Eel Pie Island - fish, flints, fires, free love, the Floyd and such

Eel Pie Island is an intriguingly-named disruption to the River Thames about a mile downstream of Teddington Locks, and a mile north from the test pools for the bouncing bomb. The island is about 570m (just over one-third of a mile) long and 100m wide at its widest point, its thin lozenge bulk pointing north-east. It is served by a single footbridge which first connected it to Water Lane in Twickenham in 1957, and was replaced in 1998.

The riverbanks that surround it are dotted with a stately home, Ham House, a Polo ground, and a rifle range, a royal park and the beautiful riverside homes of suburban commuter-belt London. But the island itself has a slightly dishevelled counter-cultural edge to it, and is associated with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. And trad jazz.

Prehistory and History

There is evidence that the island was home to Mesolithic or Neolithic suburbanites; flint tools, axes and other ephemera have been found there and on the surrounding riverbed. In those days it may have been three or more smaller aits; the earliest map (Jean Rocque's of 1741) shows two aits side by side in Eel Pie's space. It was first recorded in a set of churchwarden's accounts in 1609 as the "Parish Ayte".

Despite being accessible only by boat in those days, it still supported a series of pubs, including The Ship (from at least 1737) and thereafter, the White Cross (from at least 1780). These venues probably catered for the important passing river trade. The White Cross was rebuilt in 1830 as a resort hotel for visitors and boating excursioners; it become known as the Eel Pie Hotel, and served food and drink in the dappled shade of oak trees. Naturally enough, the name came from the fresh pies made there. The name stuck, although within a few years industrialisation and pollution had reduced the eel catch to the point where the pies were no longer made.

Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby makes a mention of musical entertainments thus:

"Unto the Eel-Pie Island at Twickenham, there to make merry upon a cold collation, bottled beer, shrub, and shrimps, and to dance in the open air to the music of a locomotive band."

The Twickenham Rowing Club was established on the island in 1880; and it has since been joined by the Richmond Yacht Club.

Rock and roll connections

By the 1920s, Eel Pie Hotel was a well known as a ballroom dancing venue; the required boat trip probably adding to the romance of a night out there. But ballroom dancing didn't really survive the war as a mass-market activity. The hotel moved to Jazz as an attraction in 1956, under the auspices of junkshop-keeper Arthur Chisnall. He didn't do it half-assed, and over the years established a great reputation for live music. George Melly, Acker Bilk, Ken Colyer, Kenny Ball, pre-Steam Packet Rod Stewart and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers (ft. Eric Clapton) all played there. All of these international superstars and their instruments were pulled across the straights in a little punt on the end of a chain.

An early taste of free love was enjoyed by the revellers at these gigs. Time Out magazine quoted Trevor Baylis, "It was wild. If you wanted to pull a bit of crumpet, this was where you came. It was so decadent it was unreal. [...] We all had to go to the clinic on the Monday!". The moral climate of this isolated venue was lowered further by the secluded alcoves around the dancefloor. The bridge to the mainland opened in 1957, easing the punters' journeys.

Musical tastes continued to evolve and the 1960s also saw performances by The Who, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, David Jones (the larval-form of David Bowie), Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds. By now the music venue was a club with a membership card called the Eel Pie Passport. Doctor Who may have heard these shows, in the form of island resident William Hartnell. The large crowds must have been taking their toll, because by 1967, the place had become dangerously dilapidated and was closed at police insistence in 1967.

It was squatted by musical promoters with slightly more outre tastes, and this incarnation, called Colonel Barefoot's Rock Garden, enjoyed the strains of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. The squat attracted tenants from all over- artists, junkies, poets, thieves, bikers, hippies- all cheerfully dropping LSD and enjoying themselves in the sex room. It was eventually destroyed by fire during its demolition (!) in 1971.

Pete Townsend obviously remembers his performances there fondly, his recording studio and record label are called Eel Pie Studios and Eel Pie Records, although they are on the mainland in Twickenham.

Eel Pie Island Today

Eel Pie is home to inventor Trevor Baylis and The Mystery Jets; they both fit in there; but the 120 or so locals reportedly exhibit a mix of open-mindedness and faint hostility to mainlanders. Some buildings flood fairly often, as the Thames is tidal in this stretch. Baylis reports attending a party wearing his wetsuit. Many of the homes are ramshackle home-made(?) affairs, although there are modern flats there too- called Aquarius. Several architects live in outlandish self-designed residences. There are artists and sculptors' studios. Many houses are brightly-painted wooden affairs with tin roofs.

The current residents are not keen to revive the musical tradition, and firmly rejected The Mystery Jets' plans for an Eel Pie Festival; although there are regular al fresco film screenings and a real sense of community. Blow-ins from the outside world will probably not be entirely welcome; as Danny Wallace discovered when he tried to establish a micronation there in 2005. A dramatic fire destroyed the old boatyard (which used to supply the Oxford and Cambridge Crews) in 1996. A new housing development will shortly replace the old boat yard, so perhpas gentrification is on the cards.

The Thames is now cleaner than it was in Victorian times- and if salmon and trout can be found once again- perhaps someone will think to catch eels and make pies on Eel Pie Island once more?

Sources:

  • Google Maps: link
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eel_Pie_Island
  • http://www.twickenham-museum.org.uk/detail.asp?ContentID=213
  • http://www.timeout.com/london/features/267/1.html
  • http://www.rjsj.demon.co.uk/articles/sundaytimes/eelpie.htm
  • http://www.eelpie.com/

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