Formerly known as Walnut Tree Island (among other names), this Thames River island, which lies just upstream of Hampton Court Place, was once a playground for the wealthy and is now home to about 100 residents living in houseboats.

The island was once part of the manor of Hampton Court and by the mid-19th century was home to a number of squatter families who made a living by harvesting osiers (willow rods) used in basket weaving.

In 1850, it was purchased by a property speculator and lawyer Francis Kent (another name for the island was Kent’s Ait) who evicted the squatters and rented part of the island to Joseph Harvey, who established a pub called The Angler’s Retreat there. Another part he leased to a local boatbuilder and waterman named Thomas George Tagg who set up a boat rental and boat-building business there.

In the 1870s, Tagg – whose name became that of the island’s – took over the licence of the pub and built a larger, more imposing hotel in its place, transforming the backwater establishment into a high society favourite. Among its patrons were none other than Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and the actress Sarah Bernhardt.

The island also become a mooring site for luxurious houseboats and by the 1880s, the island was ringed with the craft – among those who rented one was none other than JM Barrie, later the author of Peter Pan.

In 1911, Tagg’s original lease of the island ran out and it was subsequently taken by Fred Karno (formerly known as Fred Westcott), a theatre impresario who is credited with having ‘discovered’ Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel and who had stayed in houseboats on the island.

He subsequently built a luxurious hotel there, The Karsino, which he sold in 1926, but which went on to change hands several time over the ensuring years (and names – it became known variously as the Thames Riviera and the Casino Hotel).

Eventually, in a badly dilapidated state, the hotel once known as The Karsino was demolished in 1971 (but not before putting in an appearance in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange).

Karno also owned a luxurious houseboat, the Astoria, which was once moored on the island but which is now owned by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour (who adapted it into a rather stylish recording studio in the Eighties – A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell were apparently both recorded here) and moored upstream on the northern bank of the Thames.

A road bridge was built to connect the island to the mainland in the 1940s – when the island was being used to produce munitions – but this collapsed in the 1960s.

A new bridge was built to the island in the 1980s and a small lagoon carved out of the centre to increase the number of mooring sites for houseboats.

No homes are these days permitted to be constructed on the island but it’s still a mooring place for houseboats, some 62, in fact. These days the island owned by an association of the houseboat owners who each have their own garden on the island.

In the centre of the island is a rather unique sundial (see below). And just to the south-east of Taggs Island lies the much smaller Ash Island; the stretch of water separating the two was apparently once known as Hog’s Hole.

PICTURES: Top – Houseboats on Taggs Island ( Motmit at en.wikipedia/licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0) ; Right – The Karsino in 1924 (Adam37/licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0); Below – The sundial (stevekeiretsu/licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

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No prizes here for guessing that this pub owes its name to the long serving 19th century monarch, Queen Victoria.

There’s apparently a story that the Queen stopped off here on her way to Paddington Station and that, as a result, the pub was named in her honour.

Whatever the truth of that, the now Grade II-listed pub – located at 10a Strathearn Place (on the corner with Surrey Place) – was apparently built in 1838 – the first year if Victoria’s reign (and possibly a more valid reason for its name) and remodelled around the turn of the 20th century.

It features a luxuriously decorated interior with fireplaces, mirrors, and an original counter as well as paintings of the Queen, Prince Albert and their family.

The upstairs Theatre Bar features decorative elements taken from the former Gaiety Theatre which were installed in the late 1950s.

The pub, which was apparently patronised by the likes of author Charles Dickens (he is said to have written some of Our Mutual Friend here), Sir Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin as well as David Bowie – who did a live performance when launching an EP here in the 1960s.

It’s also been associated with more recent celebs like musicians Ronnie Wood and Liam Gallagher, artist Damien First and actor Keira Knightley.

There’s also a story that in 1960s one of the paintings on the walls was found to be a valuable portrait of a member of the Royal Family. It’s now apparently in the Royal Collection.

The pub is now part of the Fuller’s group – and has twice won their ‘Pub of the Year’ award. For more, see www.victoriapaddington.co.uk.

