London: Eel Pie Island Museum

I haven’t spent much time in Twickenham – the last time I was there was for a three day-long first aid/CPR class for work in 2019, and this is probably just because the course was held in an office building in the middle of a housing estate, well away from the nice riparian bits of Twickenham, but I wasn’t terribly impressed with the area and didn’t really see any reason to go back. But the partner venue of the museum I work for was offering tours of Eel Pie Island, which is really more of an ait located on the Thames right across from Twickenham, and since this was the first chance I’d had to attend one of their events (we weren’t allowed to visit the other venue whilst both museums were open because we were meant to stay bubbled with our colleagues, but my workplace had closed for the summer at the time), I thought I should probably go. I won’t say too much about the tour, since it does sort of involve my job, although the guide was just a volunteer who lives on the island and wasn’t affiliated with us at all, but I was disappointed we didn’t actually get to go on the island itself. We just had to stare at it from the Twickenham riverside like the plebs we apparently were (outsiders aren’t really even allowed on Eel Pie Island – it is primarily multi-millionaires that live there these days, along with a few people in houseboats moored outside the island who they “allow” to live there and use bathroom facilities on shore. However, there is a footbridge to the island that anyone can walk across, so I’m not sure how exactly they keep people out. Presumably there’s some sort of guard/bridge troll on t’other side). I also didn’t realise the tour was taking place on a rugby day, or I definitely wouldn’t have booked, because fighting through the crowds of scary drunk men around the station was far from pleasant.

However, the tour included free admission to the Eel Pie Island Museum (it normally costs £3), and I am free to blog in detail about that. The museum is open fairly limited hours and only opened in 2018, which explains why I hadn’t visited before. We were greeted at the door by a volunteer who was very friendly and gave us a bit of an introduction to the museum, which was once part of a cinema built in 1913 that went under when talkies became a thing fourteen short years later and they couldn’t afford to wire the building for sound. Because it would require them to let outsiders in, the museum is not located on the island; instead, it is on Richmond Road in Twickenham, near a park with a fountain adorned with naked ladies and the church where Alexander Pope is buried. The interior of the museum isn’t very big, consisting of a long entry corridor lined with signage and a back gallery that includes a little seating area with free fizzy water, which was much appreciated.

The museum had signs up asking us to only take “general pictures” rather than close-ups of the displays, so I tried my best to do that, and I’m sorry if any of these photos inadvertently break their rules. Anyway, before Eel Pie Island became home to a bunch of Snobby McSnobbingtons (sorry, creatives and artists, according to our tour guide), it wasn’t even called Eel Pie Island, but was known as Parish Ait or Twickenham Ait. I get the impression there wasn’t much on it until an inn was built there in the 18th century, which became a stopping point for steamer excursions in the 19th century. There was a lady on the island who would serve eel pies to tourists (mmm, delicious Thames eels), which is how it got that name. Frankly, if that’s the best food they had to offer, I wouldn’t be stopping, but those Victorians loved it, and more hotels popped up, including a ballroom that later hosted jazz ensembles. The island is also home to one of England’s oldest rowing clubs, which didn’t allow working men to join until the 1960s, or women until the 1970s.

The hotel on the island had started to get a bit derelict by the 1960s (which I guess is why they finally relented and let working class men in the rowing club) because people weren’t really going to dance halls anymore, so a bunch of hippies moved in to squat in the hotel, and the island became a hippie commune and music venue, attracting major names in rock at the time, including The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Who, Black Sabbath and many other smaller bands I’d never heard of, even though I think I’m fairly well versed in classic rock. If you’ve ever heard of Eel Pie Island before, this is probably why, and it was the main focus of the museum, dominating the gallery in the back.

Because I’m not super interested in hippies (their wanton destruction of an historic hotel just kind of pissed me off) or most of the types of bands that played on the island, this probably wasn’t really the museum for me, but some of the information on the history of the island was interesting, and I loved the musical mural in the back that I sadly didn’t get a picture of in case it was considered a close-up (one of the volunteers (not the nice one who let us in) was standing by it and giving me hairy eyeball every time I pulled out my phone, so I was scared to risk it). I’ll give the museum 2/5, but you’ll probably get more out of it if you’re of the era that would have witnessed the island’s musical heyday or if you’re cooler than me and have at least heard of most of the bands that played there. And if you actually want to step foot on Eel Pie Island, it is permissible for outsiders to do so without fear of being eaten by a troll during their open studios in July, but if they don’t want me there the rest of the time, I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of turning up on their open days.

15 comments

  1. I love getting to learn something new from you about my favorite city. Especially when your commentary makes me laugh!

  2. Really, you couldn’t even take a picture of the island? Is an ait what they call an island in a river? Sounds like a strange concept for a museum. Thanks for taking my spot in line.😁

    1. You can photograph the island, but there’s not a lot to see (there’s a lot of trees, presumably to keep prying eyes out), so I didn’t bother including any photos. Aits are islands on rivers, particularly on the Thames. I’ve not really encountered the term elsewhere. I’ve also seen them spelled eyot and ayot, but they’re all pronounced like the number eight.

  3. That’s interesting just to find out about Eel Pie Island, which I’ve heard of but had no idea what it was like. I assumed from the name that it was something very cockney. Ait was a new word for me too, but when you added eyot I recognised that (but still would have had no idea what it meant).

  4. Free fizzy water! I’m all about the fizzy water and have never just been offered it, so I started off with high hopes for this place. Too bad it sounds a tad underwhelming. If only there were bridge trolls and an exhibit on their side of things, that’d liven things up a good deal.
    Ugh, eel pie or even, really, just eels. Have you ever tried them? If you have and said they were ‘okay’, I might give them a go. But not before then.

    1. I love fizzy water too. I buy cases of those flavoured San Pellegrino ones to have as a treat though I try not to drink them too much because the carbonation is meant to be bad for your teeth. My favourite pasta place here offers you free fizzy water too – I suspect they just Soda Stream tap water, but still, bubbles!

      I’m a vegetarian, so have not tried eels. I know they used to skin the big ones alive, which is absolutely horrific to even think about. I don’t know if that is still the case, but either way, no thanks.

      1. Silly me, I knew you were a vegetarian. Don’t know why I thought you’d make an exception for eels, of all things – ha!

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