Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s Ship of Tolerance is moored at Royal Docks this month ahead of the annual celebration of London’s river, Totally Thames, in September. The 60 foot long, hand-crafted wooden ship is dedicated to educating and inspiring young people and features sails made by children from 40 London primary schools, Great Ormond Street Hospital and refugee centres in Birmingham, Leeds, Peterborough and Calais. The award-winning ship was first launched in Egypt in 2005 and has since appeared in numerous cities around the world including Venice, Havana, Moscow, New York and Rome. It can be seen at Royal Docks until 31st August and then outside the Tate Modern from 4th September to 6th October. For more on the ship and Totally Thames, see www.totallythames.orgPICTURE: Courtesy of Totally Thames.

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Tower Bridge marked its 125th birthday last weekend so to celebrate, here’s some different angles on London’s most photographed bridge. The Victorian Gothic bascule and suspension bridge, which spans the Thames just to the east of London Bridge (with which it’s not to be confused), took eight years to build and was officially opened on 30th June, 1894, by the then Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra). For more on the celebrations taking place at the bridge over the coming weeks and months, see www.towerbridge.org.uk/125/.

 

Millennium Bridge crossing the Thames between the City of London and South Bank. PICTURE: Toa Heftiba/Unsplash (image cropped).

Part of the garden at the historic Thames-side mansion Ham House has been redesigned with the aim of bringing some new life to the manicured lawns. Rosie Fyles, head gardener at the 17th century property in Richmond – now in the care of the National Trust, has overseen the planting of a series of “plats” – each the size of a tennis court – with some 500,000 bulbs and wildflowers to create a “pageant of colour” from early spring and throughout summer. The plats have also been created with wildlife and diversity in mind, using naturalising bulbs to attract bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects. Fyles hopes the project will prove inspirational for home gardeners. “You can easily use pots, planters or a small area of border to create a pollinator-friendly bulb display over a few early spring months; in fact you can curate your own sequence of flowering from February to May at least,” she said. “We have used Crocus ‘Ruby Giant’, four types of species tulips (including bright red Tulipa linifolia) and Muscari latifolium to create a bright, deep blue carpet of colour.” For more, head to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ham-house-and-garden. ALL PICTURES: National Trust/Chris Davies.


The first purpose-built luxury hotel built in Britain (and often referred to as London’s “most famous” hotel), The Savoy opened its doors on 6th August, 1889.

Located on the river side of the Strand on the site of what had been the medieval Savoy Palace (its most famous resident was John of Gaunt), the hotel was built by theatre impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte using profits made from his staging of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, some of which were performed in the neighbouring Savoy Theatre.

The now Grade II-listed building, which apparently had no overall architect in its initial design process, exuded opulence and its interiors included the latest in modern amenities such as electric lighting and lifts, en suite bathrooms in most of the guest rooms and constant cold and hot running water.

César Ritz, who would later rise to fame as the owner of The Ritz Hotel in Paris and then London (see our recent post), was hired as the manager and Auguste Escoffier as the chef. Together they oversaw the introduction of a new, unprecedented level of hotel service which would set the standard for future enterprises. This included keeping a comprehensive index of guest’s tastes and preferences and saw Escoffier revolutionise the restaurant industry in the country with the creation of various “stations” in the kitchen (his pots and pans are apparently still at the hotel).

The hotel was expanded in 1903-04 under the eye of architect Thomas Edward Collcutt (the designer of Wigmore Hall) with new east and west wings and the main entrance was moved from the river side of the building to Savoy Court running off The Strand. The Front Hall is a survivor of this period while the Lancaster Ballroom dates from 1910.

The hotel underwent further remodelling in the 1920s – it was during this period that the famous stainless steel sign over the Savoy Court entrance, designed by art deco architect Howard Robertson (later Sir Howard), was created (Savoy Court incidentally is the only street in the UK where traffic must keep to the right – more on that another time). The sign is topped with a gilt statue of Peter of Savoy, the uncle to King Henry III’s wife, Eleanor of Provence (pictured below). It was Peter who first built the Savoy Palace on the land where the hotel now stands. The sign, meanwhile, was created for the 1904 extension but placed here during the 1920s works.

