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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Elfin-OakDelightfully carved out of a hollow oak tree, the Elfin Oak takes its name from the many colourful figures that adorn it.

The sculpture, which sits beside the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground is the work of children’s book illustrator Ivor Innes.

He spent two years – 1928 to 1930 – carving “Little People” upon an ancient oak tree trunk that had been found in Richmond Park and relocated to Kensington Gardens (and in 1930, with his wife Elsie, published the children’s book, The Elfin Oak of Kensington Gardens).

The characters depicted include animals and fanciful creatures such as a gnome called Huckleberry, a series of elves including Grumples and Groodles and a witch named Wookey.

The hollow, incidentally, had been presented to The Royal Parks by Lady Fortescue in response to an appeal run to improve facilities in line with a scheme by George Lansbury (among other things, he also founded the Serpentine Lido).

Now a Grade II listed structure (and well protected by wire mesh), it has a few pop culture associations – among them, the fact that it appeared on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1969 album, Ummagumma (the head of the band’s lead singer and guitarist David Gilmour can be seen projecting from the trunk).

Meanwhile, in 1996, Spike Milligan – long a fan of the oak – was the face of a successful campaign to raise funds for its restoration.

Announcing the Grade II listing in 1997, then Heritage Minister Tony Banks noted that the oak sat alongside the late Victorian fascination with Little People and complemented Sir George Frampton’s statue of Peter Pan (also located within the gardens).

“Together the two sculptures make Kensington Gardens very much the world capital of fairies, gnomes and elves,” he reportedly said.

PICTURE: Lonpicman/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0/