Claire Corlett

Fish Food, Fish Tanks, and More
Clinging to a Mudflat – Eel Pie Island

Clinging to a Mudflat – Eel Pie Island

A friend of mine who used to have a
studio here once described it in a really beautiful way that I’ve never
forgotten and he said it’s an oasis of chaos in a desert of suburban calm and I
think that kind of sums it up really well It’s just different being on an island
there’s something special I can’t explain, it’s just you go over that
bridge and, I don’t know, it’s like putting the drawbridge up behind you I mean there was definitely rock-and-roll
and definitely drugs and I like to think there was sex as well Before the war I mean you would have had
thousands of rowing skiffs and punts going up and down the river and people
calling off for tea and in fact originally the Eel Pie Island Hotel originally pleasure
steamers used to stop there and people used to get up and have tea on the lawn
and that kind of thing My father used to hire a boat on the
Sunday afternoon and row us up past the island and we used to stop just up here
I think it’s Min Y Don now and the lady used to sell pop, bottles a pop and we
used to stop and have a bottle of pop This strip of land and the ones along in
front had all been tea gardens and we used to come here just to be by the
river you know, she used to bring me down used to this this was completely
overgrown matted with trees, so that was back in the days actually I can just
remember when there wasn’t a bridge and used to come across in the ferry. In those days it was a little bit like an abandoned Island with dilapidated huts
and boatyards and this dilapidated old hotel looking a bit like an old film set
which has seen better days and of course the people there were more dilapidated too. There are various communities in the islands, there’s the Aquarians who are
very much a law unto themselves and they have a high fence around their
development and they keep pretty much to themselves and you’ve got Mark
Montgomery’s people here who a lot of them are boat builders, artists, craftsmen
they keep pretty much to themselves At the other end of the island you’ve got
all the original seaside or riverside bungalows a lot of which are the
original buildings and again they’re behind a gate and they’re pretty well
a community in themselves so there’s at least three or four communities. I mean it was originally a boat builders house from about the 1920s or 30s,
well it certainly appears on maps from 1920, it appears on that from there just
this little front bit of the house but it was the people that owned this before
it added bits and pieces on to it but it’s all just all been held together
with bits of wood and corrugated iron and string and blue tack and stuff, it
was never properly built it’s all just it’s why it’s called The Love Shack
because it is a shack. This house arrived in a barge, from the docks, the house
actually came on the ship, on the same ship as the Christmas tree the
Norwegians put up in Trafalgar Square every year I came onto the island I thought cool
it’ll be groovy, you know, that stuff because they had a jazz club here in those days
and it was considered you know ‘Hey Man’ and it was just terrific and anyway I came over here and
I started to build a house of my dreams now if you look at it
one of the first things I did I put a swimming pool in the back and the reason
for that was twofold, one because I like swimming but two because I could use the
soil to put in front of the house here and build a concrete platform to
keep the water out of the front window as it were. I’m a lucky boy because
Aquarius is being built and the company went into liquidation, unfortunately for
me I’m building my house and a bricklayer came to me and said “here Trev, want to buy some
bricks?” yeah okay so I’ve got – my house now was built from the bricks that have been
given to me by the builders down the other end, who have been sacked. You know
Aquarius would have got soundproofing if it hadn’t been for me. I was walking through Twickenham and I suddenly saw a sign in Gascoigne Pees estate
agent ‘do you want to live on an island’ and I thought “yes, I want to
live on an island!” so I walked over the bridge and the minute I got here I thought – I mean I
lived in a seven-bedroom house in Teddington so it was a bit like moving
into an over large Caravan coming here but I’ve never regretted it for one
minute. One Sunday morning I was walking past an estate agents in Marble Arch
and I came across this which was an advertisement for a house and it
says ‘freehold house with a place for your own boat at the end of your garden,
Eel Pie Island is an island of great historic value and is famous for its eels
and its pies and is renowned for its exotic nightlife and activities, it is
now a very pleasant and tranquil island the perfect location to get away from all the
congestion.’ We’d looked at a house on in Aquarius and decided it was too close
to the river. I was terrified that as soon as the baby could crawl it would
crawl straight into the river and that would be the end of it.
