The gardens of the Monkey Island Estate on the River Thames in Bray
PUBLISHED: 00:00 28 February 2020
Naomi Slade speaks to Bradley Burgess of AV Design who created a new garden landscape for Monkey Island Estate in Bray.
There are not many occasions when a garden designer gets a whole island to play with, so it is fair to assume that when up-and-coming designer Bradley Burgess, of Dorking-based AV Designs, was offered the job of redeveloping the grounds of Monkey Island by luxury hotel group YTL, it must have been a pretty good day at work.
Located in the River Thames in Bray, the island has a rich and varied 800-year history. It has been the haunt of monks, royalty, aristocrats and a host of famous writers and performers. Even the neighbours are notable: the classic British science-fiction series Thunderbirds, featuring Tracy Island, was written in one of the cottages on the opposite bank, while Elgar composed music in the other.
Yet the estate had become neglected and presented Bradley with a blank canvas. "I had assumed that with a landscape of this significance there would be plenty of established trees and shrubs as a backdrop," he says. "But actually, other than a few walnut and chestnut trees, it was fairly barren."
The brief was a demanding one. "It has to look good from 360 degrees, 365 days of the year; all the time from every angle. And that is whether you arrive by boat, car or helicopter!" he laughs. And his solutions are varied with different forms of planting style in different places. Elegant prairie planting is underpinned with a core of rhododendrons to extend its season, while the planting around the Spa Barge incorporates herbs and medicinal plants to riff of the healing elements of the island's monastic past.
The needs of the guests are carefully considered too. The planting nearest the rooms, for example, is intentionally low-maintenance, to avoid unnecessary disturbance. Meanwhile, the avenue of hornbeams performs a dual function; breaking up the outline of the 1960s and '70s extensions to the main hotel building - areas that can't be screened with climbers as the entire structure is Grade I listed - and providing a good backdrop for photographs.
"Under the trees is a sea of white, blue and purple bulbs in spring, which gives over three months of ongoing impact," explains Bradley. "And, running down to the Pavilion, we went for block planting. There are a lot of weddings and I like to look at everything in frames and identify the money shot!"
But there were other challenges. The island is accessed by a small bridge and, with a restricted weight limit, the required 160 tonnes of topsoil had to be wheelbarrowed in, with heavier equipment arriving by barge. And the existing soil was interesting rather than actually fertile. "After the fire of London, a lot of waste was dredged out of the river and used to raise the ground level. Because of this, the soil is really mixed - you get clay, chalk and building rubble - it is like an archaeological dig!" reveals Bradley.
The results have been rewarding. Hotelier YTL was cautious about gardens, but the site has more than delivered on its promise.
"We did a lot of planting between September and November. At first, the hotel was a bit reluctant to give us free rein but when everything started to grow, the garden contributed hugely to the experience and it had an impact on the write-ups and reviews. I loved seeing the surprise on their faces when the vision was finally revealed!"
While Bradley, assisted by cocker spaniel Elliot, continues to maintain the garden, he also has plans for the future. Next up is the development of the kitchen garden, including beehives, chickens and a glasshouse. "I like the idea of vistas with natural grasses and mown paths," he says. "My imagination could run riot, but of course, the hotel has to like it too!"
Monkey Island Estate, Bray-on-Thames, Bray, Maidenhead, SL6 2EE; monkeyislandestate.co.uk
Contact Bradley Burgess at addingvaluedesign.com