No monkey business on this Malaysian-owned estate in London


A view of the luxurious Monkey Island Estate hotel in Berkshire, near London, which belongs to Malaysia’s YTL Group. — Photos: FLORENCE TEH

Barely an hour’s drive from Central London is Monkey Island. Yes, you read right. There is indeed a picturesque island on the river Thames in the village of Bray, Berkshire.

The reclusive residents there probably want to keep the place a secret, especially from tourists.

The Berkshire town is the place of choice for the country’s millionaires, and it boasts the highest percentage of rich people compared to anywhere else in Britain.

In fact, according to statistics, there are 8,000 people worth more than US$1mil (RM4.46mil) from the town’s population of 152,144.

With my curiosity piqued, I made an excursion to this little town, which constantly enchanted monarchs, aristocrats, artists and writers.

Also, how a Malaysian enterprise (the YTL Group) has managed to own a majestic hotel in an exclusive enclave of the richest in Britain is a marvel in itself.

But to answer the most frequently asked question – are there any monkeys there? – unfortunately, or fortunately, there are none.

According to one legend, the name was likely used because the island used to belong to monks from Merton Priory for over 200 years. It’s an Old English term: Monks Eyot (eyot meaning island).

The island was a source of fishing revenue, and the estate was passed down through several aristocrats. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, rubble from the capital’s rebuilding was transported by barges and strewn across parts of the island.

But more significantly, in 1738, Charles Spencer, the Third Duke of Marlborough bought the island, where he spent much of his time angling along the river.

He built a fishing lodge and fishing temple and called them the Pavilion and the Temple respectively.

But today, Monkey Island is Malaysian owned. In 2015, it was acquired by YTL Hotels and renamed Monkey Island Estate, and the new luxury hotel re-opened in 2019 with a 41 bedroom and suite spread.

I checked out the sprawling seven-acre estate in May, and it was certainly the best time because spring had just turned to summer.

It was still cool and breezy while hotel accommodation remained affordable, with plenty of rooms to spare. I timed my trip to coincide with this period.

The visit to London was my first in three years. My wife and I just wanted a laid-back holiday, where nothing was planned for our Monkey Island getaway because we merely wanted to enjoy the idyllic countryside at our lazy pace.

The writer enjoying some tea time snacks on the balcony of his room, which faces the river Thames.The writer enjoying some tea time snacks on the balcony of his room, which faces the river Thames.

The newbie Malaysian traveller to London, understandably, wants to go sight-seeing, take in West End shows and probably shop at Oxford Street, and maybe even at Bicester Village, too.

But we’ve done all that and with no interest in luxury goods, so we decided to pamper ourselves to a luxury stay by the Thames. And for me, it was simply so that I could spend some time reading.

One of the rooms at the hotel used to be the favourite of famous writer, H.G. Wells, who wrote many famous novels, including The Invisible Man and War Of The Worlds.

Naturally, no one could tell which room his was, but it was enough for my imagination to run wild and my creative mind to take over.

I had a room with a balcony overlooking the beautiful river, and what a joy it was to see most of the boat occupants waving at me when their watercraft passed by.

But we couldn’t resist arranging for a boat trip along the river and admire the riverside homes.

Many of the hotel guests, we were told, would always sign up for the trip to nearby Windsor Castle, which is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world.

The queen spends most of her private weekends at the castle, and even though Britain was celebrating her Platinum Jubilee when we were there, we declined the trip since the huge crowds at Windsor have always been daunting for us.

With Covid-19 still a concern (although under control now), many Britons nevertheless go about face-mask free, which horrified me.

Sure enough, like many Malaysians who had been infected in London, I thought “I kena, too” ... but the tests read negative twice. However, I was still coughing badly and developed chills when I travelled to the next destination.

We spent the mornings and afternoons taking leisurely strolls along the quiet woods at the estate, especially around the nearby lake, and just appreciating the creation of God.

A statue of the late YTL Group founder Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay on the grounds of the hotel.A statue of the late YTL Group founder Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay on the grounds of the hotel.

About a 25-minute walk from the hotel is Maidenhead, where the nearest rail station is located, as well as the Bray town centre. Well, to be precise, the village centre.

Here’s where you can find the world-famous Fat Duck fine-dining restaurant. Run by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, the Michelin-starred restaurant attracts guests from around the world. There are three other Michelin-starred eateries in the area.

The waiting period for Fat Duck is at least three months, I’m told, and those making bookings are required to place an immediate deposit.

The restaurant is famous for its “reconstructed food” with its 14-course tasting menu, which includes an Alice In Wonderland-inspired mock turtle soup and a bouillon packet made up of what looks like a watch dissolved in tea. And dessert comes in the form of an edible poker card.

Walking past the restaurant, we saw Chinese mainlanders waiting to be ushered in. They’re the ones with money.

For a more reasonable option, there is the nearby pub, Hind’s Head, also owned by Blumenthal, but serves regular food. And importantly, cold ice beer minus the judgmental expressions from pretentious patrons with overpriced bottles of wine on their tables.But the best part awaited me at the end of the trip, when I had my picture taken standing next to a large statue of the late Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay, the man who built the YTL Group.

Certainly, as a Malaysian, I feel extremely proud that this private island is now owned by a Malaysian group, despite being surrounded by the richest people in Britain, and an estate with a long history of ownership by British aristocrats.

Conquerors get conquered, too, I guess.

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