So we discovered that children who are born on the island don’t gravitate towards
the river, it’s their friends who come and visit who sort of hang over the fence
and you have to grab them by the shoulders, so we’ve been here ever since. We came to the island on a 24 foot boat that we’d sailed back
from Spain to London when Helen was 19 and I was 20 someone told us that there was a
very nice boatyard on Eel Pie Island called Eel Pie Marine Centre so we came
here for three weeks in 1986 before we lived here and that’s how we came to the island. Huw and I brought a sailing boat here in about 1990 so not that long and
it was before the fire in the boatyard and we had our boat here for about five
years. Coming over here was a bit like holiday really it’s nice to be out
on the river but I wouldn’t have wanted to live here because it was a bit
monocultural for me and I still find it like that actually. This island, when I first came here, was a bit of a residential backwater it was a place
where people came and escape from the real world and they were slightly NIMBYish
they certainly were NIMBYish towards me, they didn’t like
outsiders, they kept to themselves it was very inward looking and it was bit
rooted in the past. I can’t wait to get back here, this is the best house on the
island, it’s right in the middle of the island it has the view over the
riverside down there of the Barmy Arms and stuff, everything goes on in the path
it’s the best spot on the island – we see everyone, we are the perfect curtain twitcher
no one gets past here without stopping to say hello. And for the residents the
island is a community a little village, there are a few people who don’t want to buy into that
as there would always be but by and large people we all know the neighbours
we all know you know it’s quite a nice village feeling to it. I’ve often had
this problem it takes more than half an hour to get off the island because you
keep stopping and meeting people and discussing something you know. It’s quite a
heavy drinking island because it’s very social it’s a really social island. It’s fantastic because it was very bohemian and there was a lot of people working on
boats at that time it seems to me more than they are now so you’d come down the
pontoon and you could spend all day doing what you were doing on your boat
and chatting to other people about what they were doing with theirs and how they
were doing it and we became kind of boat anoraks really a lot of talk
about glue technology and stuff like that and then of course there were the
the artists and there were a huge number of artists working there at the time so
it’s always really interesting, there were open studios and parties and a lot
going on. We used to have wonderful parties here and we’d all be out the top and the
girls used to sunbathe topless there and I’d be up there you know in my swimming costume
and the boats would go by and the girls would come along and drape themselves over the fence and go oooh! The next thing people are in the swimming pool skinny-dipping again and they came out of
the swimming pool and they didn’t care they just carried on dancing as they were and
and that’s how it was and after a while I began to realise that that was what
happened on the island It was a bit scary at first you know
that when the tide came up high I mean I have had ducks swimming on that patio
there but that was only once. I think as long as the Thames flood barrier holds
we’ll be okay because it has been it comes up halfway up our garden on
the really, really high tides when it’s been flooding, it does worry you. Yeah you regularly get stranded on or off the island because it floods at the bottom
of the bridge on the mainland side and okay you can paddle through it if it’s
not too deep we do that, we tend to have plastic bags that we hop across
to the bridge on or some of the posh people like even got boots they wear
when they go across. Or if you’re on the other side you wait for the tide to go down
and you go to the Barmy and a few hours later when the tide’s been down for quite a
long time you sort of look out ‘no, tide’s still up, still blocking the bridge, shall we get another drinking in yeah’. If you’ve got to live in a London suburb you could
do a lot worse than be on an island with no traffic, looking at that view. That’s
why I’m here and that’s why I stayed here. The world is divided into two
categories people who think it’s a great idea to live on Eel Pie Island because you
can’t park a car outside your front door or there are people who wouldn’t dream
of living here because they can’t park their cars outside the front door. Oh wonderful and I think the boys would say that it was a truly wonderful place
to grow up. They could walk down the path they all had mates on the
island good friends and they could just walk out the front door and go down and
be with their mates nobody had to supervise them, they didn’t have
to say where they were going. They had a long rope off the
tree by the bank out there and at high tide they’d swing out and jump in
and their friends used to adore, you know, coming to the island they could get
in a boat and go down to either end and explore and the wildness and the
freedom I think was fantastic for London kids You walk across the bridge and suddenly
you’re into this jungle into the jungle there’s a smell of the smell of wood and
damp undergrowth and stuff it’s just it’s divine, only 20 minutes still
from Waterloo on the train It’s just different being on an island it’s
something special I can’t explain it’s just you go over that bridge and I don’t
know it’s like putting the drawbridge up behind you But there was an old, well
I call her an old lady she’s probably a lot younger than I am now but she sat in
a tin box and collected tuppence off everybody as they came over and I mean I
was scared of her because if she, if it was dark and you came over
you’d get as far as this sort of tin hut and suddenly this figure would come
out like the old witch in The Wizard of Oz you know and sort of – tuppence – you
know and you couldn’t you couldn’t walk past her because she’d just scream at you So we all had to make sure we had tuppence The bridge belonged to Mr.