Further modifications – including the introduction of air conditioning – followed in later decades. The hotel now boasts some 267 rooms and suites (the latter include the Royal Suite which spans the entire riverside of the fifth floor), many of which feature panoramic views of the River Thames.

Famous guests over the years have included royalty such as King Edward VII (when Prince of Wales) as well as more recent royals, French actress Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Charlie Chaplin, Sir Henry Irving and Sir Laurence Olivier. It’s also hosted a who’s who of Hollywood – everyone from Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland to Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne – and US President Harry S Truman.

Others associated with the hotel include opera singer Dame Nellie Melba – the dessert known as a Peach Melba was created here in her honour, and artist Claude Monet, who painted Waterloo Bridge from a position on one of the balconies.

Among other significant events to take place within its walls was a 1905 “Gondola Party” hosted by American millionaire George A Kessler which saw the central courtyard flooded as part of a recreation of Venice with guests dining on an enormous gondola and entertainment featuring singer Enrico Caruso.

In 1953, to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the hotel hosted a ball attended by 1,400 of the rich and famous with special touches including 16 Yeoman Warders from the Tower of London who lined the entrance staircase.

Films shot here include Kipps (1921), based on a HG Wells novel (Wells was in attendance during the filming), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) and Notting Hill (1999).

The Savoy remained in the Carte family until it was bought by an American private equity house in 1998 and eventually sold, in the mid-2000s, to become part of Fairmont Hotels and Resorts of Canada.

Closed in late 2007 for a complete renovation (the cost of which has been put at £220 million), it reopened in October, 2010. Among restaurants and bars now in the premises are the Thames Foyer restaurant – hosted in a glass atrium, it’s where afternoon tea is taken, the American Bar – described as the oldest cocktail bar in Britain, the Beaufort Bar, and the restaurant Kaspar’s.

The latter is named after the hotel’s oldest “employee” – Kaspar the Cat. Carved in 1927 by Basil Ionides, the cat was created to act as a 14th guest in the private dining rooms when 13 guests were present, a figure which was considered unlucky and which, tradition held, meant the first person to leave the table would one the first to die.

Its origins go back to 1898 when a wealthy South African by the name of Woolf Joel apparently scoffed at the idea of 13 being an unlucky number at the table and volunteered to leave it first. He was shot dead back in South Africa just a few week’s later. In the wake of his death, management at the hotel decreed that any table of 13 would be joined by a staff member.

But this was only a short-term solution – not only there was there the privacy of diners to consider, the fact staff would be a person down when this was required was a problem. So when Ionides redecorated the private dining room ‘Pinafore’ in the 1920s, he created the cat, complete with napkin, to fulfil the role of the 14th diner. And so he has ever since. Kaspar, the subject of a children’s book written by Michael Morpugo in 2008, can these days be found in Kaspar’s or, when not working, in the Front Hall.

For more, see www.thesavoylondon.com

And so we’ve reached the end of another year on Exploring London. As always, we counting down our 10 most popular new posts for the year, starting with numbers nine and 10 (and they both come from the same special Wednesday series on Thames islands)…

9. 10 islands in the Thames – 10. Garrick’s Ait…

10. 10 islands in the Thames – 6. Glover’s Island…

 

 

Looking across the O2 Arena towards the Docklands. PICTURE: Claus Grünstäudl/Unsplash

A massive wooden head has temporarily been added to London’s skyline this week as part of the month long celebration of London’s river, Totally Thames. The nine metre high sculpture ‘Head Above Water’, which stands on Queen’s Stone Jetty (also known as Gabriel’s Pier) near Gabriel’s Wharf on South Bank, has been made from cross-laminated timber sourced from sustainable forests. Deliberately gender, ethnicity and age neutral, it is the work of designer/sculptor Steuart Padwick and looks across the Thames at the City of London and St Paul’s Cathedral, standing “as a symbol of hope, bravery, compassion, positivity and change, for those who have come through or are still confronting mental health issues, and the people who support them”. The sculpture has been installed in support of the mental health campaign ‘Time to Change’ and at night is being lit with visitors able to interact with its changing colours to reflect their mood (for instructions on how to get involved, head to www.steuartpadwick.co.uk/head-above-water/.) The head can only be seen until 23rd September.

