Eel Pie Island

Eel Pie Island, Richmond upon Thames

Earlier called Twickenham Ait or simply ‘the Parish Ayte’, this is the largest island in London’s stretch of the Thames, lying between Twickenham and the Ham riverside lands

geograph-2843101-by-Julian-Osley - Footbridge - Eel Pie Island

The ait is rumoured to have been the site of a monastery and much lat­er was sup­pos­ed­ly used as a ‘court­ing ground’ by Hen­ry VIII. From at least the ear­ly 17th cen­tu­ry it attract­ed day-trip­pers, who came to pic­nic or fish here, and lat­er to enjoy the renowned pies that were made with local­ly caught eels and served at the White Cross pub­lic house. Although this culi­nary spe­cial­i­ty is the most obvi­ous (and like­ly) expla­na­tion of the island’s present-day name, anoth­er sto­ry sug­gests that a roy­al mis­tress who had a house here called it Île de Paix (island of peace), which was folk-angli­cised as ‘Eel Pie’.

Twick­en­ham Row­ing Club has been based on Eel Pie Island since 1880, twen­ty years after it was found­ed by local res­i­dent Hen­ri d’Or­leans, Duc d’Au­male.

Many of the island’s wood-framed prop­er­ties date from the ear­ly 1900s, when they were used as sum­mer hous­es by wealthy Edwar­dian Lon­don­ers. The struc­tures sur­vive well and fetch high prices. The island’s pedes­tri­an bridge was built in 1957.

In the 1950s and 60s the ait became famous for its noisy jazz club at the Eel Pie Island Hotel, where the Rolling Stones first emerged, and The Who, Pink Floyd and Gen­e­sis also played gigs ear­ly in their careers. Eel Pie Island has even been called ‘the place where the Six­ties began’. The hotel closed in 1967 and briefly became some­thing of a hip­pie com­mune before it burned down dur­ing its demoli­ton in 1971.

Hidden London: Eel Pie boatyard and Phoenix Wharf

In 1996 a boat­yard and 60 neigh­bour­ing artists’ stu­dios also burnt down. An appeal brought dona­tions from the local com­mu­ni­ty in Twick­en­ham as well as from sev­er­al rock stars.

The island is nowa­days home to around two dozen artists’ stu­dios, sit­u­at­ed in and around the boat­yard. Twice a year, the stu­dios open their doors to vis­i­tors, pro­vid­ing an oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk to the artists and buy or com­mis­sion new art­works.

Most of the island is pri­vate prop­er­ty and there’s not much oppor­tu­ni­ty to wan­der off the sole arte­r­i­al path. As Miss Immy points out in her delight­ful­ly illus­trat­ed blog post on the sub­ject, “To be hon­est, unless it’s the artists’ open day week­end, or you hap­pen to know some­one who lives on the island, there is very lit­tle to see there these days.”

Postcode area: Twickenham TW1
Website: Eel Pie Island Association
Further reading: Twickenham Museum web page on Eel Pie Island


* The picture of the Eel Pie Island footbridge on this page is adapted from an original photograph, copyright Julian Osley, at Geograph Britain and Ireland, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence. Any subsequent reuse is freely permitted under the terms of that licence.