Snapper so I guess it was his money, it was like a toll bridge then and you see
because the bridge was his yeah There was me and a few friends we used to get
at the bottom of the bridge and as a tide went out we’d have a bucket and a
little rake and we’d go lay on it and we used to find a fortune because as they
were going over to the dances they had to get there I think it was thruppence or
something like that to pay the toll and they used to drop the change over the side What happened was the bridge is built with cables and when they
were putting the gas in, we didn’t have gas when I first came, but when they were
putting the gas and they drilled through some of the cables which weakened the
structure of the bridge but they wouldn’t accept liability We put together a committee, it’s the usual response to a problems you have set up a
committee, but we were very lucky on you know this island is full of
professional people, we had architects, we had a planning expert, we had a couple of
engineers who knew what they were talking about, we had a loss adjuster as
well, Edward Davis and then there was me a knock about hack you know who could
do a bit of PR for them and we got going What followed then was a five-year fight
eventually Anne Perry was able to get the gas board to
admit it had been their fault Between the period the council closed the bridge
for safety reasons and the construction of the temporary bridge, 66 days when we
relied on a ferry So the bridge eventually got closed and we were asked
to run a ferry service with a small little punt that we’ve got out there
that carried I think four people and we had two crew on it and we used to ferry
people from the rowing club over to the steps the other side and we used to do
that 24 hours a day Those people who lived through that if you ask them which
would you prefer a bridge or a ferry they’d all say a ferry because it was so
much fun it really was, everybody who lived
through that remembers it so fondly because they these two guys always
teased us about things, parents found out what time their children came home and
that sort of thing and it could only hold four people so you can imagine them
first thing in the morning when there’s tens and tens of people trying to get
off the island to go to work and this similar amount of people on the other
side of it trying to get on to the island to work what chaos it was, quite a
bit of argy-bargy going on getting on and off this ferry Then the gas board had to
hurry up and then insurers had to hurry up and do something about it and so they
quickly built a Bailey bridge which is sort of a prefab thing that you
put across the river, it’s much lower and then they had to build a new bridge To actually beat a major company, energy company and the legal system, a complicated
legal system was quite satisfactory 1920s they had dances here,
they built a dance hall next to the hotel and so they had the
Charleston all the other dances, all the fashionable dances, so if you like, the
music scene really started in the early 20th century There was dancing, there was
strict tempo quick step, waltzes, foxtrot and we came
here one night to dance because obviously there was a band playing and
there was a ballroom and we came that Saturday night that was it.
Well the floor was, that was the thing that just stays in my mind, to dance on
that floor was heaven because it was a beautifully sprung floor and just a
quick step or something like that, you fly and that was lovely
that’s why it stays in my mind The musical era began with people like Ken
Colyer and Aker Bilk used to play here, it was before the bridge was built so it
must be 1956 I would have been 16 at the time yet you had to come over on a chain
barge ferry thing you know it’s all bit wobbly and rickety I used to love
traditional jazz you know Trad Jazz and with my friends we go all over the place
you know down by the river and this place got a reputation ‘Oh we’ll have
some of that’ and so we used to come to it and oh the girls were beautiful and
plenty of booze you know you didn’t have bouncers on the door but you had a
trampoline for a dance floor and it was considered by the media to be a groovy
place to go It had been a wonderful ballroom, it had been a
terrific riverside hotel bar to sit and relax in but not anymore
the glory was faded and I’m a sucker for faded glory But my friends said that they’d
heard of this wonderful place that was an island somewhere south of the river
where there was wonderful rhythm and blues it was like a secret world for
those that were in the know and so it was very satisfying to be one of
those in the know at the time I was not allowed to go to Eel Pie Island because
it had a bad reputation for sex and drugs so I was banned but so I used to
lie and go over there anyway That was the whole thing with the island
you know whatever you do they used to say to us you mustn’t go to Eel Pie
Island as if it was the biggest den of vice ever, so of course we’re all on the
next bus But no it was very kind of studenty, arty it was like playing, I guess