PICTURE: The head being installed (David Holt/licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Video games – their design and use both in terms of gaming but also in pushing boundaries – are the subject of a new exhibition opening at the V&A this Saturday. Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt will provide rare glimpses into the creative process behind games like The Last of Us, Journey and Kentucky Route Zero through original prototypes, early character designs and notebooks as well as cultural inspirational material ranging from a Magritte painting to a viral cat video. The display also features large scale, interactive and immersive multimedia installations featuring games like Minecraft and League of Legends, and explore how major technological advancements have transformed the way games are designed, discussed and played. Runs in Room 39 and North Court until 24th February. Admission charge applies. For more, see vam.ac.uk/videogames. PICTURE: V&A.

The Natural History Museum is celebrating Roald Dahl Day (13th September) with a James and the Giant Peach weekend. The South Kensington museum will this weekend offer a range of James and the Giant Peach-inspired family-friendly events and activities including the chance to see insects up close in the Darwin Centre and the Wildlife Garden as well as specimens in the Attenborough Studio. There’s also the chance to take in a ‘Whizzbanging Words’ session with a team from the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, and music from the three-piece band, Roald Dahl’s Giant Bugs. Runs from 11am to 4.50pm on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free (but some events are ticketed – check website for details). For more, see www.nhm.ac.uk/events/james-and-the-giant-weekend.html

An exhibition revealing some of the historical artefacts found by some of London’s most prolific Mudlarks along the banks of the River Thames opens on Tuesday as part of Totally Thames. Hannah Smiles has been taking the pictures over the past year and they capture everything from Tudor-era pins to World War II shells, medieval pottery, human teeth and even messages in bottles. The photographs and artefacts themselves both form part of the display. A series of talks by Mudlarks accompanies the free display. It can be viewed at the Art Hub Studios, 5-9 Creekside, in Deptford until 16th September. For more information, head to www.totallythames.org.

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

To be held from 4pm today on the River Thames, Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race is a London institution. The race originated in 1715, and sees up to six apprentice watermen (this year there are two – Alfie Anderson and George McCarthy – rowing the four mile, seven furlong course stretching from London Bridge upriver to Cadogan Pier in Chelsea (these days under 11 bridges) as they compete for the prize of a coat and badge (pictured above). The race came about thanks to Thomas Doggett, a Dublin-born actor and noted Whig, who founded it in honour of the accession of the House of Hanover – in the form of King George I – on 1st August, 1714. Doggett himself personally organised the race for the first few years before leaving provisions in his will for it to be continued. It’s been run almost every year since – there was apparently a break during World War II. While it was initially rowed against the tide, since 1873 competitors have had the luxury of rowing with it, meaning race times have dropped from what sometimes stretched to as long as two hours to between 25 and 30 minutes. This year, the event is being held as part of the Totally Thames festival which, among its packed programme of events, also features a series of exhibitions about the race – titled ‘The World’s Oldest Boat Race’, being held at various locations. PICTURES: From The World’s Oldest Boat Race exhibitions. Top – Doggett’s Coat and Badge (© Hydar Dewachi); Below – ‘Doggett’s Coat and Badge’, a coloured lithograph commissioned to mark the first publication of Guinness Book of World Records.


A fairly self-explanatory place name, Hammersmith, a district located in London’s west, records the fact there was once a blacksmith’s forge here.

The name, which also refers to the westernmost of London’s inner boroughs – since 1979 under the combined name of Hammersmith and Fulham, derives from two Anglo-Saxon words and dates back to at least the 13th century.

The village of Hammersmith sprang up along the major roads leading out of London and its roads, including some of the busiest in the city, still dominate the area’s landscape.

