Do you know what an eyot is? (Also known as an ait). Well, it's the name given to those funny little islands you often find lurking in the River Thames. Some are very small and are only inhabited by ducks and other wildlife. However, if you venture to Twickenham, there is a very large eyot, otherwise known as Eel Pie Island. Not only does it have a fantastic name, but it's hard to believe that this peaceful floating gem used to be a gig venue for some of the most successful rockstars of the 1960's.
Eel Pie Island is privately owned and only accessible by footbridge. These days it is made up of a handful of private residences, all with enviable positions backing onto the river. The Twickenham Rowing Club is also here, and is one of the oldest clubs on the Thames. There is also a fantastic working boatyard on the island which not only does boat things, but is home to 26 artists' studios. Artists who specialise in all sorts of mediums including glasswear, ceramics, mosaics, printmaking, jewellery, photography and sculpture.
Twice a year, these studios open up to the public for an open day weekend, where visitors can wander around, engage with the artists, see their work in progress and have a chance to buy it, or even commission it. In fact, you may have heard of Trevor Baylis OBE, the English inventor who became well known for inventing the wind-up radio to help broadcast communication about AIDS to people in Africa. He's been living on Eel Pie Island for years and used to have one of the studios where he would create his inventions.
There used to be a legendary hotel on the island, the Eel Pie Hotel, which hosted ballroom and tea dancing back in the 1920's. Then in the 1950's it became more of an influential jazz venue with everyone rocking to rhythm and blues. Its heyday was the 1960's when a lot of fledgling artists performed here, before going onto superstardom. We're talking Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Jimmy Page and The Who, to name a few. Phew! Sadly the hotel was forced to close in 1967 as the owner couldn't afford to pay for the necessary repairs. By now the run down hotel was occupied by anarchists and then became a hippie commune until it mysteriously burnt down in 1971.
There's something quite mysterious about Eel Pie Island. I used to go wandering around there in the 1990's and remember one of the residential gardens was very strange as it was in 'bloom' all year round as the owner had tied hundreds of colourful artificial flowers to the trees and bushes. Not only that, but they'd planted loads of eerie looking dolls heads in neat rows. Creatively spooky! To be honest, unless it's the artists' open day weekend, or you happen to know someone who lives on the island, there is very little to see there these days.
As it was the open day this weekend (and next), I ventured there for the first time in years and it hasn't changed a bit, (although the garden of dolls' heads has gone). I took my cousin and we crossed the footbridge, meandered along the footpath until we hit the big blue doors of the boatyard and stepped into the enchanting world of the artists' studios, located in various dwellings including huts, sheds and derelict boats. The artists were friendly and welcoming, discussing their work and enlightening us about life on the island. We found a stall selling Pimms, and as the sun made a rare appearance, it really did feel as if we'd found a secret pocket of summer. There is such a great sense of community and creativity, I would love to have a chance to experience a summer's evening on the island, when all the artists, boat workers and residents get together for a barbeque, singing around a camp fire, with fairylights in the trees and the moon reflecting on the river. Well that's how I imagine it to be anyway...
But Eel Pie Island isn't the only lovely place you'll find in this neck of the woods. Once back on the mainland, you can amble along the riverbank and immediately stumble upon York House and its beautiful Italian water garden. Stunning statues of nymphs, winged horses and naked ladies, perched around the pond of water lillies below. It really is lovely and most unexpected. As you carry on walking along, under the pretty bridge which leads to the gardens, you soon arrive at a fantastic pub, The White Swan. This is a perfect riverside boozer full of character (and characters), and a great place for a spot of lunch and a few jars.
Further along is the English Heritage-owned Marble Hill house which was apparently built for Henrietta Howard, the mistress of King George II. She was one lucky mistress! Just by the river here, you can take a Hammerton's ferry across to Ham House and Petersham. Which is exactly what we did and continued our walk along the other side of the river towards Petersham Nurseries. The perfect place for posh nosh, tea, cakes and pot plants. And as you've walked that far, you may as well complete your journey by walking the final leg to Richmond. Or of course carry on as far as the river towpath takes you. If you get a chance, I highly recommend you head to Eel Pie Island next weekend for the final artists' open day of 2012. Otherwise, there's always next year.
2012 Open Day weekend: Sat 30 June & Sun 1st July 11am - 6pm (cash/cheques only)
Eel Pie Island
Check Eel Pie Artists' website for future open day infoTwickenham station (10 min walk)