Formerly known as Strand Ait (or Ayt), this small island’s name was changed after the English Civil War, inspired by a story that Oliver Cromwell himself had taken refuge here during the war.

There’s apparently no truth to that story (or at least no evidence has been found) or to the legend that there was a secret tunnel which ran under the river from the mid-stream island to the nearby Bull’s Head pub on Strand-on-the-Green in Chiswick where Cromwell was said to have had established a headquarters (the tunnel was apparently so he could escape if the Cavaliers got too close).

The island, which stands in a stretch of the river between Kew and Chiswick (just upstream from Kew Railway Bridge and downstream from Kew Bridge) in London’s west, is not quite an acre in size (and, like Chiswick Ait, it’s roughly ship-shaped) but has served various purposes over the years.

In 1777, the City of London’s navigation committee built a wooden, castle-shaped tollbooth on the island with a barge moored alongside to catch passing river trade and so fund improvements to the navigability of the river. One story says it’s that barge that apparently lent its name to the delightful nearby pub, The City Barge, but others say the pub is named after the Lord Mayor of London’s State Barge which had winter moorings nearby for a time.

In 1865 a smithy was built on the island which was used in the building and repair of barges. It was later, after the Port of London Authority took over ownership in 1909, used as a storage facility and wharves for derelict vessels. The building survived until the 1990s but is now gone – along with any other signs of civilisation.

The island, which now has a dense canopy largely made up of sycamore trees, is these days inhabited by birds – those spotted there have included mallards, cormorants, Black-headed gulls, Canada geese, Egyptian geese, mute swans, magpies and robins – as well as  a range of other life – a 2014 survey found 11 species of mollusc and 35 species of vegetation and the island has also been cited as a habitat for bats and Thames door snails.

 

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We kick of a new series this week looking at islands in the River Thames in Greater London and start with the uninhabited Chiswick Eyot or Ait (a word for a river island).

Located just off Chiswick Mall in London’s west, this 3.2 acre tidal island (one of 42 unbridged tidal islands in England) is the lowest in The Thames (and hence gets submerged at high tide – the island appears in the picture above at low tide).

Historically, the island – which is shaped like the plan of a ship sitting parallel to the Mall – was used as a location for the growing of osiers (basket willows) which were used to make baskets.

Formerly owned by the church, in 1934 ownership passed to the local council, now the London Borough of Hounslow. It declared the island a local nature reserve in 1993. Conservation days are regularly held on the island by river conservation group Thames21 (but otherwise people are requested to stay off the island).

The island is a key point on The Championship Course during the annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge from Putney to Mortlake.

PICTURE: henry… (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/image cropped)

We finish our series looking at notable English Heritage blue plaques with a look at a plaque which not only commemorates a prominent Londoner but, unusually, also displays there for all to see the reason (well, an important part of it, anyway) for his prominence.

Edward-Johnston1Yes, we’re talking about Edward Johnston (1872-1944), a master calligrapher who was not only credited with starting the modern revival of the art but is also noted for having created the famous Johnston typeface which he developed for London Transport in the early 20th century.

In a lovely touch, the sans serif typeface he created is that used on the plaque – located at premises at 3 Hammersmith Terrace in Chiswick where he lived from 1905-1912 – itself.

The plaque, which was erected on the building in 1977 by the Greater London Council, was the first to feature the typeface but isn’t the only one: in fact there are four, all of which commemorate people related to London Transport.

The other three commemorated include Frank Pick (1878-1941), a London transport administrator who steered the development of London’s corporate identity – he’s commemorated with a plaque on his former property at 15 Wildwood Road, Hampstead Garden Suburb, with a Greater London Council plaque erected in 1981).

They also include Albert Henry Stanley, Lord Ashfield (1874-1948), the first chairman of London Transport (placed on his former home at 43 South Street, Mayfair, in 1984 by London County Council); and, the most recent plaque commemorating Harry Beck (1902-1974), designer of the London Underground map (placed by English Heritage in 2013 on his former property at 14 Wesley Road in Leyton).

PICTURE: Edwardx/CC BY-SA 4.0

The largest naval conflict of World War I – the Battle of Jutland – is the subject of a new exhibition opening at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich tomorrow. BugleMarking the centenary of the battle, Jutland 1916: WWI’s Greatest Sea Battle explores the battle itself (which claimed the lives of more than 8,500 as the British Grand Fleet met the German High Seas Fleet in what neither side could claim as a decisive victory) as well as its lead-up, aftermath and the experience of those serving on British and German warships through paintings and newspaper clippings, photographs, ship models and plans, sailor-made craft work and medals. Among the objects on display is a 14 foot long shipbuilder’s model of the HMS Queen Mary, which, one of the largest battle cruisers involved,was destroyed with only 18 survivors of the 1,266 crew. Among the personal stories told in the exhibition, meanwhile, is that of boy bugler William Robert Walker, of Kennington, who served on the HMS Calliope and, severely wounded during the battle, was later visited by King George V
and presented with a silver bugle by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe (the bugle, pictured, is on display). A series of events will accompany the exhibition which runs until November. Admission is free. For more, see www.rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum. PICTURE: © National Maritime Museum, London 

