brunel-uniCongratulations to one of our Runners Up: Richard Gilbert-Cross.  We hope you enjoy reading this as much as we did 

With human habitation on the banks of the Thames dating back to Neolithic times, as you can imagine there have been a multitude of changes over the years. Buildings have developed and evolved, advanced technology has been introduced and even human activity has shifted. Cycle paths and roads now line both sides of the water, and the days of using the river for fishing and creation of commercial resources have long since gone; nowadays transport on the water is only a touristic feature and the rise of expensive riverside housing seems to have turned people away further inland. Not all places have changed, however.

Sandwiched between the bustling Twickenham High Street and Ham Village, Eel Pie Island remains one of London’s most eccentric and fascinating secrets. Unique for not conforming to time and technology, the preservation of its rich history and fascinating array of residents extends to the present day. The stories surrounding the island over the years are steeped in legend. Word has it Henry VIII encountered the island whilst passing on the Royal Barge. Charles Dickens visited and recounted his experience in the novels Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist. But otherwise, it would take the role of the Eel Pie Island Jazz Club/Hotel in the middle of the acid-soaked 60s to truly nail down its place in history. People would travel from miles around, flooding the island in an attempt to see The Who, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd perform in front of a coterie of hippies and Mods until spiralling maintenance costs forced the hotel to close. And whilst the musical footsteps of exited many decades ago, it still retains a special atmosphere.

Heading down London Road from the station, I ask passing strangers for directions to the island. The majority of people I encounter live in the surrounding area, though not many of them actually know of its location. I ask further whether they’d ever encountered anybody who lived there or, indeed, visited. No, they say. The island is known for its secrecy and desire for privacy and as a residential place few dare to step over the footbridge and disturb the creative peace.

A sign stationed at the bridge charters Eel Pie’s musical history, largely based in the aforementioned Hotel – now demolished and replaced by flats. Stepping into the eight acre ait, what’s immediately striking is the disparate placement of everything in comparison to the opposite street. A footpath takes you to the back of the island, neat trees and shrubbery dotted either side. The further one ventures, the more the scenery opens up. Shacks and tin sheds are suffused with colour and personality far from the norm. One stands alone with a skeleton in a cage hanging from the roof. Others are graced with headless mannequins, painted Barbie dolls and vintage shop signs for HMV and Wills’ Star Cigarettes. This is no maddening, rambling statement of deviation however. Amongst the retirees and musicians lies a collective of artists who open up the island studios every year to display their work. The island provides them with an urban, creative haven and with a population of just 120; they can be assured their heritage will last long into the future. Everything that once made the island a cultural hub for the public may have disappeared, but a collective creative heartbeat remains. It’s still the only inhabited island on the Thames and though a visit will provide nothing more than an intriguing departure from the empty shops and bustling Starbucks over the water, it stands as an intact depiction of a way London once was.

CV“Richard has recently completed a Creative Writing degree at Brunel University, and spends his time (when not reading/writing) watching films, travelling, camping and taking walks around London.”

Richard Gilbert-Cross