There’s been a chapel of ease in the village of Hammersmith since the early 1660s but in 1834 it became the parish church. The current Grade II-listed church, St Paul’s Hammersmith, dates from 1883 and contains some monuments from the original building.

Other significant sites in Hammersmith include St Peter’s Church which, built in 1829, is now the oldest church, the Lyric Theatre which has origins going back to the 1880s, and, The Dove, which was listed by Guinness World Records as having the smallest bar in the world.

Hammersmith Bridge, which runs across the River Thames to Barnes, is a Grade II* suspension bridge designed by the civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette and opened in 1887. It replaced an earlier bridge designed by William Tierney Clark and opened in 1827 (it was the first suspension bridge across the Thames).

PICTURES: Above – Hammersmith Bridge (Matt Brown – licensed under CC BY 2.0); Hammersmith Underground Station (Peter Gasston – licensed under CC BY-ND-NC 2.0); The Dove  (Herry Lawford – licensed under CC BY 2.0).

 

St Paul’s Cathedral and the City of London. PICTURE: Brunel Johnson/Unsplash

This month marks the 187 years since the opening of “new” London Bridge – the first bridge built over the Thames in London for more than 600 years.

Designed by John Rennie (who had won a competition, beating the likes of Thomas Telford for the honour), work on the new granite bridge had began in 1825 and was completed in 1831.

It was constructed alongside the medieval bridge which had been first completed in the 13th century and added to over the years since (and was eventually completely demolished after the opening of the ‘new’ bridge).

The ‘new’ bridge, said to have cost £506,000 to construct, was formally opened by King William IV on 1st August, 1831, in an event described by The Times as “the most splendid spectacle that has been witnessed on the Thames for many years”.

The royal party – which included Queen Adelaide – had approached the bridge, lined with flags for the occasion, after setting off from Somerset House amid cheering described as “almost deafening” (to add to cacophony of sound, church bells were rung and cannon fired throughout the day).

Watched by thousands of onlookers (who were entertained by bands at various locations), the royal party had processed their way downstream on the river to the bridge with the royal bargemen wearing new livery specially designed for the occasion. Two parallel lines of rivercraft – including barges and steamers – had gathered along the river to provide a sort of honour guard and ensure they had clear passage.

The royals arrived at the bridge at 4pm and the royal party made their way up red carpeted stairs to the bridge’s City end. Following a short ceremony in which the King was presented by the Lord Mayor of London with the sword and keys to the City of London as well as a specially made gold medal to mark the occasion, their Majesties then walked across from the across the bridge to the Southwark end where entertainments had included the ascension of a hot air balloon.

The King and the royal party then returned to the City end of the bridge to attend a banquet – guests were said to number 1,500 people – held under a pavilion erected atop the new structure.

The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that food was provided by a coffee house proprietor, a Mr Leech, and was said to include 150 hams and tongues, 370 “dishes of chickens”, and 300 turtles as well as 200 fruit tarts and 300 “ice-creams”.

The King and royal party then returned up the river.

Rennie’s bridge was replaced in the mid-20th century with another bridge which was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973 and rather than being demolished, was sold to US oil magnate Robert P McCulloch who had it dismantled and shipped to Arizona where it was reconstructed at Lake Havasu City where it can now be seen.

A couple of sections of the bridge survive in London – two of its pedestrian alcoves, one of which can be found in Victoria Park in London’s east and the other at King’s College London.

There is a famous painting – Clarkson Stanfield’s, The Opening of New London Bridge, 1 August 1831 – which captures the moment of the bridge’s opening and is part of the Royal Collection.

PICTURES: Top – ‘A View of the New London Bridge as It Appeared on the 1st August 1831, When Opened by His Majesty, King William the 4th’, Unknown artist, Lithograph on paper, Photo © Tate (licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)); Right – The alcove in Victoria Park (Public Domain).

PICTURE: Sandy Kemsley (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Since 1991, a statue of Dr Alfred Salter (as well as his daughter Joyce and cat) had sat on the south bank of the River Thames in Bermondsey.

