Secret London: Why you should go and explore Eel Pie Island this weekend

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Eel Pie Island

An artistic haven on the Thames: visit Eel Pie Island

Visiting London for the umpteenth time this summer and so looking for something a little different, a little out of the ordinary on at least one of the days of your stay? Well, in that case, why not explore the original and eclectic Eel Pie Island a visit?

Why should you visit Eel Pie Island? 

It’s a wee enclave to be found in the centre of the River Thames, lying roughly between the West London districts of Twickenham and Richmond. Granted, it’s a little way from the centre of town then (especially if you’re staying at one of the hotels near London South Bank) and when you land on the island itself, you may be a bit put off with the sight of, er, headless dolls and teddy bears strewn about the place, but you shouldn’t be – this is no low-budget British horror film locale; in fact, it’s a place of British musical legend.

It’s all down to the fact that, way back in the 1920s (yes, nearly a century ago), it was people flocked for the Eel Pie Island Hotel; a big, splendiferous 19th-Century accommodation that hosted a great many great evenings’ entertainment of the ballroom dancing and jazz variety. And then, more celebrated nowadays, it eventually – come the mid-to-late ’60s was a critical rock music venue for up-and-coming local-ish artists, such as The Who, Rod Stewart and Pink Floyd (yes, something of a far cry from the likes of the Shaftesbury Premier London Paddington hotel).

A touchpoint in rock history?

Yes, indeed; come the ‘Swinging Sixties’, youthful rebellion was in the air thanks to all the mod-ish culture that abounded, not least the terrific rock-guitar-driven licks and melodies of the awesome music of the era and, as an entry-level-venue for so many great bands of artists of the era, the Eel Pie Hotel was something of an unheralded but crucial component of the scene.

Aside from those already mentioned, the likes of David Bowie, Genesis and Black Sabbath were all performers on its marquee at one time or another. And yet, times moved on and, sadly, thanks to the, well, ebullience of the rebellious clientele who’d attend the gigs, fisticuffs would progress to arson and the hotel itself became severely damaged, forcing the closure of the venue by the end of the ’60s and, inevitably given the era, its appropriation by anarchist types whom called the place home as a major hippie commune until a mysterious fire saw it burn down and turn to ash for good in 1971.

So, what’s on the island nowadays?

A good question, indeed. Just why should you visit the place nearly 50 years on if the island’s best times are well past? Well, it could well be that it’s best times aren’t past, after all, but going on right now because, retaining its somewhat rebellious but definitely artistic reputation, it’s today home to a commune of a different sort – a business-oriented one – as it’s a community of artists (ceramics, glassworks, metalworks, trinket-crafters and so on amidst the more predictable painters and portraitists) as well as the odd upmarket design and marketing firm.

All of which means that the 21st Century Eel Pie Island isn’t just rejuvenated but, in fact, a destination worthy of a relaxed yet alternative and rather hipsterish-cool day out. One on which you could well pick up an unusual and totally idiosyncratic souvenir. As well as soak the ghosts of rock music’s legendary past. Quite a heady mix, indeed.