Snoop around a secret Thames island that’s only open twice a year

Eel Pie Island in Twickenham has a proud rock ’n’ roll heritage with The Rolling Stones and others

Alex Sims
Written by
Alex Sims
Contributing Writer and Editor

Where in London can you find a giant upturned ice-cream cone bursting out of someone’s roof, gardens full of headless mannequins, a nature reserve and a working boatyard? Eel Pie Island, a tiny Thames mudflat in Twickenham, may only be 500m long, but it manages to pack in a whole lot of weird and wonderful stuff. 

Never heard of it? There aren’t that many bits of London that are actually secret any more, but the residents of Eel Pie have done a very good job at keeping their island as clandestine as possible. Only accessible by boat or via a little footbridge reaching over the river, a ‘private property’ sign at the entrance usually keeps people out of the secluded enclave, except for twice a year when the public is granted the rare privilege of being able to snoop around the place at the island’s Open Studios event. 

London UK. December 2019. Eel Pie Island, Twickenham, photographed during during open studios weekend. Eel Pie island now houses a number of artists studios but was once a venue for famous musicicans.
Photograph: Shutterstock

What’s so special about it, you ask? Well, the island was once at the epicentre of the UK’s rock ’n’ roll music scene. If you visited the place in 1963, you’d have been treated to Rolling Stones gigs every Wednesday and bands like The Who, Pink Floyd and Screaming Lord Sutch all played at the Eel Pie Island Hotel, which was destroyed in a fire in 1971: how rock ’n’ roll is that?

Basically, it was the place to be in the ’60s: full of anarchistic artists and counter-culturalists. 

While the island’s music scene isn’t quite as thriving today, you’ll find 26 artists’ studios full of painters, potters and sculptors all working away in the shadow of an old boatyard. And it still has plenty of boho charm. Imagine a mix between ‘Steptoe and Son’ and Woodstock – and you’ve got the aesthetic of the place. 

The summer open days will take place over the next two weekends and are usually a laidback affair. You might not find the flower children getting their kicks here any more, but there’s plenty to see in this fascinating and hidden part of the city.

Eel Pie Island Artists’ Summer Open Studios in Twickenham will take place Jun 25-26 and Jul 2-3, 11am-6pm. Entry is free and drop-in. 

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