minutes of pure pleasure, where crystal massage stones together with herbal and gemstone-infused oils left my skin cleansed and glowing.

In the 19th century boys  from nearby Eton drank at the pavilion on Monkey Island; today, you can’t help but look at each one and wonder if he’s a prime minister in the making.

 

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