Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Lair of the Monkey

It is intriguing to note that several stretches of canal and certain waterways within the British Isles have curious folk-tales attached to them that are inextricably linked with both monkeys and bridges.

For example, the village of Defford, Worcestershire, is home to a pub called the Cider House. One of the very few still-existing traditional cider houses in England, it has been in the same family for a century and a half, and visitors to the Cider House will find their drinks served to them in quaint pottery mugs, and amid a welcome atmosphere that harks back to a time long gone. More notable is the fact that for the locals that frequent the Cider House, it has a distinctly different moniker: namely, the Monkey House.

So the legend goes, many years ago, a regular customer charged breathlessly into the pub late one night, claiming to have fallen into dense bramble bushes, after being attacked by…a group of monkeys. Notably, the village of Defford is situated close to Eckington, whose historic Eckington Bridge spans the River Avon.

Then there is the intriguingly named Monkey Marsh Lock. Situated on the Kennet and Avon Canal, it weaves its way through the Thames and the River Avon, and links the city of London with the British Channel. It is scheduled to be designated as an ancient monument and it is one of the only-two-remaining turf-sided locks in England of the type that were chiefly used in the early 1700s. Needless to say, the origins of the lock’s admittedly eye-opening name remain shrouded in mystery.

And what of the so-called Monkey Island-Isleworth Canal Project of 1793? An ambitious plan first proposed in 1770 (but ultimately never brought to successful fruition) it was designed to link Maidenhead and Isleworth via a planned stretch of canal that would by-pass the River Thames. Monkey Island is a story in itself. The island is a small piece of land on the Thames that can be found near to the Berkshire village of Bray. Its name is actually derived from the Old English term: Monks Eyot – meaning Monks’ Island, and was specifically named after a group of monks that resided at Amerden Bank, which is situated near to Bray Lock on the Buckinghamshire banks of the river.

In the early 1720s, the island came into the possession of the third Duke of Marlborough, Charles Spencer, and who duly oversaw the construction of a fishing lodge and temple. Monkey Island Lodge (which today still stands – but as a pavilion) was built completely out of wood. Notably, the artist Andieu de Clermont was asked to provide the Lodge with his own unique brand of paintwork – and he most certainly did so: "grotesque gentleman monkeys," engaged in scenes of fishing, boating and shooting adorned a small room in the Lodge, and can still be seen there to this day.

In 1738, Lady Hertford described Monkey Island Lodge thus: "[It] 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. When a person sits in this room he cannot see the water though the island is not above a stone’s cast over; nor is he prevented from this by shade; for, except for six or eight walnut trees and a few orange trees in tubs there is not a leaf upon the island; it arises entirely from the river running very much below its banks."

Roughly a century later, the Lodge had become a river-side inn, accessible only by ferry; that is until 1956, when a foot-bridge was finally built. And although the island’s curious name seems to have wholly down-to-earth origins, it is intriguing to note that, once again, here is yet a locale in the British Isles linked with canals, bridges and "grotesque monkeys."


The Strangest Pubs in Britain: Seeing is Believing, written and published by Strangest Books, 2002;

For more data on Monkey Island, see:

For more data on Monkey Marsh Lock, see:

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