Eel Pie Island – Twickenham’s Eclectic Artistic Enclave.
Did you know there are around 180 islands and islets in the Thames? A quarter of these are man-made, and associated with locks, but most of the rest are natural. While not even approaching the size of the comparatively behemothic Isle of Sheppey (23,000 acres), the 9-acre Eel Pie Island in London’s Twickenham district is still one of the larger islands on the Thames and has a rich musical and artistic history which continues to this day and makes it an interesting place to visit on special ‘Open Day’ weekends each year.
Eel Pie Island, supposedly named for the pies served here to visiting tourists in the 1800s, was the home for what became the infamous Eel Pie Island Hotel. This hotel, built in 1830, was originally a popular stopping point for users of leisure craft on the river, and pleasure steamers and other boats would discharge passengers to take tea at the hotel or on its lawn. The hotel began holding tea dances in the 1920s, and this marked the start of its life as a music venue. By the 1950s the hotel had become dilapidated, but, with it’s large dance hall and licensed bar it caught the eye of an enterprising second-hand goods seller and entrepreneur called Arthur Chisnall, who established a weekend jazz club there which played host to jazz greats such as Acker Bilk, Ken Colyer and George Melly.
Although, or perhaps because, it could only originally be reached by boat, the club grew in popularity especially among local youth, and the musical billing shifted to bands from the emerging rhythm & blues and rock and roll scene. In the 60s, remarkably, Cyril Davies’s All Stars, Long John Baldry and the Hoochie Coochie Men (including Rod Stewart), the Rolling Stones, and the Who all performed here, as well as Pink Floyd, Cream, David Bowie and Eric Clapton.
In 1967 the authorities insisted on safety repairs to the hotel which its owner was unable to afford, and the hotel closed. There was a brief respite in 1969 when a second musical entrepreneur rented the building and relaunched gigs under the moniker ‘Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden’ under which guise played further bands including Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and, in an early incarnation, Genesis. The events, and the island itself were by now beginning to attract increasing numbers of people attracted to an ‘alternative’ lifestyle and the hotel became home to a commune of squatters which expanded to a reported 100 members – the largest such group in the UK. One member of this group, quoted in The British Beat Explosion: Rock ‘n’ Roll Island, a book on the island’s musical history, described the commune as consisting of “Dossers, hippies, runaway school kids, drug dealers, petty thieves, heroin addicts, artists, poets, bikers, American hippie tourists, au pair girls and Zen philosophers from all over the world.” By 1970 however, with demolition due to its condition already on the horizon, the hotel burned down, more or less bringing the island’s remarkable musical history to a close.
Today, Eel Pie Island is populated by around 50 residential dwellings, two boatyards, a rowing club, a yacht club and, in some ways continuing the island’s cultural heritage, a community of around twenty artists. The northern and southern ends of the islands are wooded and designated as nature conservation areas. From the (mainland) south side of the river, walkers can stop and watch sand martins dive in and out of an artificial nesting bank that has been built on the upstream tip of the island to replace natural sites lost to erosion and development. The more interesting views of the island are from the Twickenham side, as, despite interest from developers to repurpose the land for offices and housing, Eel Pie Island retains working boat yards providing repairs and maintenance, dry docks and mooring facilities. The activity at the yards and the passing boats can be observed by walkers from the riverside paths and the Twickenham Embankment which lie on the north side of a 40-metre channel that separates the river from that side of the island.
The island is only accessible via a footbridge, installed in 1957. The original two-pence toll is no longer levied but visitors are greeted by a somewhat forbidding sign on the island side stating: “Private Island – No Thoroughfare”. Nevertheless, there is nothing to prevent the unabashed interested walker proceeding further along the footpath which runs for a few hundred meters along the centre of the island. Most days of the year all you are usually likely to see is the fronts of some of the various houses or cottages (admittedly some of them quite quirky), locked gates obscuring other residences, or a larger set of closed doors to the Eel Pie Island Boatyard. However, twice a year there is a much more interesting opportunity to visit the island when its artist community opens up the normally private studios and invites visitors to an “Open Studios Weekend”, usually in June/July and December. Most of these artists are based in and around the boatyard itself (interesting to see inside in its own right) where they rent small studios and workshops, and access is made available on these weekends through the boatyard entrance to the outdoor studios area where visitors will encounter all manner of painting, sculpture, ceramics and other art intermingled with boat paraphernalia and cats!