Eel Pie Island has to be one of the most eccentric places around.
The intrigue is in the details: A cross dresser with red nail polish and a floral dress, a flower in his long grey hair.
A life sized doll in a cage, chains criss-crossing her back, a small lantern above her head.
A bush heavy with roses.
Small rusted bells hanging above a doorway.
Recycled boat gardens.
The combination of texture and colour that is just asking to be touched.
Abandoned sculptured at the edge of the woods.
The island is joined to the mainland by a footbridge which was built in 1957 – a private island of some 26 artist studios open to the public just two weekends per year for those whose curiosity drags them all the way to Twickenham.
Last weekend, one of the open weekends, my curiosity had its way and my friend Danny and I set out to explore.
My first visit to Eel Pie Island in 2010 was accidental. It was the result of game I used to play: choose a random bus route, get off somewhere semi-interesting looking, wander, take photos, discover. In this way, I found myself in Twickenham, facing a narrow crossing over the Thames.
I wandered over to Eel Pie Island, not having a clue what was on the other side. No one stopped me.
There was a stack of hand drawn paper maps somewhere along the way held down by a rock. I picked one up and kept going, winding through the lush greenery that lines the pathway through private cottages before you reach the studios.
The Love Shack showed up on my left with its giant alligator head attached to the front and a green building with very old advertisements for HMV and Wills’s Star Cigarettes.
It turned out on that first visit I had coincidently stumbled on one of the two open weekends held on the island each year.
I stepped gingerly over tools and shipping rope lying on the ground. The artist studios are at the edge of a working ship yard so there was plenty of stuff lying about. There were few other people then.
I poked my nose into studios, watching cartoonists, potters, ceramicists and painters.
But the best part about it was the colour.
London often features those typical grey skies, brown water of the Thames, brick or white identikit houses.
I purposely seek out art on the walls, street style and bursts of colour in market stalls filled with fresh strawberries and vibrant yellow flowers.
And then Eel Pie Island presented itself as a secret explosion of peeling rainbow paint, bright ribbons tied to old boats, tiles in shades of green and deep blue.
When I returned home after that first visit, I looked up the history of the island and that made it even more fascinating. Think Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, David Bowie.
The Eel Pie Hotel was, back in the 60s especially, an oasis of drinking, dancing, sex. Ballroom Dancing proceeded the jazz era which led up to the Mods followed by Rock and Roll. Blues had its time as well.
The island, peaceful and quite now, hides a wild history of music and vices.
As I quoted in my post from 2010 – In his memoir “Eel Pie Dharma” about his time on the island, Chris Faiers explained that after it closed down, the Eel Pie Hotel was briefly re-opened as Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden where Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd took to the stage. Then the squatters took over.
He wrote: “200 dossers, hippies, runaway school kids, drug dealers, petty thieves, heroin addicts, artists, poets, bikers, American hippy tourists, au pair girls and Zen philosophers from all over the world’, who consumed vast quantities of LSD and opened a sex room for orgies.”
It is nothing like that now.
Nevertheless, with fond memories I was excited to return after three years. I found that, in 2013, the island is very much the same as I remember, but the atmosphere was much different this time.
Much of the decor was unchanged or barely altered. This time, though, I wasn’t practically the only one around.
There were children’s rides set up across the river, carts selling crepes, burgers, pizza, sweets, jewellery. The pub was packed. People lined the river to watch impromptu boat races.
The maps were photocopied and in a plastic container asking that they please be returned.
There was a trampoline so kids could play. We weren’t alone walking that foliage lined pathway to the boatyard.
There were kids on scooters, parents pushing buggies. We didn’t go inside of many studios because they were too crowded.
They were even selling Pimms.
So the atmosphere of mystery it had the first time was lost.
But it was still interesting.
Still colourful. Still quirky and creative and inspiring.
We headed into Twickenham afterwards to have tea and a chat.
The shops, I noticed, have clever names, though the bookshop I had enjoyed the last time had since closed.
But there was Toe-Knees Shoe Repairs.
And Wake & Paine Funeral Directors.
After tea, we wandered into York Gardens, but that’s another post for another day!
Have you been to Eel Pie Island? What did you think?