PICTURE: Ewan Munro (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Chen_Rong_Nine_DragonsChinese masterpieces are the focus of a new exhibition opening at the V&A in South Kensington on Saturday. Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900 will feature more than 70 works including some of the earliest surviving Chinese paintings and many shown in Europe for the first time. Organised chronologically in six successive periods, the works in the display range from intimate works by monks to a 14-metre long scroll painting. As well as examining the tensions between tradition and innovation, the exhibition will look at the variety of settings for which the paintings were created – from tombs and temples to banners, portable handscrolls and hanging scrolls – and the materials used. The exhibition runs until 19th January. Admission charge applies. Meanwhile, from 2nd November, celebrated Chinese artist Xu Bing will transform the museum’s John  Madejeski Garden into an “ethereal Arcadia” inspired by the Chinese fable Tao Hua Yuan (The Peach Spring Blossom) in an installation to coincide with the exhibition. Runs until 2nd March. For more, see www.vam.ac.uk/chinesepainting. PICTURE: Nine Dragons (detail), Chen Rong (1244), © 2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A new exhibition of photography marking the 10th anniversary of the start of the second Iraq war opens today at the Imperial War Museum. Featuring the work of photographers Mike Moore, a former Fleet Street photographer who was the first press photographer to be officially embedded with the British Army, and Lee Craker, an American photographer who specialises in documentary photography, the exhibition examines the impact of the war on the Iraqi people and the US and British troops who served there.  The exhibit is the first photography show to be exhibited as part of the IWM Contemporary programme. Runs until 5th January. Meanwhile one of Britain’s leading contemporary photographers, Donovan Wylie, explores the effects of modern day military surveillance programs in a new exhibition, at the IWM, Vision as Power. The display includes five works. Runs until 21st April. Admission to both exhibitions is free. For more, see www.iwm.org.uk.

The Age of Glamour: RS Sherriffs’ Stars of Stage & Screen. This exhibition at the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury features the work of Sheriffs, whose caricatures of the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Douglas Fairbanks were published in magazines including Radio Times, London Calling and The Sketch. As well as individual portraits, the works include ensemble drawings such as one featuring Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft in Romeo and Juliette. Runs until Christmas Eve. Admission charge applies. For more, check out www.cartoonmuseum.org.

In the first of a new Wednesday series looking at historic London garden squares, we take a look at what next to Trafalgar Square, is the most famous square in the entire city – Leicester Square.

Located in the heart of the West End, Leicester Square’s history finds its origins back in the 17th history when Robert Sidney, the 2nd Earl of Leicester acquired property on the site where the square now stands. Then known as St Martin’s Field and located within the parish of St Martin’s, Sidney purchased four acres in 1630 and constructed Leicester House on land now located at the square’s northern end.

Leicester-SquareThe earl raised the ire of locals, however, when – having subsequently fenced off the land to prevent people from wandering on to his property – he enclosed what had previously been common land.

The people appealed to King Charles I who appointed three members of the Privy Council to look at the issue. Their decision? That the earl keep a section of his land open for the use of the parishioners of St Martin’s.

First known as Leicester Field, it was this land which later became known as Leicester Square. Fine homes were built around the square (its proximity to the Royal Court and centre of government made it a desirable place to live for the well-to-do and those seeking influence) with the centre enclosed with rails (it’s pictured here in 1750).

The square’s reputation also had a royal boost when, in 1717/1718, Leicester House became home to Prince George (later King George II) and his wife Princess Caroline along with their court after the prince fell out with his father King George I and was banished from St James’ Palace (this story is recounted in marvellous detail in Lucy Worsley’s terrific book, Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court).

The prince remained at the house for 10 years and was proclaimed King George II after his father’s death at its gate. Interestingly, King George II’s eldest son, Prince Frederick, also lived here for a time after he too fell out with his father (King George II). Apparently their relationship was even worse than the previous generation’s had been.

Despite its royal attractions, even at this stage the square apparently had it’s darker side with some less than savoury characters attending the hotels and livery stables that were built there. But things were to get worse as the wealthy moved out – a situation not helped when Leicester House was demolished in the 1790s.

Leicester Square became known as an entertainment venue in the 19th century (among attractions was the short-lived Royal Panopticon of Science and Art which showcased the best in science and art and Wyld’s Great Globe which contained a gigantic model of the earth) and received a new injection of life when theatres and music halls moved in, bringing the crowds back with them.

Shakespeare-StatueMeanwhile, the status of the square – and whether it could be built upon – remained a matter of debate well into the 19th century. That ended in 1874 when businessman Albert Grant bought the freehold of the land, had the garden created upon it and then donated it to the Metropolitan Board of Works as a gift to the city.

Responsibility for the management of the square now rests with the City of Westminster. The square area – which is now known for hosting film premieres as well as the tourists who inevitably gather there – was pedestrianised in the 1980s and has just undergone a redevelopment and modernisation which was unveiled last year.

