Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

Eel Pie Island

The river is noticeably different below Teddington Lock. The tide is at a half-way point and has exposed gravel beaches along the edges of the water. Gravel or mud beaches will be the common sight for the next two days.

The land to my right is known as the “Ham Lands”. During the early part of the twentieth century this area was intensely mined for gravel extraction. A lagoon was formed for loading the gravel on to barges, and this lagoon remains as the sailing area for Thames Young Mariners. The gravel pits were filled with the rubble and waste from the clearance of the London bomb sites; with the result that nature has taken over again and produced an area of wild grassland and plants.

The river sweeps round to the right and another little anachronism appears in view. In the middle of the river sits an island community of tightly-knit houses, studios and workshops marooned in a little sub-world of its own. I have reached the quaintly named “Eel Pie Island”.

In earlier days the island was referred to as “Twickenham Ait”, the more modern name coming into usage after the celebrated eel pies that were served up at a hotel on the island during the 1800s. There are some tales that the eel pies were famous in Henry VIII's day, but that as may well be, but my money is on this being a superb piece of marketing by some unknown individual intent on gaining publicity for the island’s hotel, which they then renamed the Eel Pie Island Hotel.

Eel Pie Island
Eel Pie Island

The hotel was originally a pub known as “The White Cross” during the 18th century, and was run by Henry Horne, who also doubled-up as the ferryman. The pub was replaced in 1830 by a much larger building, and it was then that the fun started.

However they did it, they did it well. The island soon became what the men from today’s pub company marketing teams would call a “Destination Venue”. People flocked to spend weekends and evenings on the island, eating and drinking under the trees. It was at this time that the eel pie became famous and used to promote the island. So successful were the pies that the island became known as “Eel Pie Island” and the “White Cross” became the Eel Pie Island Hotel.

The hotel had a steady time during the early parts of the twentieth century, surviving on ballroom dancing and similar leisurely pursuits, and then the island was connected to the mainland for the first time. They built a bridge in 1957 and the island began to rock.

Eric Clapton, Long John Baldry, The Who, Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Pink Floyd and many more appeared at the Eel Pie Hotel and the place was really jumping. Somehow Mick Jagger calling out “Helloooo Eel Pie” does not have the same ring to it as “Helloooo Rio” but that was way back then. (Bonus point for the pop quiz fans; what was the name of Long John Baldry’s only number one hit single?)

The crowds flocked to the venue and many of the artistes became sentimentally attached to the place. Pete Townsend founded Eel Pie Studios and many bands held recording sessions there.

All good things come to an end and the hotel had to close in 1967 because the owner could not afford the necessary repair bills. There was a brief reprise in 1969 when Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were among the bands performing at the venue, but then it closed again. In 1971 the hotel mysteriously burned down (as they do) and the island returned to peace and quiet once more.

The island today is home to Twickenham Rowing Club, Richmond Yacht Club and about fifty houses. Its most famous resident is the inventor Trevor Baylis, who invented the wind-up radio.

I continue onwards, sounds of the sixties playing in my brain, in particular the song “Let the Heartaches Begin” which reached No.1 in 1967 for Long John Baldry.

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