But after the statue of Dr Salter – MP for Bermondsey for many years – was stolen in 2011 (presumably for scrap value) and the statues of Joyce and the cat subsequently put into storage, it was decided to reassemble the group but this time adding in a new figure – that of Dr Salter’s wife Ada, whose story was certainly as significant as his.

A social reformer, environmentalist and pacifist, Ada Salter (1866-1942) was co-founder and president of the Women’s Labour League, one of the first women councillors in London (she was elected to Bermondsey in 1909) and, on being appointed Mayor of Bermondsey in 1922, the first woman mayor in London and the first Labour woman mayor in Britain.

In 1931, she was elected chair of the National Gardens Guild. Together the couple, who were both Quakers, dedicated much of their lives to helping the people of Bermondsey, regenerating slums, building model housing and planting thousands of trees.

A campaign was subsequently launched to raise funds to replace the statue of Dr Salter and install a new one of Ada and, on raising £120,000 (the £60,000 raised was matched by Southwark Council), artist Diane Gorvin, who had designed the original statue of Dr Salter, was commissioned to make them.

The resultant statues – known collectively as ‘The Salter Statues’ and ‘Dr Salter’s Daydream’ – were unveiled where the previous grouping had been found at Bermondsey Wall East near the Angel pub, in November, 2014.

While Dr Salter sits on a granite bench looking toward the river and his daughter Joyce, who leans against the river wall watched by the family cat, Ada stands nearby – also looking at her daughter – but with a spade in her hand.

Writes the artist: “The idea was to show Dr Salter in old age remembering  his young daughter when she was still alive. Ada is represented with a spade as she was so instrumental in tree and planting schemes for Bermondsey. Her left hand is designed to hold real flowers. It was important to celebrate the work of this couple who dedicated their lives to helping the local community.”

There’s a poignant aspect to the statues in that Joyce, the couple’s only child, had died at the age of eight from scarlet fever in 1910.

Ada Salter also has a garden named after her in Southwark Park.

PICTURE: Top – Loz Pycock (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 – image cropped and lightened); Right – Marc Pether-Longman (licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0); Below – Steve James (licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0).

We’re starting a new Wednesday series but before we do, here’s a recap…

10 islands in the Thames – 1. Chiswick Eyot…

10 islands in the Thames – 2. Oliver’s Ait…

10 islands in the Thames – 3. Brentford Ait…

10 islands in the Thames – 4. Isleworth Ait...

10 islands in the Thames – 5. Corporation Island (and the Flowerpots)…

10 islands in the Thames – 6. Glover’s Island…

10 islands in the Thames – 7. Eel Pie Island…

10 islands in the Thames – 8. Thames Ditton Island…

10 islands in the Thames – 9. Taggs Island…

10 islands in the Thames – 10. Garrick’s Ait…

We launch our next new series next Wednesday…

And so we come to the final entry in our Wednesday special series on River Thames islands. 

Garrick’s Ait, which was previously known as Shank’s Eyot, lies only a few hundred metres upstream from Taggs Island and is said to be the only island in Britain named after an actor – in this case, 18th century star David Garrick.

Similarly to other Thames islands, it was traditionally used to grow and harvest willow osiers but was later popular for picnics and camping. There were apparently no permanent buildings until the 1920s and 1930s when wooden cabins begin to appear on the island and it’s now home to about 20 houses (three were reportedly destroyed in a 2003 fire).

The island took on the name of Garrick’s Ait (ait, like eyot, we recall, being a name for a river island) after the actor bought a property on the Hampton bank in 1754 which he named Garrick’s Villa. In its grounds he famously built a garden folly known as the Temple to Shakespeare.

The ait, which can only be accessed by boat and which sits closer to the Molesey bank than the Hampton bank, was apparently one of three Thames islands that Garrick bought in the area (along with several properties).

