Exploring Eel Pie Island

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.

Bridge To Eel Pie Island

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.

Rainbow Shed

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.

England

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.

Blue Eyes

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.

Paintbrushes in Artist's Studio

Over 20 artists live and work in studios further down the island and there’s another group who work in the shipyard.

Eel Pie Ship Yard

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.

Skeleton in Cage

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.

Love Shack

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.

Gator and Gnome

There was a sign nearby on a tree that said “Wrong Day, Go Back”. I walked on.

Wrong Day

A green shed with old advertisements for Star Cigarettes, HMV and Punch stood next to a similar building called The Lion Boathouse.

Side of Ship Display
There are a few shops on the island selling necessities like firewood and paint supplies, but residents have easy access to Twickenham shops just over the other side of the river.

Star, HMV, Punch

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.

Watch on the Wall

The people were lovely – chatty, welcoming, friendly, eager to talk about their work. They sold large paintings, sculptures, handmade greeting cards, jeweller, ceramics and photography.
Rosa Diaz

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.

Nude and Mirror

After walking the complete trail, I turned and headed back under the afternoon sun. I walked slowly back down the green, twisting path.

I Can't Remember
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.

Home in an Old Ship

The island closed back up a few hours after I left, private once again for the rest of the year.

No Cycling

Links:
http://www.timeout.com/london/features/267/1.html
http://www.eelpieislandartists.co.uk/
http://www.eelpie.org

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Listen to a Londoner: Abbey Stirling

Listen to a Londoner is a weekly interview with a Londoner – someone who lives in this city, born here or elsewhere. If you want to be interviewed, email littlelondonobservationist@hotmail.co.uk. Always looking for new volunteers.

Abbey Stirling, 32

Abbey is a freelance arts and entertainment journalist living and working in London and Ibiza. She is the editor of webzine The London Word.com, and dabbles in feline frolics and fancy dress.

LLO: How long have you lived in London?
AS:
Twelve years almost to the day. I moved here from Australia (where I lived after leaving my native New Zealand) in the spring of ’98.

LLO: Tell us a bit about The London Word, what it’s all about and how it started.
AS:
Like many great things it all began at the pub. A mate and I were letting off some steam over a pint back in 2007. We were both working for an American website at the time, and our contrasting cultures and clashing views with the US office caused no-end of conflict. So, feeling disheartened by our jobs and believing London was misrepresented, we branched off on our own, taking with us everything we’d learnt from that experience.

Now, three years later, we have a team of about 30 contributors who publish articles on a daily basis. Readers can absorb daily postings on culture, food, drink, fashion, shopping, health and wellbeing. We interview a variety of colourful Londoners, from DJs, actors and musicians to tattooists, chefs and sportsmen.

But what I find the most rewarding is when readers voice their views, either via our Speakers’ Corner section or by commenting on each other’s posts. It’s heartening that people make an effort to get some online banter and debate going on our little site. It shows they’re passionate and they care.

LLO: What sets it apart from other London sites?
AS:
We never try to compete with other London sites like Time Out, although we’re certainly inspired by them. I think what sets us apart is that we provide a platform for ordinary Londoners to articulate their opinions, good or bad. We’re not a listings site, we’re an editorial-focused webzine where Londoners can express their experiences, whether it’s a nasty trip on the tube, or an amazing gig or restaurant they’ve been to. We encourage everyone to make themselves heard – in a colourful and eloquent fashion!

LLO: What’s the most unique London discovery you’ve made since the site started in 2007?
AS:
Personally, after interviewing Cryptozoologist Neil Arnold, I’ve discovered some things about Highgate Cemetery that have both deterred and intrigued me.

LLO: Which Londoner would you most love to interview on the site and why?
AS:
David Bowie would be my dream interviewee. He’s a London boy at heart and I’d just like to be in the same room as him. I think that’s a good enough reason!

LLO: What’s the best thing about living in your postcode?
AS:
I can walk pretty much everywhere from N1. All of the places I like to go – Camden, Shoreditch, Dalston, Stoke Newington and the West End, are all within walking distance. Sometimes I walk along the canal to Camden, which is really therapeutic. And most of my friends live in the vicinity, which is a bonus.

LLO: If I only had one night in London, where would you send me to eat and drink?
AS:
Mildreds, on Lexington Street in Soho, is my favourite place to eat in London. It’s vegetarian, which has put off a few of my carnivore friends, but they’re literally eating their words after the first course.

LLO: Is there somewhere in London you’d like to explore but haven’t had a chance yet?
AS:
The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons.

LLO: Favourite place or activity to pass a summer evening in the capital?
AS:
Atop Primrose Hill with friends and wine.

LLO: Describe your perfect day in London.
AS:
A market, any market. London’s markets are so vibrant and chaotic but relaxing at the same time. I love going to Borough Market and then popping over to the South Bank for a stroll. Going to Columbia Road market on a sunny day is London at its best.

Thanks Abbey!

For more Listen to a Londoner posts, click here.