it was a bit like playing a student’s union, it felt really relaxed There was a great sense of it being a progressive place, where we all belong to
CND and the anti-apartheid movement and a lot of the kind of left-wing and
socialist youth of the time went there and it was a place of progressive music too Because we were bohemian and beatnik that was our label and we wore duffle coats There was a Saturday lot they were jazz, Sunday night was Blues,
Wednesday was blues but slightly blues light I’d say And then you get over the
bridge and the old lady would jump out and demand the coinage, you know to get
onto the island and it was great it was right out of a story you’d follow the
winding path just like in Oz or somewhere and arrived at this magical
kingdom of music semi freedom which didn’t exist in the
late fifties very early 60s before the sixties ethos hit So you’re going
through this strange door where they’d take your money because it still cost
you money to get in three and sixpence I think is what I had to pay and they
stamped your wrist, they didn’t give you a ticket they’d stamp your wrists with a rubber stamp with an enigmatic word like Borneo
I think it was more of them and they’d have different coloured inks on different
weeks to stop you not washing your wrist for a week and going back the
next week and getting in free It was decorated with all mad jazz art, people
playing saxophones and trombones, it had been set up originally for the trad jazzers
as it slightly changed over from the skiffle to trad jazz to rock and
roll to beat music and R&B it had been adapted That great atmosphere I mean I
used to have to, that and subsequent times, we had to dance around our
handbags you know we sort of got in there and hoped to be asked to dance Famously the floor in this old ballroom that was sprung like a gymnasium floor
so it had quite a bounce in it, well when you’re gliding around doing the foxtrot
or the waltz it’s perfect but when there are 150 people or more, I don’t know how many
were there bouncing up and down the floor you
literally couldn’t stand still so if you were in the middle of it when once
people started dancing you were dancing like it or not And of course with the
floor moving and a lovely lot of room you could really, you know really skip
jive and there were some fantastic jivers, really fantastic And you
can go in and see these wonderful bands and then in the break it was this
beautiful riverside location you just sit out on the grass and look at the
river and chat with your friends and then just come back again And it’s just
the sort of place you’d want to go if you were a teenager In fact I want to go there now I seem to
remember a long blue velvet curtain at the very back of the hall where it was
raised a little bit and I remember they used to be couples lying underneath that
the velvet drape down which came down there or bonking I suppose I don’t know
but I didn’t look but I wasn’t one of them, never I mean there was definitely
rock and roll and definitely drugs and I like to think there was sex as well
because I think it was probably a great magnet too and probably pissed the locals off
no end because God knows what they found on Sunday mornings or Monday mornings It was never, never struck me that it was the den of sex and vice and drugs
and everything else people talk about well perhaps I was just unlucky as often
as not there’d be a plain clothes policeman with a pair of sunglasses, didn’t matter
if it was the middle of December with his sleeves rolled up, leaning on the lamppost,
reading a newspaper, pretending he wasn’t paying any notice and you say ‘good
evening officer’ as you went over the bridge There was never any trouble over
the island, never any trouble at all This was just one
of our gigs but it was a nice gig because it was always a Sunday and it
was very social, being local a lot of people used to rock up who I knew and it
had a fantastic atmosphere We got a gig here and we played I don’t know three
times at the end of 1963 and then once a month throughout 1964 and after that they
couldn’t afford us, but it was fantastic it was a really wonderful gig, you knew
when you were playing here you were part of something special, it used to be totally
packed people on each other’s shoulders jumping up and down some sampling
Newcastle Brown at least, taking advantage in various corners of the
sprung floor, it was brilliant I remember the Grebils
and they were terrible the Grebils I’ve never heard of them since, I hope
nobody here is a Grebil but they were just dire, we despaired, they were the sort of
backing group but yes, they were awful but very unusual – do you remeber the
Grebils? No, no I’m not surprised! The last gig that the Rolling Stones did there it was absolutely
jam-packed you could not move and I was squashed up at the back of the room and
we loved the Stones so much and Mick Jagger said you know we’re going to go
away on tour now so we really hope it’s a success but you know, hope we can come
back here if it’s not and everybody was screaming and shouting and clapping but
