Victorian times collides with the modern world the other day when I was walking around Elephant and Castle toward the Imperial War Museum and saw this lovely horse-drawn funeral carriage standing in the bus lane…Reminded me of the photo Maggie Jones shared in her Art Spot interview. Here’s a view of the bus lane horses from the side.
If you take a short ride on the R68 bus from Richmond, alight at King Street and turn the corner, you’ll come to a narrow footbridge arching over the Thames. This leads to the magical and eccentric Eel Pie Island with an off-beat name just right for its off-beat story.
This mysterious little slice of traffic-free land has a musical history that tosses about names like John Mayall, Mick Jagger, Cyril Davies, Eric Clapton, David Bowie. Even before their time, Charles Dickens was said to enjoy a beer over that bridge and Henry VIII was rumoured to pop by the island to fill his stomach with eel pies on his way to entertain his mistresses.
The island’s Eel Pie Hotel became the phenomenon that started it all with hundreds of revellers flooding the island to see The Who or The Stones in the hotel, to drink, dance, get high, sleep around. It started with ballroom dancing, progressed to jazz followed by the Mods and rock ‘n’ roll. Eventually, when the party scene got out of control, a mysterious fire burned the hotel to the ground.
In his memoir “Eel Pie Dharma” about his time on the island, Chris Faiers explained that the site 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. “200 dossers, hippies, runaway schoolkids, 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”, he wrote.
Of course, that has all has changed now. The island has calmed down and is home to a mixed and creative group of just over 100 people. Some are retirees who live in sweet little cottages near the water.
Over 20 artists live and work in studios further down the island and there’s another group who work in the shipyard.
Twice a year Eel Pie Island welcomes the public to visit the artists in their studios. Last weekend was one of those times so I went to explore.
Crossing the footbridge, I was already in another world. I picked up a hand drawn map pointing out the studios from a stack of papers weighed down by a smooth rock and started walking down a winding path. Lush shrubs and flowers formed the edges of the pathway which was empty besides the occasional dog-walker.
The first obvious sign of what was to come was the Love Shack, with colourful tiled front steps and an alligator on the front of the house about to eat a dangling gnome.
There was a sign nearby on a tree that said “Wrong Day, Go Back”. I walked on.
A green shed with old advertisements for Star Cigarettes, HMV and Punch stood next to a similar building called The Lion Boathouse.
The most eccentric part of the island was the artist’s community – an organised mess of colourful painted shacks, sheds and old boats where these people live and work. Barbie doll head on the ground, skeleton dangling in a cage outside a house, a broken kitchen sink, a stack of metal spoons, shipyard tools littering the ground.
There’s even costume designer called Rosa Diaz famous for collecting Barbie dolls. Many of the artists have been living on the island for years and years. It’s a brilliant and supportive little community.
After walking the complete trail, I turned and headed back under the afternoon sun. I walked slowly back down the green, twisting path.
An old man with a walker stopped to smile and nod in my direction before I headed back out of the psychedelic world across the lazy grey Thames. I bet he has some good stories to tell if he’s been living there a while. The crowds have poured out, but there are stories there, unspoken history, memories.
The island closed back up a few hours after I left, private once again for the rest of the year.
Her photo description?
“These splendid gents were at my bus stop this morning, so I asked if I could take their photo. Turned out they were off to the trooping of the colour, and I even managed to keep my mouth shut when they said they’d be meeting David Cameron as well. We ended up getting the bus together, and I’m just sorry that no one on the bus seemed to have a pen, so I could send them a copy of their pic. Of course, they only looked at us like we were bonkers.”
Photo of Przemek by Sandra Stainberg
LLO: I hear you’re aiming to ride every bus route in London to take photos from the upper deck. That’s a lot of buses. How many have you done so far?
PW: I am not really sure how many. I think I have done more than a hundred, but I don’t have exact number. I know that there are more than 200 bus routes in total, so it will take some time. I take some notes and the route is recorded with each photo anyway but I don’t have the exact number. It’s a bit messy, I know, but it works for me.
LLO: What sort of camera do you have?
PW: Digital SLR camera with 50mm fixed lens.
For more London Art Spot interviews, click here.
LLO: What is the goal of From the Upper Deck?
PW: The goal? The goal is simple and that is just to capture ordinary everyday life in London in the early 21st century.
LLO: Most of your images are well composed despite the obvious limitations. Colours match up, people are in motion and contradictions that make an interesting photograph are in place. What do you look for in a scene before you snap a photo?
PW: There are lot of factors – colours, sunlight, people, interactions between people that draw my attention. To be honest, the impulses that make me press the button are very random and often unpredictable.
LLO: Taking photos of strangers through bus windows with limited time to capture a scene must pose a few challenges. What issues have you dealt with and how do you overcome them?
PW: Well, the main difficulty is that you don’t have control of your position. In other words, you can’t stop and wait for the situation to unfold. The situation is either there and ready to be snapped, or it’s not. So it can be frustrating sometimes.
LLO: How long have you been working on this project so far?
PW: I have been taking photos from buses for about four years. I started on my daily routes to and form work just for fun and without any project idea in mind. It evolved into a project about two years ago when I started taking some remote routes and going to, for me, some really esoteric and obscure parts of London.
For more London Art Spot interviews, click here.