Meanwhile, work to restore the 19th century Shakespeare statue and fountain in the square’s centre is about to be completed (pictured). The square also contains a statue of actor Charlie Chaplin in the square as well as busts of scientist Sir Isaac Newton, painter and first president of the royal Academy Sir Joshua Reynolds, 18th century pioneer surgeon John Hunter, and painter William Hogarth.

The tradition of the entertainment continues in the modern era through the cinemas which now stand in the square and regularly host film premieres (an interesting, if oft-repeated, film-related anecdote connected to the square is that it was in a phone booth located at the square that during the 1960s a young actor Maurice Micklewhite saw a poster for The Caine Mutiny and decided to change his name to Michael Caine).

PICTURES (top) Wikipedia and (below) City of Westminster.

A somewhat neglected area located in the Borough of Southwark, just south-east of Borough, Elephant and Castle takes its rather odd name from a coaching inn which once stood on the site – the Elephant and Castle.

The area is more correctly known as Newington but the name Elephant and Castle was apparently adopted informally in the mid 18th century as the area rose in prominence thanks in part to the opening of Westminster Bridge.

The inn, which stood on the site of a former playhouse, was apparently rebuilt several times but there is now no sign of it – the current, rather ugly, Elephant and Castle pub which is said to stand a short distance from where the tavern once stood, was built in the 1960s.

The origins of the sign of the Elephant and Castle, meanwhile, apparently comes from the mid-15th century when members of the Cutler’s Company adopted the sign of the elephant as their symbol (perhaps representing the ivory they used in their trade). The Worshipful Company of Cutlers still has an elephant carrying a castle on its back in its coat-of-arms.

The area of Elephant and Castle, meanwhile, was known for its shopping and theatres before it was heavily bombed in the Blitz. It still features a rather grim shopping mall (pictured is the sign of the elephant and castle out front) which was said to have been the first covered shopping mall in Europe when it opened in the mid-1960s – it is apparently due for demolition as part of a larger regeneration project. The area has already seen some major new developments like the the residential tower known as Strata.

Other prominent buildings include the Metropolitan Tabernacle – standing opposite the shopping centre, this was founded by preacher Charles Hadden Spurgeon in the 19th century and rebuilt after World War II (interestingly, the site of the tabernacle is where three men, known as the Southwark Martyrs, were burnt at the stake for heresy in 1557 during a period of religious persecution in the reign of Queen Mary I).

Famous residents have included Charlie Chaplin – who lived in a workhouse in the area as a child – while other notable features include a large stainless box which stands at the centre of the area’s major road intersection, linking what is now New Kent Road and Kennington Park Road (via Newington Butts) with roads leading to Lambeth, Westminster, Waterloo and London Bridges among others (this is actually a memorial to scientist Michael Faraday, who was born in nearby Newington Butts). The area also boasts its own Tube station, Elephant & Castle.

• Oxford Street and Regent Street in London’s West End will be closed to cars and buses this Saturday (27th November) as part of the sixth annual West End VIP Day. The day, which is sponsored by American Express,  will also bring singers, entertainers and celebrities hit the streets as they fundraise for the Starlight Children’s Foundation. Other entertainment will include a seven foot climbing wall on Regent Street, giant TV screens, fair ground style rides and the chance to climb inside a lifesize snow globe. Runs from 9am to 10pm. For more information, see www.westendlondon.com/vip.

• This week was National Curry Week, so to celebrate, we thought we’d tell you about London’s oldest curryhouse (in fact it’s said to be the oldest in the UK). Veeraswamy was founded in 1926 at its current location of 99 Regent Street (entry via Swallow Street) by, according to the restaurant’s website, “the great grandson of an English General, and an Indian princess”. Customers are said to have included Indira Gandhi, Charlie Chaplin, King Hussein of Jordan and Marlon Brando. See www.nationaleatingoutweek.com or www.veeraswamy.com.

Kenwood House in Hampstead, north London, is set to undergo major repair and conservation works meaning the house will be closed to the public from early summer 2012 for just over a year. The grounds will remain open. The current house was designed by Robert Adam and built over the period of 1762 to 1779 for William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice. It now houses a collection of paintings bequeathed to the nation in 1927 by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, which includes works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Gainsborough and Turner. For more information, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/kenwood-house/.

On now: Compare Horatio Nelson’s handwriting before and after he lost his right arm in battle at a special showing of two of his letters at the Wellcome Collection tomorrow night (26th November). The letters are part of Hands: Amazing Appendages, a one night only show. There will also be the chance to try out some nail art, try out some surgeon’s tools and hear talks and see performances. Admission is free (but some talks and performances will be tickets – tickets available on the night only from 7pm). See www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/events/hands.aspx.