Eel Pie Island. It has a great name. It's one of London's most off-beat locations. It's a proper island, in the middle of the Thames. It used to be called Twickenham Ait. About 120 people live on it. It has a quirky creative reputation. It was only connected to the mainland via a footbridge in 1957. During the following decade Pink Floyd, The Who and The Rolling Stones all played gigs at the Eel Pie Hotel. These days the jazz/rock thing has moved elsewhere and the island's gone a bit private. Hurrah, then, that they're welcoming visitors at the moment for the Eel Pie Island Open Studios event. You could have gone there last weekend. You can still go there tomorrow or Sunday. I went last Sunday so that I could tell you all what it's like. And good news, the place lived up to expectations.
I hit Twickenham, crossed the High Street, then wandered down to the river's edge [photo]. Thefootbridge to Eel Pie Island arched up from the quayside, past a well-wrapped couple feeding a flock of flapping waterfowl. I'd got this far before "No Vehicles" "Cyclists please dismount" "Persons crossing do so at their own risk" but always felt I wasn't welcome and turned back. This time I made it to the other side"Private Island" "No thoroughfare or access to the river" and stepped onto the island. Almost immediately I was attacked by Eel Pie's first line of defence - a hosepipe firing water at chest height across the footpath from the first house on the right. The owner apologised, he was merely attempting to feed his water supply through the fence, but it wasn't the most welcoming of starts.
At the centre of the island is a common or garden footpath which links together the front gates of various houses and cottages [photo]. Every domestic residence has a name, be it Palm Beach, Blinkwater, hurley cottage (lower case) or the Loveshack. The latter's typically leftfield, with an alligator's head on the corrugated front wall and an upsidedown mannequin with legs flailing in the front garden [photo]. Residents are only five minutes walk from a Waterstones and a Boots, but might as well be in a different world. Some of the locked paths lead off to rather splendid abodes with full Thames-side frontage, another links to the boathouse of the Twickenham Rowing Club. But usually, as a mere member of the invading public, you're welcome to go no further.
Not so this weekend. The Christmas Open Studios event sees the gates to the boatyard flung open, because you have to walk through their big shed to reach the arts collective beyond [photo]. It's a proper boatyard too, with a couple of large cruisers currently in dry dock [photo], and a slipway littered with maritime detritus. The first pair of open studios were down a trip-hazard passage to the right - one offering charming glass sculptures, the other home to a talented caricaturist/cartoonist. One of you reading this will be getting a foldout cartoon Christmas card from the latter, once I've signed it licked it and written your name on the front. Another two of you can expect one of Wendy Mckenzie's hand-painted greetings cards for your birthday, because they're lovely, although it might be a long wait.
There were several workshops to poke around inside, some of them bisected boats, others low chalets warmed by a fired-up kiln. I was brave and ventured up a wooden ladder to talk to Sarah in her attic, even though I had no intention of buying any of her sculpted objects because I don't know anyone cultured enough to appreciate one. Mosaics, ceramics, pottery - they all felt somehow more genuine being for sale round the back of ascrappyboatyard rather than in some bijou West End boutique. [photo]
I won't claim that the Open Studios event is the answer to all your festive gift-buying needs. There are only about twenty artists on site, and none of them are selling Xbox Kinects or whatever that gadget is your nephew wants. But the place even managed to get me in a buying mood, which is saying something, and I'd have shelled out more for a glass of mulled wine if only the tureen hadn't frozen solid in the cold. But you might find something here you'd like, or that someone else would, if you make it onto Eel Pie Island before the end of Sunday. And hell, any excuse to poke around up the obscure end of one of London's weirdest locations.