TO BE honest, it isn’t much to look at. Just a metal bridge over the Thames from an unremarkable path and car park.
On the island opposite can be seen a boatyard with the sounds of welding, clanking and laughter, a yacht club, and several small bungalows whose gardens come down to the riverside opposite. And boats. Lots of them, moored up all along the shore.
The bridge to the island
But there is something about an island, isn’t there? Something a bit secretive, so that even in this fairly ordinary setting in suburban Twickenham, there is a little hint of adventure, of mystery, of exploration.
So when you cross the bridge and see the Eel Pie Island community noticeboard, and the footpath snakes away to your left amid the hedges, you suddenly find that peace has descended. The roar of the High Street has faded, the soft sounds of the river, of the wind in the trees take its place..
But there was noise, once. There was the noise of jazz, and then of raucous rhythm and blues, of rock and roll, and then, at the end, of thudding heavy metal.
There was the noise of teenagers flooding over the bridge from Twickenham, paying their 3d to the little old lady in the little wooden hut – and then heading down to the Eel Pie Island Hotel and into the ballroom.
The hotel in its heyday.
Because this was once the heartland of British jazz – George Melly, Acker Bilk, Chris Barber – and then British r’n’b. The Who, the Rollling Stones, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Long John Baldry, the Yardbirds, Pink Floyd – they all played the ballroom in their fledgling days.
Rod Stewart was discovered by Baldry, on his way back from a gig on the island, playing harmonica on Twickenham station. This place rocked, back then.
Ronnie Wood, who later joined the Stones, remembers going for a wee in a bucket in a small room above the stage – and then later seeing the drips cascading down onto his brother’s band as they played!
Trying to find a hint of the heat and excitement now of those 1963 nights – as the kids flooded in from Richmond, Kingston and Hounslow and surrounding areas – of the tunes on the wind, and it is hard. Where the hotel stood is now a block of characterless 1970s flats, surrounded by a high wooden fence so you cannot see the grounds. The hotel burned down in 1971, by which time the music had ended and it had become a hippie commune, in mysterious circumstances.
Walk along the path and you can see the quirky bungalows, their eccentric gardens. A set of little workshops, with signs outside advertising Punch and HMV, and then you round the corner and there is the big fence on your right, with “Aquarius” – the name of the block of flats, on the plaque. This is where it was. But time moves on.
The flats now on the site of the old hotel.
There is still a sense of that old ‘alternative’ community in the bungalows, some of the names – ‘Desdemona.’ ‘Sunrise’. And on open days, when they let you through the boatyard, on the other side on the riverbank is the artists community, with its little workshops and studios made out of old moored and now stranded boats. Maybe it is there that you will hear the old tunes, just fleetingly, on the air.
The old workshops.
The winding path.
House names on the island.