PICTURE: © David Kemp (licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0)

 


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)

We’re skipping upstream, past a few islands this week, to take a look at Thames Ditton Island which lies in Kingston Reach, above Teddington Lock. The island is the largest of a group of three which also includes Swan Island (the smallest) and Boyle Farm Island.

Located opposite the grounds of Hampton Court Palace (built by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in the early 16th century and then, following his fall from grace, claimed by King Henry VIII in 1525), the 320 metre long Thames Ditton Island owes its existence to King Henry who had the river widened and straightened here so that he could use the river for an uninterrupted journey up the river from Westminster to Hampton Court. In doing so, the island was created.

Used as pasture land for the local manor (and known apparently at one point as Colly’s Ait, ait being a word for a river island, before being renamed Thames Ditton after the village on the west bank) for several centuries, the island became a popular recreation spot for the wealthy interested in water sports during the Edwardian era, thanks to the arrival of the railway in the area in the late 19th century.

The island is these days connected to the Thames Ditton bank by a 1930s suspension bridge which ends near the 13th century Ye Olde Swan pub. It is now home to more than 45 rather exclusive riverside properties (almost all are in stilts to help ward off the danger of flooding, a phenomenon with which long-term residents in the area are familiar).

Swan Island, while lies just to the south of Thames Ditton Island, is tiny and the location of the home of the ferryman, who up until 1911, would take people across the river to Hampton Court.

Further to the south likes Boyle Farm Island which also has a single house open it. It stands opposite the mainland property formerly known as Boyle Farm but now a nursing home known as the Home of Compassion.

Interestingly, while Thames Ditton Island is part of Greater London, Boyle Farm Island is part of Surrey (along with Thames Ditton village).

PICTURE: Andrew Lewin (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

And so we come to one of the most curiously named, yet perhaps most famous, of all the Thames islands in London.

First, to the name. The almost nine acre island, which was previously divided into two and perhaps even three, was previously known by other names including Twickenham Ait and Parish Ait. A place of recreation since perhaps as early as the start of the 17th century – there’s an early reference to a bowling alley being located there, since at least the mid-18th century it was also home to an inn, known variously as The Ship and The White Cross.

During the 19th century, the island became a popular destination for steamer excursions and the inn was rebuilt on a grander scale in about 1830. It became famous for the eel pies that could be bought there – so popular were they that the island’s name was apparently changed in tribute (although there’s a very dubious story that it was King Henry VIII who first made the island’s eel pies famous by stopping to sample one from a stall there – that, however, seems unlikely).

Second, to the fame. Now known as the Eel Pie Hotel, in the first half of the 20th century the inn began an association with music which would see it one day make an important contribution to the development of British pop music.

Dances were held there in the 1920s and 30s and in the mid-1950s, jazz sessions were held there. By the Sixties, the venue – under the stewardship of Arthur Chisnall – had started to attract R&B bands and among those who played here in the following years were everyone from Eric Clapton (as part of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers) and The Rolling Stones to The Who, The Moody Blues, David Bowie and Rod Stewart. In 1967, the venue was forced to close due to the cost of repairs but reopened briefly in 1969 as ‘Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden’, attracting bands including Black Sabbath, Hawkwind and the Edgar Broughton Band.

The new venture didn’t last. Squatters moved in and in 1971, the hotel burned down in a “mysterious” fire while it was being demolished.

The island, the centre of which was again damaged by fire in 1996, now hosts about 50 homes and a few boatyards as well as other businesses and artist’s studios. It’s also home to the Twickenham Rowing Club, which was first established in 1860 and moved to the island in 1880.

While for many years it could only be accessed by ferry, the island can these days be accessed via a footbridge (the first bridge was installed in 1957 and replaced in 1998).

Notable residents on the island have included William Hartnell, the original Dr Who, and inventor Trevor Baylis (best known for the wind-up radio). The island has appeared in several books and TV shows including the 2005 series How To Start Your Own Country in which TV personality Danny Wallace attempted to “invade” the island. He was unsuccessful.

PICTURES: Above – Eel Pie Island from Twickenham. Below – A signboard tribute to the island’s musical heritage. (David Adams).