of course they were successful so they didn’t come back Arthur Chisnall obviously people know
that he set up the music club on the island but a lot of people don’t know
that his reasons for setting up the club were not because he was massive
music fan and he wanted to become a music promoter, he was actually what he
called a social researcher and his whole motivation was to provide an
environment where young people could come, be themselves and he could
help them with any problems that they might have Giving people a
reasonably safe environment to do what the hell they liked within reason and
let them get on with it and by and large it was a huge success, we didn’t know
we’re all part of an experiment, he was wonderful, I mean I never paid to get in
and all the time he said musicians come in free, hey you know when you’re like 15
and 16 you feel great so it was wonderful he was a wonderful character But he made us all
feel special he was just such a wonderful chap and he spoke very
slowly you know they wanted to wind him up but He was great he just kept an eye on it so with his pipe you know and his glasses
like a nutty tutor He somehow gave me confidence you know just being with Arthur
made you feel that, you know there was more about you than you thought
there was, oh he was such a lovely chap It’s hardly surprising that the council
got involved and the rules were enforced about safety, fire exits, fire precautions
possibly drinking and other things that’s when the place closed down And we
were all kind of we all got to the island bridge and there were loads and loads of
people and I thought what’s happened and someone said ‘oh it’s shut, it’s closed
down, police have closed it down’ so everybody went to the Barmy Arms and
commiserated with each other Well that’s when the Colonel came in, there was the
latter-day hippie bands merging into the new rock bands
and that’s the great feel the Colonel had here, it brought it back to life
again I heard about Eel Pie Island being vacant so
I got on to, I think it was Richmond Council, tracked down a guy called
Snapper, so I got his address and everything and popped down to meet him. I
said what sort of a deal can we do on the dance hall, I think it was 15 quid a
week or something he said he wanted so it was something low, it was not a lot of
money so it became Colonel Barefoots Rock Garden and just started with small bands on
a Saturday night and then Friday and then later on we had Wednesday and then I
started getting big bands in, the bigger bands you know Deep Purple, Black Sabbath
that kind of calibre that were playing on an island but of course the
problem was getting the stuff over the bridge these guys were turning up with 5 ton
trucks, 3 ton trucks long wheelbase transits and I had a little minivan and
a trailer and if the roadies seemed to be reasonably switched on, which the
bigger bands reasonably were reasonably good at it, I’d just throw them the keys
to the mini and say crack on Strange later on because they started booking bands that
were really quite well-known, very mainstream, when I used to go they were
ones that were more of a more specialised blues circuit, these were
more heavy-duty bands that you could pretty much see anywhere, so it didn’t
feel quite so so ours, didn’t feel quite so special In the very, very end jumping way to the end I gave up, I just went ‘to hell with it’
you know the fire brigade and the police are getting heavier and heavier so I think
in October/November 1970 I just went ‘bollocks’ At the time not many people saw it as a
commune and this was a sort of a label that was put onto it more later I think,
that time it’s just a place, it was the Island There was a common
philosophy partly, so just a general 60s hippie philosophy, partly fueled by the
community drugs experiences I suppose partly by the fact that a lot of people
who were similar age and the hotel was a fairly cohesive unit for the first three
or four months I’d say, probably first five or six months even, it stabilized
about 30, 40 people and suddenly there were 100 people there, 120 people and 130 people,
at that point it was not exactly spiralling out of hand but it was hard
to keep track of all the things that were happening there. I think one of the
complaints were that people who thought with the summer, started walking around
with no clothes on so people passing by on the other side of the river, on the
embankment for Sunday afternoon walks they weren’t expecting it,
it was also certainly a bit of misogyny and some nasty things happened as well
it wasn’t all good in area, a mixture, some of the people there were not
so pleasant The only ones that bothered us were the hippies, they were
a nuisance. You’d come down on the Thursday night for a club night and
of an evening they’d be lying around here and out on the
front and you’d find all sorts of things you didn’t want to find Well the commune people were living a kind of very weird existence and they
dug up what they thought was some sort of edible vegetable and made soup and I
I arrived, it’s quite funny actually they could have died.
