In deepest Twickenham, along the muddy Thames, you’ll find a narrow, faded-green footbridge that leads to a magical world called Eel Pie Island. A private and traffic-free working boatyard, it is filled with artist studios, rock and roll history and plenty of eccentricities.
My first visit happened by chance in 2010. As a way of discovering London’s different neighbourhoods, I used to choose a bus route at random and jump off wherever looked interesting. A place with the name of Eel Pie Island certainly sounds intriguing.
Of course a bridge with a large “private” sign at the other end was enticing as well. I walked over. There was a stack of hand drawn maps weighted down by a rock, so I took one and went off to explore. Little did I know at the time, I had coincidently stumbled upon this crazy place on one of a few open artist studio weekends that are held each year.
My next visit was in 2013 and better planned. On that adventure, I went with a friend and we also discovered nearby York House Gardens.
This month I made my third visit to the island. I woke up one Sunday when Jorge was working. The weather was decent. I had no plans and a whole day ahead – what better than that? I thought of Eel Pie Island and decided to check when the next open studio weekend was happening. As luck would have it, it was that very day.
There were no hand drawn maps at the other side of the bridge this time, but much of the experience remained the same. The path leading inland is still lush and leafy with the island’s few cottages tucked away behind front gates and colourful gardens, some of them with enviable riverside views. The Love Shack still stands.
There’s still evidence of the island’s musical past in the old HMV signs on the Lion Boathouse. It was the legendary Eel Pie Island Hotel that the scene revolved around. In the 20s and 30s, it hosted ballroom dancing sessions. In the 50s, the focus turned to jazz. The 60s brought the rock n’ rollers whose rowdy antics eventually caused so much damage that the hotel was forced to close. In 1970, it became the UK’s largest hippie commune. And finally, in 1971, the hotel burned down in a mysterious fire.
A lot of famous names pop up in talk of the island: John Mayall, Mick Jagger and the rest of the Rolling Stones, Cyril Davies, Eric Clapton, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Mystery Jets, the original actor William Hartnell from Dr. Who who used to live there, Genesis, Hawkwind, Black Sabbath and many others.
Even before all of that, it’s said that Charles Dickens used to enjoy the occasional beer on the island and that Henry VIII would pop over to dine on eel pies en route to entertain his mistress.
Now, you walk on past the cosy residential cottages and you’ll see a path to the left that leads to the Twickenham Rowing Club or you can head straight on into the area where the studios are located. You’ll walk past the rusty chains, scrap metal and shipyard machinery where the Old London boat is docked.
From there, evidence of creativity is everywhere you look. I chatted with a few of the artists including one who was sitting outside (and I wish I had written down their names, so if anyone knows from the photos, please comment!) working on a new piece and another whose studio I went inside. She showed me the plaster cast masks she had made with a friend, her kiln and some of the sculpture pieces in progress. Both artists live nearby and this, for them, is a hobby.
Later on, I also spoke to the talented Ann Bubis about her upcoming exhibition in New York next year and about how she breaks the plates, glasses and teapots she finds or is given (carefully, but by chance, with a hammer in a plastic bag) in order to create her immaculate mosaic artworks that are inspired by Gaudi but with a British flair. Ann also lives nearby in Twickenham and walks over to the island to work within this welcoming and supportive community.
I learned a bit more about Ann than the others. She’s an established and accomplished artist, having won many awards and exhibited widely throughout the years. She also paints, makes jewellery and creates sculptures (one of which was displayed in the foyer of the V&A). Her career history includes working as a teacher and as an animator (during which time her work won two golds at the New York Film Festival).
Keeping with the theme of the island, outside of Ann’s studio is a bright orange vintage telephone, various old records dotted around, some darts stuck into the outer wall and a number of other oddities.
Further down the path, I came across what I think might be a Banksy rat that I hadn’t noticed before. (Anyone know if it’s real and how long it’s been there?) Some of the mannequins from my original 2010 trip were still there, now holding bottles of champagne, propped up on a graffiti-covered bench or wearing someone’s abandoned clothes.
There’s a peaceful nook in a circle of trees where a Buddha sits surrounded by candles. Plants sprout from a line of plastic pots. It is also presumably a dining area as there’s a rusty grill and some numbered table markers sitting to the side.
At the very end of the island, neat rows of keys hung from a green wall and there was a view over the Thames where rowers sliced their way through the water. I made friends with an island cat who came running over meowing and followed me around for a while.
Eventually, I crossed back over, stopping to check out a wall of bird and bee houses at the end of the bridge. And then I headed back along the river to walk through the market stalls in Twickenham and pay a little visit to the lovely York House Gardens.
My favourite part of the gardens is the fountain where Italian white marble sculptures representing the sea nymphs of Greek Mythology lounge about the rocks, interacting with each other and their environment.
The sign nearby explains: “These sculptures were brought to England to adorn the Surrey property of the financier Whitaker Wright, but were dispersed when in 1904 he was found guilty of fraud and unexpectedly died.” The statues made it to Twickenham in 1909 and were restored most recently in 2007 with the intention to keep them permanently as part of the park.
It’s a peaceful place that sits at the end of a large green space sectioned in by scrubs and lined with benches, the occasional family or dog wandering through.
Keep an eye on the Eel Pie Island website for their next open studios weekend. I believe they usually have one around the Christmas holidays as well as during the summer. It’s worth a visit, as is York House Gardens if you’re in the area. If you’re interested in some photos from the “good old days”, I love this post from Messy Nessy Chic. There’s also lots of brilliant comments, photos and other info about Eel Pie Island over on eelpie.org if you want to dig even deeper into the history of this fascinating place.
- Can I have one of these in the garden please?
- I finally bought a blender, so I think this book would make a nice accompaniment!
- Nearing the end of this book right now. It’s very intense, but very good.
- Love the length of this shirt and its frayed edges and the fact that it’s on sale.
- Check out my newest prints on Etsy!
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