40 years on from my disastrous wedding night, I've found there is much to love about Monkey Island

Fiona Duncan
Her wedding night didn’t exactly get off to a swinging start here, but four decades later Fiona Duncan at last finds romance at Monkey Island

I’ve been here before... just once, for one night, nearly 41 years ago. It had been a trying day. I remember my little cousin asking why I was dressed in a nightie as I descended the stairs and was handed my bouquet. She was a blunt kid. “I can see that you’d like to get married,” she had pronounced earlier, “but why him?”

I remember the vintage car that belonged to my lovely friend Ricky breaking down as he drove us from the church. In front of everyone, we had to disembark and get into the family car, with my father, white-knuckle furious, at the wheel (“I told you he was an idiot”).

And I remember the speeches. My elderly godfather had to be physically removed mid-interminable oration because 300 people had fallen asleep on their feet. The miserable sinking feeling as I stood awkwardly by the wedding cake in my vintage dress (my cousin was right, it looked like a nightie) and surveyed their glum faces still haunts me.

After what seemed like an eternity, it was time to get changed and “go away”. Someone had decorated our car with “just married” slogans and tin cans on string and in this we set off for our wedding night at Monkey Island, a few miles away. 

The Wedgewood Suite, its original plasterwork ceiling resplendent with shells, mermaids and dolphins, is rather like a wedding cake

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We reached Bray, then got terribly lost and had a row. Dinner was a disappointment (Monkey Island was in decline by the late Seventies) and we both felt deflated. There was a bottle of champagne in our room. I drank it and, while my new husband slept, I phoned my mother in a whisper and sobbed silently into my pillow. It was obvious I had made a terrible mistake.

Monkey Island probably got its name from 12th-century monks who fished here, and it was certainly raised up and given a solid base with rubble from the 1666 Great Fire of London. In 1723, the Duke of Marlborough bought the fish-shaped island as a fishing retreat, and it was he who built the Palladian Grade I-listed Temple and Pavilion that stand today.

Attached to the Temple are the hotel’s now luxurious bedrooms (there are other Barn rooms and cottages for groups on the mainland river bank) and on the first floor of the Temple itself is the marvellous, light-filled Wedgewood Suite, whose original plasterwork ceiling, resplendent with shells, mermaids and dolphins, is rather like a wedding cake. If we’d stayed here on our wedding night I might not have been such a pain. With windows on all sides, the walls are panelled in oak and above the mantelpiece is a portrait of the Duke of Marlborough at Monkey Island. It’s one of the most memorable rooms I’ve ever slept in.

No less memorable is the Pavilion’s Monkey Room, now the bar, its ceiling painted in fashionable 18th-century singerie: scenes of monkeys acting as humans, here fishing and shooting. Attached to the Pavilion is the hotel’s low-ceilinged, open-kitchen restaurant and bar, with a lovely terrace overlooking the river.

In the Monkey Room bar, the ceiling is painted in fashionable 18th-century singerie, depicting scenes of monkeys acting as humans

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In the late 19th century, Monkey Island became an inn and a popular lunch spot. Visitors included Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, Dames Clara Butt and Nellie Melba, Edward Elgar, who composed his Violin Concerto here, and H G Wells and Rebecca West, whose first novel, The Return of the Soldier, is partly set on Monkey Island. When music- and fun-loving Kit and Maggie Reynolds bought the estate in the Sixties, it had another heyday: now Princess Margaret, scores of parents of pupils at nearby Eton, and plenty of well-known names strolled across the footbridge.

And then decline set in. But Monkey Island was to be rescued by the modern equivalent of an 18th-century duke: a billionaire businessman.

Malaysian Yeoh Tiong Lay – owner of about 35 hotels worldwide, including the Gainsborough in Bath, through the YTL hotel arm of his global conglomerate – saw Monkey Island, fell for it and decided it had to join the collection. He died in 2017, but a (very large) statue of him seated under a tree in the garden reminds us of the estate’s latest owner.

Millions, needless to say, have been spent on the latest incarnation. This small, 41-bedroom, quirky property has acquired a big-brand feel. It has all the ingredients of a grand hotel, in miniature: notably good (sensible, British, full of flavour) food from William Hemming, ex-head chef of Simpsons in the Strand, polished and professional key staff and glossy interiors from New York-based Champalimaud Design. “We wanted to give the hotel a sense of place,” I was told by one of their team.

The restaurant serves flavoursome British fare from William Hemming, ex-head chef of Simpsons in the Strand

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They haven’t. Surveying the swanky furnishings, I reckon I could be anywhere in the world, and can’t help wishing that the Pigs’ Robin Hutson, Olga Polizzi, who created Endsleigh, or a similarly imaginative independent hotelier had got their hands on Monkey Island. This version is classy all right, but it does not reflect the quirky character of the property.

But there’s still magic here. The snow-white buildings sparkle, the grounds are filled with walnuts, chestnuts, limes, shrubs, flowers and lawns, and the gentle Thames provides constantly changing interest. A really wonderful addition is the Floating Spa, in a specially built riverboat moored along the bank. The treatment rooms are in cabins, the therapists wear nautical outfits and the whole “spa journey”, using tinctures and liqueurs once made by monks, is a soothing, unusual, unpretentious delight.

It’s the sense of peace that’s so alluring at Monkey Island, despite the undeniable sound of the M4 in the background (pretend it’s a rushing river: it works). My companion felt it too, and what a romantic time we’d just had. After a sunset cruise on a vintage-style launch, sipping Chablis and spotting kingfishers with delightful skipper Tom, and a delicious dinner in the Brasserie, we were shown to a shepherd’s hut where, wrapped in rugs, we drank hot chocolate laced with gin and toasted marshmallows over the fire pit under the stars. Then we disappeared into the lovely Wedgewood Suite.

Reader, it was the same bloke. The morning after our awful wedding, we set off for a trekking honeymoon in Nepal. A life full of ups and downs, happy times and challenging times, for richer for poorer, began here, shared by two. Only on this visit to Monkey Island I didn’t sob into my pillow – I rejoiced in my good fortune.

Fiona Duncan and her husband at Monkey Island, 41 years after their honeymoon there

Monkey Island Estate, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2EE. Doubles from £325, with breakfast. Wheelchair access possible (01628 623400, monkeyislandestate.co.uk).