• Two ‘lost’ Egyptian cities and their watery fate are the subject of a new exhibition which opens at the British Museum today. Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds is the museum’s first exhibition of underwater discoveries and focuses on the recent discoveries of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus – submerged at the mouth of the Nile for more than 1,000 years. Among the 300 objects on display are more than than 200 artefacts excavated between 1996 and 2012. Highlights include a 5.4 metre statue of Hapy, a sculpture excavated from Canopus representing Arsine II (the eldest daughter of the Ptolemaic dynasty founder Ptolemy I) who became a goddess after her death, and a stela from Thonis-Heracleion which advertises a royal decree of Pharaoh Nectanebo I concerning taxes.  The exhibition runs until 27th November. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.

New English Heritage Blue Plaques marking the homes of comedian Tommy Cooper and food writer Elizabeth David have been unveiled this month as part of the 150th anniversary of the scheme. Tommy Cooper lived at his former home at 51 Barrowgate Road in Chiswick between 1955 to 1984 and while there entertained fellow comedians such as Roy Hudd, Eric Sykes and Jimmy Tarbuck. Elizabeth David, meanwhile, is the first food writer to ever be commemorated with a Blue Plaque. She lived at the property at 24 Halsey Street in Chelsea for some 45 years until her death in 1992. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/.

Send all items for inclusion to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

This curiously named Chiswick institution, one of few pubs in England with two names, owes its existence to the brewery located next to the terraces in Mawson Row.

Mawson-ArmsThomas Mawson founded the brewery on the site in the late 1600s/early 1700s and it eventually became what is now known as Fuller’s Griffin Brewery located a few doors down from the pub.

The Grade II*-listed building in which the pub is located dates from about 1715 when the terrace of five houses was constructed for Mawson.

The 18th century poet Alexander Pope was among residents at number 110 (between 1716-1719, when he published his translation of The Iliad and his first collected works). A function room in the pub now bears his name and there’s a blue plaque mentioning his stay on the outside.

While there had long been a pub here called the Fox and Hounds, in the late 19th century, the old pub was extended into the corner building and gained its second name, The Mawson Arms.

The pub, only a short walk away from the Thames, now serves as the starting point for a tour of the brewery. It’s traditionally been a favoured watering hole of brewery workers.

For more, see www.mawsonarmschiswick.co.uk.

The-George-and-Devonshire

The last remaining pub in old Chiswick village in west London, The George and Devonshire has a history dating back to the 1650s.

The-George-and-Devonshire2Initially known simply as The George (like so many taverns and pubs, apparently after England’s patron saint), by the 1820s the name had changed to The George and Devonshire – the Duke of Devonshire’s former showpiece property, Chiswick House, can still be found nearby (for more on Chiswick House, see our earlier post here). The coat of arms of the Dukes of Devonshire now hang over the door.

The Grade II-listed building at 8 Burlington Lane, which is conveniently located just metres from a Fullers brewery, dates from the 18th century.

There was apparently once a secret passageway which led from the pub under the nearby St Nicholas’ Church (burial place of artist William Hogarth) to an opening located among a group of small cottages near the Thames – it is said to have been used by rum and spirits smugglers in the 1700s. The remains of the entrance can still apparently be seen in the pub’s cellar.

For more, see www.georgeanddevonshire.co.uk.

Chiswick-HouseAn icon of the Georgian era, Chiswick House in west London is one of the pre-eminent examples of neo-Palladian architecture in Britain and exemplifies the elegance of the time.

Designed by Richard Boyle, the third Earl of Burlington (1694-1753), the two storey, domed villa was inspired by what Lord Burlington had seen of ancient and sixteenth century architecture during his tours of Italy – in particular the work of Andrea Palladio – as well as the work of Palladio admirer, famed English architect Inigo Jones (his statue along with that of Palladio can be seen outside),

Chiswick-House2It was constructed in the 1720s, most likely between 1727 and 1729, on a site which had been purchased by the first Earl of Burlington (his grandfather) in 1682 and which was already occupied by a Jacobean-era house (this property, which the third Earl significantly renovated, was eventually pulled down in 1788). The interiors were designed by William Kent in collaboration with Burlington and feature luxurious rooms with velvet-covered walls such as the magnificently restored Blue Velvet Room.

