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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The origins of the name of this inner west London location on the northern side of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens go back to at least the 14th century when it was recorded as Bayard’s or perhaps Baynard’s watering place.

Bayard was the word for a bay-coloured horse but it is thought that instead the name here comes from a local landowner – it’s been suggested he may be the same Baynard whose name is was remembered in the long gone Norman fortification Baynard’s Castle in the City.

The name probably referred to a site where people on their way out of or headed to London stopped for a rest and some water; the water aspect may relate to springs or to the Westbourne Stream which ran through the area.

It’s now known for its culturally diverse population and high concentration of hotels. It’s also known for Georgian terraces – many of which have been converted into flats, mansion blocks and garden squares.

Notable residents have included Peter Pan author JM Barrie and former PM’s Tony Blair and Winston Churchill while landmarks include Whiteleys, a department store which first opened in the mid 19th century (and was later rebuilt after burning down).

Peter-Pan2In JM Barrie’s 1911 novel, Peter and Wendy (based on the stage play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up), the adventure begins when Peter Pan visits the home of the Darling family.

He secretly listens in – via an open window – while Mrs Darling tells bedtime stories to her children – Wendy, John and Michael – but during one visit loses his shadow and it’s on returning to claim it that he meets Wendy and, well, you know the rest…

Peter Pan is most famously associated with Kensington Gardens – it’s here that we are first introduced to the character of Peter in the book Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (in fact there’s a rather famous statue of him there to this day, pictured above) – it’s most often assumed that the Darling’s house must be nearby.

But, in fact, the book Peter and Wendy never states where the Darlings’ house is located exactly  – just that it is at number 14 in the street in which they live – while in the 1904 play the address is given as “a rather depressed street” in Bloomsbury. Barrie explains that he placed the Darlings’ house in Bloomsbury because Mr Roget (of Thesaurus fame) once lived there and “we whom he has helped to wend our way through life have always wanted to pay him a little compliment”.

Worth noting, however, is a property at 31 Kensington Park Gardens. Once the home of the Llewellyn Davies family, family friend Barrie was a frequent visitor here and in fact went on to adopt the five Llewellyn Davies children following the death of their parents in the early 1900s. The property, which is divided into a series of flats, is, as a result, said to have been something of a model for the Darling’s house.

Barrie, himself, meanwhile, owned a house at 100 Bayswater Road – not far from Kensington Gardens where he first meet the Llewellyn Davies family – but, interestingly, had previously lived in Bloomsbury. The house is marked with a blue plaque.

Another Peter Pan-related address we have to mention is that of the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children to which Barrie gave the rights to receive royalties from Peter Pan in perpetuity. You can arrange for a tour of the hospital’s Peter Pan-related memorabilia.

For more on the story behind the writing of Peter Pan, see Andrew Birkin’s book, J.M.Barrie and the Lost Boys.

In this, the final in our series on historic sporting events in London we take a look at the first time the Peter Pan Cup was presented at the annual Serpentine Swimming Club’s Christmas Day race in Hyde Park.

While the origins of the annual 100 yard Christmas Day day race – and the club itself – go back to 1864, it wasn’t until 1904 that author JM Barrie (writer of Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up and later knighted), first presented the Peter Pan Cup to the race’s winner (Peter Pan was first performed at the Duke of York’s Theatre the same year). Previous winners had received a gold medal.

Barrie’s involvement apparently came from the fact that he lived nearby in Bayswater and had often seen the swimmers.

The race, which starts at 9am on Christmas Day on the south side of the Serpentine near the cafe, is only open to club members (so don’t turn up expecting to be able to join in) and operates on a handicap system (pictured are swimmers in the 2009 race). Last year’s winner was Neil Price.

It’s worth noting that while this is the club’s most famous event, members swim every weekend throughout the year.

For more on the Serpentine Swimming Club, see http://serpentineswimmingclub.com/.

PICTURES: Serpentine Swimming Club

It’s now one of the most popular statues in London – the diminuative “boy who wouldn’t grow up”. But few people today are aware of its somewhat unusual origins.

Located about half-way along the western shore of the Long Water in Kensington Gardens, the bronze statue first “appeared” in the park in 1912. The story goes that author JM Barrie, who published his first story about Peter Pan – The Little White Bird – in 1902, chose the location of the statue based on it being the place where, in the story, Peter Pan landed after flying out of the nursery window of his home.

Peter Pan first appeared on stage two years later in 1904 in the play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, and this was later expanded into a novel by Barrie, Peter and Wendy. He’s since appeared in numerous film and stage adaptations – including sequels and prequels to the original tales.

Barrie had apparently been thinking about the statue for some time prior to its appearance – in 1906 he went so far as to take a series of photographs of six-year-old  Michael Llewelyn Davies wearing a Peter Pan costume (it was Barrie’s relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family which is said to have inspired Peter Pan’s creation).

Six years later Barrie commissioned Sir George Frampton to create the statue – interestingly, in what was a cause of some friction between the artist and patron, Sir George modelled his figure not on Llewelyn Davies but on another boy. Peter is seen playing on some pipes and is surrounded by small animals and fairies. There’s no sign of Captain Hook.

On the 1st of May, the statue simply appeared in its current position after being taken into the park under the cover of darkness. Barrie announced what he called his “May Day gift” to the children of London in The Times newspaper, describing it as “delightfully conceived”.

There was apparently some initially concerns raised among MPs about the appropriateness of an author erecting a statue to promote his own work but it has since become an iconic symbol of the gardens (and undergone some repairs – including after an incident in 1952 when Peter’s pipes were stolen).

So popular has the statue proved, that copies of the Peter Pan statue – created using Sir George’s mould – can now be found in Liverpool as well as in countries including Canada, Brussels, Australia and the US. There are others (not copies) in Kirriemuir, Scotland (Barrie’s birthplace) and another of him with Tinkerbell outside Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children (which holds the copyright to the character).

WHERE: Peter Pan statue (nearest Tube station is Lancaster Gate); WHEN: 6am to dusk daily; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.royalparks.gov.uk/Kensington-Gardens.aspx