ROWERS AT THE 2012 Olympics would have become familiar with Dorney Lake. Built at great expense by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s alma-mater, Eton College, this 1.4-mile-long waterway, a rowing lake, was ready for use by 2006. From the air, it looks like a long, wide airport runway filled with water. Prior to 2012, it was used for several international rowing competitions. In 2012, the lake was the site of both the Olympic and the Summer Paralympics. The lake continues to be used for rowing and members of public are allowed to use the parkland surrounding it when events are not taking place.
We reached the outer fence of the rowing lake after crossing the elegant Summerleaze footbridge across the River Thames. It allows cyclists and pedestrians to travel between Bray (Berkshire) and Dorney (Buckinghamshire). The bridge takes its name from the company that built it in 1996. It was constructed originally to carry a gravel conveyor belt, which transported gravel from the construction site of the Dorney Lake across the river to the Summerleaze company’s gravel pits next to Monkey Island near to the village of Bray.
The view from the top of the footbridge is magical. The Thames flows briskly beneath it. Upstream the water flows around Monkey Island. Then it travels as a single stream beneath the bridge before being divided into two streams by another island a few yards downstream, Queen’s Eyot. On the chilly Saturday afternoon, when we crossed the bridge, several small cruisers and canoeists passed beneath us. If you are lucky, and we were, you can see the towers and turrets of Windsor Castle in the distance on the south-eastern horizon.
Looking upstream and through the trees on Monkey Island, you can catch a glimpse of part of the Monkey Island Estate, currently a grand hotel built in and around a house with a fascinating history (www.monkeyislandestate.co.uk/pages/our-story.html). Many people assume that Monkey Island is so-called because of the paintings of monkeys in one of the buildings on the island, but this is probably erroneous. The name is most likely derived from the island’s earlier name ‘Monk’s Eyot’. The monks lived in Amersden Bank near Bray Lock on the Buckinghamshire side of the Thames. Their monastery, a cell of Merton Priory, was in existence by 1187, but was dissolved when Henry VIII put an end to such establishments.
The Great Fire of London of 1666 gave the area around Monkey Island a particular importance. For it was from here that Berkshire stone (for details, see: http://hanneyhistory.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Berkshire_Building_Stone_Atlas.pdf) was shipped down river to aid the reconstruction of London. Gravel from the damaged city was brought back upriver and dumped on and around Monkey Island. This resulted in both raising the level of the island to above flood level and providing a solid foundation upon which to construct buildings. Well, getting to know this was alone a good consequence of having crossed the Summerleaze bridge, but wait, there is more to follow.
An ancestor of the wartime Prime Minister, Winston Spencer Churchill, Charles Spencer, the 3rd Duke of Marlborough (1706-1758), purchased the island in about 1723. He had:
“…seen the property whilst attending meetings of the notorious Kit-Kat Club at nearby Down Place in Water Oakley. The Club which met from 1720 purported to be a gathering of ‘men of wit and pleasure about town’ but beneath a facade of joviality had more sinister objectives concerned with the defence of the House of Hanover.” (www.berkshirehistory.com/castles/monkey_island.html).
The Kit Kat Club, about which I have written before (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/11/29/kit-kat-in-hampstead/) also used to meet at the Upper Flask pub in Hampstead Village.
The Duke had two buildings constructed on his recent purchase: a ‘fishing temple’ and a ‘fishing lodge’. The latter, constructed from wooden blocks that were cut to look like stone, still stands and is known as The Pavilion. Lady Hertford (1699-1754), Frances Seymour, later the Duchess of Somerset, writing in 1738, described the Pavilion as follows:
“He has a small house upon it, whose outside represents a farm – the inside what you please: for the parlour, which is the only room in it except the kitchen, is painted upon the ceiling in grotesque, with monkeys fishing, shooting etc., and its sides are hung with paper.”
The Monkey paintings, which still exist, were the work of a French artist Andien de Clermont (died 1783), who worked in England between about 1716 and 1756. Painted before 1738, they decorated the ceiling of what was once a banqueting room. It is now known as the ‘Monkey Room’.
By about 1840, the pavilion had become an inn, which could be reached by ferry from near Bray on the Berkshire side of the Thames. The hostelry became quite popular during the early 20th century, when its regular guests included King Edward VII and his immediate family. The authors HG Wells and Rebecca West enjoyed visiting the place. West makes many references to the island in her novel “The Return of the Soldier” (published in 1918). Here is an excerpt:
“So they went to Monkey Island, the utter difference of which was a healing, and settled down happily in its green silence. All the summer was lovely; quiet, kind people, schoolmasters who fished, men who wrote books, married couples who still loved solitude, used to come and stay in the bright little inn.”
In 1956, a footbridge was built from the Berkshire shore to the island. Additional accommodation was added to the original Pavilion in 1963 and then the inn became known as the ‘Monkey Island Hotel’. After a brief period of decline in the early 1980s, the hotel was restored and has become a successful luxury destination with a fine restaurant, which we have yet to sample.
Our friend who lives in Bray kindly introduced us to the Summerleaze footbridge from where we glimpsed the building on Monkey Island. She suspected that the place had an interesting history, and she was quite right. I will leave you with one more quote from Rebecca West’s novel, one which captured the atmosphere of the place well both when she wrote and today:
“…a private road that followed a line of noble poplars down to the ferry. Between two of them—he described it meticulously, as though it were of immense significance—there stood a white hawthorn. In front were the dark-green, glassy waters of an unvisited back-water, and beyond them a bright lawn set with many walnut-trees and a few great chestnuts, well lighted with their candles, and to the left of that a low, white house with a green dome rising in its middle, and a veranda with a roof of hammered iron that had gone verdigris-color with age and the Thames weather. This was the Monkey Island Inn. The third Duke of Marlborough had built it for a “folly,” and perching there with nothing but a line of walnut-trees and a fringe of lawn between it and the fast, full, shining Thames, it had an eighteenth-century grace and silliness.”