The exact purpose of the property remains something of a mystery – it’s been suggested it was built to as a pavilion for private contemplation, grand entertainments and to house the Earl’s art collection and the fact it had no kitchen is supportive of such a conclusion. But there is evidence it was also used as a functioning house – the fact Lady Burlington died in her bedchamber in the premises in 1758 and the link which was eventually built by Lord Burlington between it and the older property on the estate are suggestive of this.

Chiswick-House3Whatever its purpose, the architectural and artistic masterpiece was complemented by formal gardens which Lord Burlington, again, along with the aid of Kent, extensively altered to create a highly planned but naturalistic-looking landscape. Known as the “birthplace of the English Landscape Movement”, the gardens have influenced everyone from ‘Capability’ Brown to the design of New York City’s Central Park.

Following Lord Burlington’s death in 1753, the house passed into the hands of his grandson, the fifth Duke of Devonshire (his wife was the rather infamous Duchess Georgiana). He extended the house into a large mansion, adding new wings (these weren’t removed until the 1950s) and improved the gardens, adding the stone bridge (pictured) that still stands over the lake.

Upon the fifth Duke’s death in 1811, the house passed into the hands of the sixth Duke, known as the ‘Bachelor Duke’. He made considerable use of the property and guests included Tsar Alexander I of Russia, King Fredrick William III of Prussia, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and Tsar Nicholas I (again, of Russia). The Bachelor Duke also extended the grounds and brought a range of exotic animals into them, including an elephant, kangaroos and emus.

Upon his death in 1858, he left the property to his sister and after her death only four years later, it was subsequently let to some rather high-brow tenants including the Prince of Wales who received the Shah of Persia there in 1873,

The estate was eventually sold by the ninth Duke to the Middlesex County Council and after the war, gifted to the Minister of Works. In 1984, care for the house was transferred to English Heritage. The gardens are now owned by the London Borough of Hounslow.

Along with the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust, English Heritage recently completed a £12 million restoration of the gardens which, this year will host the fourth annual Camellia Festival next month. But this stunning property is well worth a visit any time of the year.

WHERE: Chiswick House, Burlington Lane, Chiswick (nearest Tube station is Turnham Green/nearest train station is Chiswick);  WHEN: 10am to 4pm Saturday and Sunday (until 31st March); COST: £5.90 adults/£3.50 children (5-15 years)/£5.30 concession/£15.30 family; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/chiswick-house/ or www.chgt.org.uk.

Alexander-Pope

The humble Blue Plaque is set for a new lease on life following an announcement this week. The London Evening Standard has announced it will help breathe new life into English Heritage’s Blue Plaque’s scheme this week with the scheme – which was suspended in January due to funding cuts – set to relaunch next year in association with the newspaper. As many as 20 new plaques have already been funded through a £80,000 donation from property developer David Pearl, says the paper, and the public are being urged to help financially support the programme at www.english-heritage.org.uk/donate. The Standard also noted that from next year its readers will be able to vote for candidates for future plaques. Each Blue Plaque costs about £4,000 to create and install. Pictured is a Blue Plaque commemorating poet Alexander Pope’s residence in a Chiswick property between 1716-1719.  The property is now the Mawson Arms public house.

A collection of furniture originally belonging to the 5th Duke of Devonshire and his wife, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, has been returned to the Palladian masterpiece, Chiswick House, in west London. The furniture – which includes four French fauteuils (open arm chairs) by the leading Parisian chair maker Jean-Baptiste Tilliard, four neo-classical chairs with caned backs and seats and a ladies’ roll-top writing desk – was purchased by English Heritage at an auction in 2010 with the assistance of Art Fund. It had been removed from the house to the family estate in the late 1800s. Extensive conservation work on the furnishings was carried out thanks to the support of The Art Fund, Chiswick House Friends and The Pilgrim Trust prior to their being restored to the house. They are now displayed in the bedchamber while a mahogany pole-screen – designed in about 1730 by William Kent, protégé and collaborator of the house’s first owner and architect, Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington – has also been acquired and will be displayed in Lord Burlington’s Blue Velvet Room. Admission charge applies. For more information, see  www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/chiswick-house/ or www.chgt.org.uk.

German miniature picture Bibles are the subject of a new exhibition at The Courtauld Gallery. The third display in the gallery’s Illuminating Objects programme, the display centres on Bibles created by two sisters who belonged to a family of printmakers, Johanna Christina (Or Christiana) and Maria Magdalena Kusel, in Augsburg in the late 17th century. While many of the 17th century ‘thumb’ Bibles were created for children, the Kusel sisters most likely made theirs for private devotion. It is believed this is the first time the two Bibles have gone on public display. Visitors to the Courtauld website are also able to turn the Bible’s pages. Runs until 22nd July. For more, see www.courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/exhibitions/2013/illuminating/bible.