I arrived over the bridge, you know just parked my jag over the other side, I had a
Jaguar 420 with my doggy in the back and come over the bridge and there was a
person leaning against the side of the dancehall at 45 degrees completely stiff,
like a plank of wood and he was yellow and this ambulance man was there and I said
what the hell is this all about, he said I don’t know what they’ve eaten but
we’re gonna have to take them in and do some detox and take some blood samples
and I walked around the back of the island, there’s loads of them lying on
the ground they were completely rigid it was like rigor
mortis but they weren’t dead They were a good bunch by
and large but they were gradually being forced out or being treated badly
because the heating would go, the water, there wouldn’t be any water, it got to, in the
final days they were having to pull up the floorboards to burn to keep a bit
warm but it was a shame that it had to go, I think there was a nice community,
for a while But eventually it sort of got taken over by the Angels
basically which it wasn’t probably sort of completely compatible with the
original spirit of the place and at the end was this mysterious fire Like the hotel I was gutted to hear that it had burnt down because it also had burnt
down many of my memories It was one of the biggest venues or most important
venues in the country, yeah it’s up there with the Cavern Maybe everybody who
reaches you know 15, 16 and 17 thinks that time is wonderful I certainly
thought it was absolutely brilliant I thought it was incredibly fortunate to
be living in Twickenham on Eel Pie Island’s doorstep, that absolutely amazing music
that was there for the asking Even now I mean usually every Spring
when I throw my door open some old hippies will wander in saying hey I know
there was a pub around here somewhere it happens every year
It’s quite sweet I just had the idea of putting on a
concert with one of the bands who played over on the island or under the
Crawdaddy just to see, you know whether or not it would be a success, well it was
a major success, we could have sold that concert three times over, people came
over from the States to see it, who remembered how it was back in the 60s, it
was a huge occasion we just had no idea how much people wanted it and we started
the Eel Pie Club and it was hugely successful, we specialised in UK rhythm
and blues which actually started in the Richmond and Twickenham area and that was
the point of the Eel Pie Club so this is how we continued the legacy of Eel Pie
Island My father and other members had been
looking for a piece of land for headquarters for quite a long time and
June introduced him to Michael Snapper and through their conversation
Michael Snapper let us have this piece of land and then the first time I came
over here was for the very first work party and I helped dig the foundations
and I was about 15. Once a week on a Sunday the clubhouse was built for four
years and everybody put their heart and soul into building it didn’t they, but the
men used to go to work and the ladies were housewives and the children used to
go to school, so there wasn’t a lot of money and people had their boats which
they used to try and get on a Saturday didn’t they, and then they’d spend Sunday
here and we’d just have a great big bonfire and put our jacket potatoes in Our parents had the good sense to join when most of the hard work was done and all
the foundation, the concrete floor was done and the sleeper walls I think were
in and I think we’d almost got up to the window, the level of the windows my
father put up these these lintels up here All the bricks and the cement and
the sand, it all came around by boat we didn’t walk over the bridge, we weren’t a
nuisance with the bridge or the path and so really they didn’t see that
much of us, only when we walked over and paid our tuppence or whatever to the little
old lady but yeah they didn’t really see a lot of us and then they used to
bring the boat in the front and then they’d empty the sand and the bricks
into buckets on a string, it wasn’t a string, on a rope and used to go up and this to be
a bigger tree here and they used to put the rope over the branch of the tree and
then the boys used to get hold of the rope and run like mad and as they ran up
this way, of course the the bucket lifted and that’s when we emptied it, back
it went again and we had the stage was that end and this was the galley,
this was the kitchen here and the toilets were there, we didn’t have these
lovely windows and we used to put on pantomimes and variety shows and we had
members who could play instruments some members who could sing and Phil
Collins played his drums here, before he the very first time he played drums, he
had a set of tin drums from Woolworths that two of our members bought him and he
played his drums didn’t he I mean rowing was obviously a very
elitist sport and certainly when the club was founded in 1860
nobody could join who worked with their hands, it was only open to professional
people or people who didn’t do a manual job I remember my uncle Gordon he worked for Lagonda before the war, with my father
obviously, he wanted to come down to the rowing club and he could not join The biggest single change was when women were admitted in 1978 I always wanted to
row but of course I could not, it was never encouraged, women were
definitely of a lower order and you felt it, when I first joined we had, the
changing room was the old boiler section and it really was where the
boiler was and this room was completely blackened with soot, we were all changing
in this horrible, sooty black area, so we all got to cleaning and we all cleaned the
walls and painted the walls and painted the whole place to make it
look respectable You know in the last two decades, where certainly the women’s
section has been stronger than the men’s, they’ve been rowing at a higher
standard, you know we had a crew not that many years ago maybe 10, 12 years ago
that got to the, they were the losing semi-finalists in women’s Henley, well
the last time the men at this club were losing semi-finalists at Henley was in
1924 It’s a lovely stretch of river, it really
is, I mean when you row down to Richmond and you look at Richmond Hill and it’s
getting dark and you know it’s a nice evening, it’s wonderful, it’s just the
