A Day in the Life of Eel Pie Island

As dawn breaks at Eel Pie Island, a chorus of parakeets welcomes the day. The resident foxes leisurely pad back to their dens embedded in the tangled undergrowth of the nature reserves at opposite ends of the Island. The owls hoot for the last time as night turns to day. The early rising mallards and red crested pochards along with a few straggling coots, make their way to the steps at the junction of the footbridge and the Embankment at Twickenham.

At six o clock the bridge rumbles under the enthusiastic footfall of the boisterous young rowers making their way noisily to the Rowing Club. A few minutes later their mono-skulls nose their way into the restless River Thames elbowing its way on both sides of the Island towards Richmond and further still, Central London, some eight miles downstream.

Slowly the Island begins to stir. The dustbin operatives steadily tug the bins over the bridge to the waiting dustbin lorry. A little after seven, Ken Dwan’s boat building team arrive at Eel Pie Slipways. One of the river passenger cruisers and several barges await their dedicated labour. As I leave Phoenix Wharf, with its fifteen studios, to pick up my paper and morning latte, the first of the occupants arrive. We erected the studios ourselves using a mobile crane floated downstream from Platts Eyot on a specially adapted pontoon. Prior to that, Pat Walsh and his son David, operating their crane barge, had cleared the site of some 500 cubic metres of rubble created by the incineration of the former boatyard and studios of Eel Pie Marine.

The wooden structure had housed some 60 artists and boat builders since the 1980’s in a ramshackle jumble of creative chaos. Ironically, on Guy Fawkes night in 1996, a fire tore through the boatyard. The conflagration made the national news, as 24 fire engines lined the bank opposite the Island. Barges were hastily lined up side by side cross the River to support the firemen’s hoses. But the boatyard could not be rescued.

In the summer of 1997, I bought half of what remained. After a protracted planning process, construction of the oak clad, steel framed boathouse buildings commenced in 2001 and were completed some seven years later. The studios were designed for creative businesses, and today dynamic companies in design, internet products, film production, marketing and PR occupy the space. The atmosphere is fresh and relaxed. Sandwiched between the busy boatyards of Eel Pie Boatyard and Eel Pie Slipways, Phoenix Wharf is testament to the energy and creativity abounding in Twickenham.

Directly across the River from Phoenix Wharf, the ragstone tower of St Mary’s Church proudly stands, the first piece of the 500 year jigsaw that is the Twickenham Riverside village. Listed Grade 2 star, it is one of the Borough’s architectural gems; so precious that it seems one day a storm might just blow it away. This unique place on the tidal River, described by Horace Walpole in the eighteenth century as a ‘sea port in miniature’, still echoed this spirit by the community of barges and boat projects along the Eel Pie riverbank.

The grey brick and metal roofed houses of Aquarius soak up the morning sun as their inhabitants emerge to start their day. There is no relic left of the former White Cross Hotel that stood on the site until 1971, when it was demolished after, yes, another fire. Yet the echo of the hotels legendary British R & B scene of the sixties still echoes on the Island. Indeed, it was that memory which drew me to the Island some twenty years ago, and still holds me in its trance. My son was inspired to start up a rock band here. Mystery Jets pioneered a local indie music scene, Thamesbeat, that continues to this day.

Around 9 am, the River at the footbridge is alive with wild life. The Canadian and Egyptian geese and elegant white swans, together with hordes of crows and seagulls hungrily fight over the breadcrumbs thrown at them by regular visitors to the Embankment. Near the footbridge stands Syds Quay where an Eel Pie start up company, Tech 21, has blossomed from a shared desk space in Phoenix Wharf into a global company employing several hundred people in the Borough and many hundreds worldwide. The bright young things of Tech 21 come and go in their droves, helping transform the Island from a quiet suburban enclave into a bustling technological hub. Sleepy Island has morphed into Silicon Island.

Yet the old, single storey corrugated steel clad bungalows of pre-modern times live on at the eastern end of the Island, in a time warp of their own, and long may it stay that way. The Island has morphed from mud flat to a lively community, and will continue to adapt to changing needs and fashions over future centuries, always looking forward.

The Island is abuzz during the day with purposeful activity. But as the sun sets, and the dynamic energy escapes back over the footbridge and the boatyards pack away their tools, the Island returns to its alter ego, the unassuming sylvan retreat of yore. The commuters return home, the pathway lamps gleam into life and as the evening wears on, the foxes emerge from their lairs once more, to claim the Island once again for themselves.