Royal Parks are offering free travel to the newly improved Isabella Plantation – a 40 acre ornamental woodland garden in Richmond Park – this Sunday. The minibus service, which will travel from the traffic lights on Ham Common to the plantation, will be running between 10am and 4pm. The plantation, which features azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, magnolias, daffodils and bluebells, has recently been the subject of a £1.5 million improvement project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and BIG Lottery Fund. Improvements have included enhancements to ponds and streams and upgrades to the existing path network. For more, see www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/richmond-park.

A display commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Profumo Affair has opened at the National Portrait Gallery. Scandal ’63: The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Profumo Affair looks in depth at the scandal in which Secretary of State for War John Profumo was found to have had a brief affair with nightclub hostess and model Christine Keeler who happened to also romantically involved with Yevgeny Ivanov, a senior Russian naval attache (rather controversial during the Cold War). The display features a vintage print of one of Lewis Morley’s seated nude portraits of Keeler as well as press images of other key protagonists in the matter including her friends Mandy Rice-Davies and Paula Hamilton-Marshall. Also featured is on-set photographs of Keeler taken to publicise The Keeler Affair, a film which was banned in Britain (and later remade in 1989), images of a now lost work of pop art by Pauline Boty featuring four of the key players (it was titled Scandal ’63), and a pastel of Keeler by Stephen Ward (pictured). Admission is free. Runs until 15th September. For more, see www.npg.org.uk.

Now officially known as the BNY Mellon Boat Race, the annual rowing event between Oxford and Cambridge universities was first held at Henley on Thames in 1829, moving to London for the second event in 1836 and becoming an annual event (with the exception of the two world wars) in 1856.

One of the most controversial races ever held – and next year’s will be the 159th – was in 1877 when the race, run over a four mile, 374 yard course which starts in Putney in west London and taking in a great bend of The Thames as it goes past Chiswick and Hammersmith, finishes at Mortlake, ended in a “dead heat”.

The drama began as the boats passed Barnes Bridge, about three-and-a-half miles through the course, when one of the blades of the Oxford team’s oars broke after striking rough water. Oxford (wearing dark blue) had been leading the race and the incident is believed to have helped Cambridge (wearing light blue) to draw level – so much so that both crews are recorded as having passed the finish line in 24 minutes and eight seconds.

It’s the only time the race has ever finished in a draw and there was, as might be expected, significant controversy over the result. With no finishing posts then in place, the judge, a waterman from Fulham named ‘Honest John’ Phelps, had to decide the result from his place in a small skiff on the water (and, according to the official Boat Race website, it is believed he was in a position to do so and not dozing under a bush as others have suggested).

His skiff, it is believed, may have drifted off the finish line. In addition, it was not the only craft on the water and it’s believed that the other craft filled with people eager to see the result, may have partially obscured his view. Even if they hadn’t, his was a tough task.

As was recorded in The Times (with thanks to Wikipedia):  “Cheers for one crew were succeeded by counter-cheers for the other, and it was impossible to tell what the result was until the Press boat backed down to the Judge and inquired the issue. John Phelps, the waterman, who officiated, replied that the noses of the boats passed the post strictly level, and that the result was a dead heat.”

Oxford, however, thought they had won by a matter of several feet and it’s believed that as a result Honest John announced the result as “dead heat to Oxford by five feet”. The result was later confirmed as simply a “dead heat”.

The controversy did lead to some changes – including the introduction of finishing posts – a stone on the south bank and a post on the north – and the passing of the role of judge to members of the two universities instead of a professional waterman.

Following this year’s race (also rather controversial – see our earlier article here) Cambridge has 81 wins and Oxford 76. For more on the history of the Boat Race see our earlier entry here or visit www.theboatrace.org.

The Queen visits the Chelsea Flower Show. PICTURE: Courtesy Royal Horticultural Society.

More correctly known as the Royal Horticultural Society Great Spring Show, the history of the Chelsea Flower Show traces its origins back to the 1820s when the society, then known as the The Horticultural Society in London, held a series of “floral fetes” at the Duke of Devonshire’s estate in Chiswick.

The fortunes of the society were on the wane when, thanks in part to its then president, Prince Albert, it was reborn with a new charter and name – the Royal Horticultural Society – and a new garden in Kensington.

The first Great Spring Show was held there in 1862 and continued to be so for the next 26 years until, in 1888, the site of the show was moved to Temple Gardens near Embankment in central London.

It was subsequently held there until 1912. During this year, the show was cancelled and the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition held instead in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. So popular did this prove that the Great Spring Show was subsequently moved there. It’s been held almost every since with cancellations during World Wars I and II.

Today, the show – claimed to be “the world’s most famous gardening event” – attracts 157,000 visitors from around the world who view the exhibits of 600 companies including nurseries, florists and floral arranges. This year’s show, which has sold out, features 17 show gardens, 15 smaller gardens and 100 of nurseries and growers. It runs from today until Saturday.

For more information on the show, see www.rhs.org.uk/chelsea.