best stretch of river anywhere that I’ve ever seen Boats were all, of course, wooden
boats, built by craftsmen and there was a boat building company next to us on the
island here Simms and a lot of our boats came from
Simms and they were beautifully built boats, if you went into his yard, and which
I did when he was building us a boat, it was fascinating you know, you have this
whole dark sort of dingy, dusty looking thing and everything was hand
done you know, the whole boat would be laid out you know and people making
fiddly little bits of wood Logistically it’s not a particularly good idea to have
a boatyard on an Island because everything has to come over the bridge or has to come
over in a small punt or a barge and it’s all heavy, everything involved with
the boatyard is heavy, the only good thing about it is whatever steel we carry
over that bridge or get over and out a barge, floats away from here so we don’t
have to carry it back So it started off as Electric Boat Company then it was
taken over by Joe Mears, that’s how the Thames Launches bit came into it,
Len and Ted were apprenticed here in the Thames Launches days My auntie was a
cleaner here when she went on holiday when I was about 12, 13 I used to come
over and do the cleaning in the evenings she asked the manager any chance of
apprenticeship and he said, send him over and I got a five-year apprenticeship Chap by the name of Salmons and Pike took the place over and called Impala
Marine and they had ideas of grandeur in building all these
miniature super yachts and that faltered and that’s when when Len and Ted
took over the place and they bought it off the receiver They used to get like
20 ton of steel delivered the other side into the barge and it used to go up the creek
and then by hand with a butress crane they used to unload it
and you know some of the landing crafts that we built were massive they used to
straddle both slipways Look, I wanted to run a boatyard since I was 14
I didn’t just fall into it I’d never expected it to happen. The East
Coast, certainly when I was a teenager still now but slightly less so,
there’s lots of lovely ramshackle boat yards and muddy creeks with boats in
them and I remember looking and thinking how cool would it be to have a muddy
creek with a shed with three boats in it and that sort of roughly is where I
ended up. I can’t complain Some of the engineers and that they used
to do the riveting of the plates and all the repairs and painting and you know so
when the passenger boats came up it was lots of people, you had to queue to clock
in and you had to clock in I think I started coming to Eel Pie Island when I was about
13, my grandfather used to work in the passenger boats for Thames Launches. They
were all out of work in the winter, early sort of autumn you would come up here to Eel Pie
Island but he would put his name down for he was able to work for them for the
next year and they would allocate him a boat that he would be working on Well the worst thing that really finished us was when my partner’s son got killed,
we had a passenger boat went sideways got crushed against the wall, he came out
in my arms, underneath they jacked it off that virtually finished me, I was a
nervous wreck for months yeah and I still get flashbacks Len phoned me up and said, you know would
you come in and work with Ted, you know I was probably the only person in the
world could ever work with him and so I work with Ted for a few years and
learned an awful lot off of Ted, he was a very knowledgeable person who’d been
here since he was 14 sort of thing, so he taught me an awful lot and then we had
done a deal that we would buy Len out and then when Ted was ready, we would buy
him out Henry Gastall was an entrepreneur and
he had these incredible visions about setting things up We just bought this
barge so the guy that, Henry he was called, the guy that used to run the Marine Centre
gave us a mooring for three months and he kind of wanted us to come
because he wanted Mark, he wanted somebody who, he was looking for somebody
who could help him out, he wanted to go and run another place, he wanted to go
and do something else, he wanted to run another business centre in Hastings and
he wanted someone who could run this boatyard.
So he came along, didn’t run it, but drove the crane for him and kept it going while
he was away But he was, he was a great guy I mean Huw owed him some mooring money
and he just said ‘never mind, Huw you can paint the front of the building’ so he
put him in the crane, the crane used to have a basket like a hot-air balloon
basket on the end of it and he hoisted him up in the hot-air balloon basket and
left him hanging there all day because Huw hadn’t paid his mooring fees, so he
said ‘you just keep painting and you’ll be fine’ so it was yeah, he was quite
character really Henry There’s a picture of the old boatyard
there at the other end of it yeah Jimmy Tatler’s painting, so that big
wooden building there the big frame of the boatyard had a rabbit run of little
studios in it which lots of young people were trying to have a kind of artistic
bohemian life It was all sorts of
you know from kind of painters to jewelers to blacksmiths, carpenters, yes
it was really phenomenal. You know
we were all in our kind of, you know mid early 20s so you know it was a
really thriving kind of buzzing place It was definitely, for me one of the main
reasons for moving here, was to be part of that artistic community and to be
inspired by them and being all encompassed by them There was a fire here in this boatyard
and on Guy Fawkes night 1996 and the boatyard burned down and the 60 or so
artists lost, you know all their work It was a building waiting to burn down
actually because you’d have artists working with all sorts of spirits and
paints and that’s living next to somebody who’s working with the
blowtorch and so and it had very little in the way of fire protection at all My daughter and her friend from Germany were in the two front bedrooms facing
the boatyard and we are about as close to it as any house and they were awoken,
if that’s the correct verb, by the heat at three o’clock in the morning We were standing there and the roof started to go and then all of a sudden the
fire officer’s screaming: Get back! Get back!
