Island life sounds idyllic. Sunning yourself on the beach. The sounds of waves lapping on the shore. A scantily clad model feeding you grapes… Alas, what with the traffic light system, any secret sojourns to Ibiza, Marbella and Majorca are on hold.
However, it turns out you can look a lot closer to home for some island action. The River Thames is home to tiny little pockets of land called eyots or aits (basically fancy words for river islands). Some people live on them, others have artist studios, and others have smart hotels and restaurants. Sure, they’re not going to deliver a night out like Ayia Napa… but then again, maybe that’s a good thing.
Guess how many islands are on the Thames?
There are around 180 islands on the Thames. 180! Who knew!? Well, it turns out The Handbook’s editor Phil knew. He guessed 176. Suspiciously accurate if you ask me. There are lots of islands on The Thames, but then again the Thames is pretty long; it starts near Kemble in the Cotswolds and ends in Southend past London.
You can access a lot of the islands on the Thames by footbridge, road or for some, like Pharaoh’s Island and Garrick’s Ait, by boat. Some of them are nature reserves. Others are private property. In fact, one island came up for sale near Weybridge at the end of last year for £1.2 million.
And there are fascinating history lessons to learn behind all of them. Take Oliver’s Eyot for example. It was once a refuge for Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. Or Eel Pie Island which used to be home to The Eel Pie Hotel and saw the birth of the blues in the UK and hosted performances by The Rolling Stones. And did you know that Westminster Abbey was actually built on an island? It was called Thorney Island, but the rivulets around it have been built over. The only hint of the island is a road named Thorney Street.
So now the history lesson is over, what can you do on these islands?
1. Artists open day on Eel Pie Island
Eel Pie Island near Twickenham is perhaps one of the most famous of The Thames’ islands. It has a rich boatyard heritage, and back in the 60s, Eel Pie Hotel had a strong impact on the explosion of British Blues. The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart all performed there. These days, for the majority of the year, the island is not open to the public. You can walk round it, but there’s not a huge amount to see. However, twice a year, all the artists on the island open up their studios for the public and music, crafts and good vibes explode from the studios. It’s fairly difficult to find out any information about the events, but follow them on Facebook for any updates.
You should also tie in a visit to Eel Pie Island Museum, which celebrates all the fun history that’s made the island so famous. (Confusingly, the museum isn’t actually on Eel Pie Island. It’s in Twickenham.)
Artist open day: The next open day looks to be 3-4 July, 10 am – 6pm
Eel Pie Island Museum opening times: Thursday-Sunday 12.00-6.00pm
Eel Pie Island Museum: 1-3 Richmond Road, Twickenham TW1 3AB
2. Island walks on Penton Hook Island
Further afield, between Staines and Laleham, there is Penton Hook Island. There is a 30 minute walk that takes you passed all the wildlife, which includes herons, water vole, ducks and plenty of fish. You can reach the island by crossing a lock and there are plenty of good spots for a picnic. As it’s quite a long way just for a 30-min stroll, why not tag Truss Island onto your visit. It’s maintained as a public park with benches and more grassy spots for picnics.
3. Floating homes on Tagg’s Island
Slightly closer to home near Hampton Court is Tagg’s Island. It’s occupied by a population of just over 100 in around 62 floating homes. It used to be home to fancy hotels and fancy house boats (J.M.Barrie was known to rent them out), but in the following years it became derelict, so there’s not a great deal to see anymore apart from having a nosy in everyone’s gardens.
4. Marooned on Chiswick Eyot
Then there’s Chiswick Eyot near Hammersmith. It was declared a local nature reserve in 1993, so you’ll be surrounded by flora and fauna. If you get the timing right you can walk to it at low tide. But be careful, because there is no way of getting back when it’s high tide!
5. History lessons next to Magna Carta Island
Can you remember what the Magna Carta was about? Thought not. Let us remind you. *Googles Magna Carta*. It’s basically a really old and really famous document. It was used as a charter of rights agreed to by King John of England. Apparently, Magna Carta Island in Staines is rumoured to be the exact spot where King John signed the scroll. Although all the tourist info is on the other side of the river. So it’s best just to view the island from the National Trust’s Magna Carta tearoom or pay a visit to the National Trust’s oldest tree, the ancient Ankerwycke Yew.
6. Volunteer on Ham Island
Just outside Windsor, you can access Ham Island by car. Parts of the island are taken over by a water treatment plant but others are nice and leafy. It’s also home to the Blue Acre Horse Rescue Sanctuary. The sanctuary looks after rescued horses and ponies and they welcome volunteers to help out with farm life. If you’re lucky, you might also be able to go on a hack.
7. Check into the Monkey Island Estate
There are lots of island homes listed on Air BnB if you want to fully immerse yourself into island life. But if you’re looking for the lap of luxury, check into a hotel. Monkey Island Estate is made up of two Grade-I listed pavilions in gleaming white, which were originally commissioned as a fishing retreat in 1723 by the third Duke of Marlborough. Since then it’s been renovated with extensive gardens, regal drawing rooms and a spa. You can spend days relaxing in the gardens or visiting the village of Bray. There are no vehicles allowed on the island, so you park on the main land and walk over the footbridge.
8. Have a wedding to remember on Raven’s Ait
We’re down in Surbitton now on Raven’s Ait. This private island is dedicated to private functions from epic office parties to gorgeous weddings. Or even really lavish birthdays. The island has a marquee and two banquet halls and can only be accessed by boat. With decorations, plenty of booze and some lawn games, it’s the perfect way to have a thoroughly memorable summer on the Thames.