That’s when the main thing dropped there was petrol cans going through
there, gas cylinders, one of the gas cylinders landed over in Twickenham
somewhere, you’d never seen anything like it in your life But we were ordered to
evacuate the island, you know police came over, we went to the church hall, drank
cups of tea, we had no idea what we were coming back to We came down the day
after and to find the whole place had just been burnt to the ground and there
were firemen on the pontoon and our boat was right next to their pump and being
slightly battered, so Huw being the madman he is, came running over the bridge and
started shouting at the firemen to mind our boat. Mind you, we had been doing a lot of
work on it But there were so many of us that were affected by it, that
you know straightaway, we all just like, right okay, how are we going to deal
with this, what are we going to do, the fire appeal was started very quickly, the
Eel Pie Trust was set up very quickly and we just all busied ourselves with
just getting on you know running the fire appeal, trying
to make sure we could raise money to help everyone that had lost things I knew the owner, a few days later I came over and met him and the ruins were still
smoking and I said to him ‘what are your plans’ he said ‘oh well, the artists are
trying to raise money to rebuild it’ I said ‘it wasn’t insured?’ he said ‘no, it
wasn’t insured’ Henry, who owned the yard was in tears,
we walked off the island with him, he was just shocked and devastated and I don’t
think, after the fire he just went off, I think he went to Hastings and didn’t
really want to have anything else to do with the place And I ended up buying one half of the boatyard, the other half was retained by
some of the boat dwellers and the craftsmen that were already here, they
actually bought the other half so Phoenix Wharf is obviously, is the
Phoenix, is the bird rising from the ashes, is the name I gave this
development as a sort of sign of where it came from Yeah I mean, I guess you know when Henry Harrison first put in the plans
for Phoenix Wharf, you know we’d seen advertised pre-build live/work units for
sale, so we knew that you know, he wanted to have some residential element there
so we actively campaigned to not allow that to happen, you know, and as I said if
there was residential use on that side then it would jeopardise the boatyard
here and the boatyard next door After the fire Henry we – us and two
other people – managed to buy the part of the boat marine centre that hadn’t burnt
down basically. Then we formed a company and we clubbed together with a
couple of other people and we borrowed some money and we bought the freehold
to the land, the freehold to the L-shaped bit that we’ve got now, so it
was very significant for us It’s just very sad that the boatyards are being
eroded, you know we live on the river, people like to use boats on
the river there’s going to come a point where,
where do those boats get repaired, it’s so you know, you can build offices
anywhere you can’t build a boatyard anywhere, so it’s like yeah, so it’s like
well once all those sites have gone where are people going to take their
boats to be repaired Value of property will really determine the fate of the
island I think, you know as property becomes more valuable I think people
will need the space you know in the boat yards when people get tired of running
boatyards and sell up to developers you know, I think it will die Well since Henry Harrison has come in he’s built this fantastic new sort of
boatyard which is very modern but very effective and it seems to be doing
extremely good business counting that and the new build here, over here,
suddenly the population coming over in the morning is enormous He has
completely changed the whole feeling of that part of the island and I think he’s
attracted people with money because they’re up there kind of posh offices
they’re quirky and they’re nice and they’re kind of artistic but you have to
be quite wealthy to afford the rent. The island is changing and it’s not changing
the way I wanted to, I want it to stay quirky and old-fashioned and poor I think it’s like a miniature version of
England, whoever comes here or thinks they’ve invaded it, it turns out that the
country takes them over

12 comments on “Clinging to a Mudflat – Eel Pie Island

  1. Music – The John O'Leary / Alan Glen Allstars – Tribute to Cyril Davies – John O'Leary – Voc/Harmonica / Alan Glen – Guitar / Tim Penn – Piano / Al Vincent – Guitar / Glynn Evans – Bass / Peter Miles – Drums – Guest Vocal – Bob Hokum. Recorded @ Eel Pie Club – Twickenham.

  2. Anybody remember the Art Wood memorial concert on the Island in 2007? Ron Wood (Arts brother) and a host of other great musicians turned up and the ceiling collapsed in pieces (due to some heavy chords) during the evening. Probably the greatest night of my life but I'm not sure which building it was held in, I know that the hotel itself burnt down so this must have been in a less damaged bit.

  3. Michele Whitby, founder/curator of the Eel Pie Island Museum, 1-3 Richmond Rd, Twickenham TW1 3EA says: "Yes โ€“ I was there! The concert was actually at York House in central Twickenham (opposite where the Eel Pie Island Museum has recently opened) and was a great night. I have photos somewhere…"

  4. I would live there in a heartbeat. Just lovely the people and history. Still a shame that people with money have ruined the once charm.

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