Explore Surrey's islands of the River Thames
- Credit: Archant
From nature reserves to hidden coves and sandy beaches, from rock ‘n’ roll heritage to unsolved mysteries and millionaire residents, the world of Surrey’s islands is a fascinating one. Here, Miranda Vickers, the author of the book, Eyots and Aits – Islands in the River Thames, takes us on an exclusive tour from Staines to Richmond
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1 Church Island
Of the 191 Thames islands, often referred to as eyots or aits, 23 are in Surrey. The first, Church Island, can be found just near Staines Bridge at Staines-upon-Thames. This secluded little ait, with its half a dozen houses discreetly hidden amongst the dense canopy of trees, is connected by a footbridge to old Staines Village.
2 Truss’s Island
A short hop downstream is Truss’s Island, which has been landscaped as a miniature riverside park. It is named after Charles Truss who, in the late 18th century, developed the navigability of the river by improving the locks and towpaths. The islet is very welcoming with a public slipway, fishing platforms for the disabled, a picnic area, benches at every vantage point, a temporary mooring and wildlife feeding steps – a fitting memorial to one of the most important men associated with the Thames.
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3 Penton Hook Island and Penton Hook Lock Island
Next up is the stunningly beautiful Penton Hook Island lying in a naturally formed ox-bow bend in the river. This large, uninhabited island is an important nature reserve, home to herons, kingfishers, water voles and it even has its own fish spawning channel. This wonderfully secluded piece of natural woodland, almost Amazonian in parts, is accessed by walking over the sluice gates from little Penton Hook Lock Island.
4 Pharaoh’s Island
Just before Shepperton Lock is the exotically-named Pharaoh’s Island, which is accessed only by boat. It has 23 homes, many with Egyptian-inspired names such as Luxore, Memphis and The Sphinx because the island was reputedly presented to Admiral Nelson in 1798 after the Battle of the Nile. Apparently, Nelson used the island as a fishing retreat.
5 Lock Island
A little further along is Lock Island from where the busy Shepperton Lock is operated. This dense undisturbed wilderness has some exceptionally high trees and plenty of wildlife, including water voles and other aquatic mammals. The islands around Shepperton Lock were first populated by Londoners in the late 19th century wanting to escape the grime and smog of the metropolis. Later, during the Second World War, some families decided to flee the Blitz by permanently moving onto the islands, where some of their descendents still live.
6 Hamhaugh Island
At the side of the Lock Island café, a path leads to a magnificent weir, across which lies peaceful Hamhaugh Island. This relatively large, inhabited island was one of the first to be used for summer camping at the end of the 19th century. Tents were later replaced with timber chalets and bungalows encircling the island, leaving a communal green in the centre.
7 D’Oyly Carte Island
Where the Thames and the River Wey meet is the little D’Oyly Carte Island with its one large house built in 1888 by the opera impresario, Richard D’Oyly Carte, who often used the island for rehearsals by his D’Oyly Carte Savoy Opera Company.
8 Desborough Island
Before Walton Bridge, between Weybridge and Walton-on-Thames, is a very large artificially-created island covering 45 hectares called Desborough Island. It is uninhabited and consists of a patchwork of mainly rough meadowland and small copses divided by tall hedgerows supporting a thriving wildlife population. It became an island in 1935 as a result of the Desborough Cut that was dug to improve the flow of the Thames, and was named after Lord Desborough, a former chairman of the Thames Conservancy. A footpath encircles the entire island occasionally running to the water’s edge, which is indented with enticing little sandy bays and coves.
9 Wheatley’s Ait
The sparsely populated Wheatley’s Ait at Sunbury is accessed via a place to the north of the island called the Creek. The upstream end of the ait is occupied by the chalets of the Thames Camping and Boating Association, one of the oldest camping sites on the river. This is an attractive island defined by the sound of cascading water with a weir at either end.
10 Sunbury Lock Ait
From Wheatley’s Ait, a large weir connects to Sunbury Lock Ait. Almost entirely overgrown with trees and shrubs, this long thin ait is the perfect “wilderness” island, where generations of Sunbury children have played Swallows and Amazons.
11 Rivermead Island
A stone’s throw along the river lies Rivermead Island, a large, park-like island, which is a pleasant and tranquil spot for picnics, fishing, swimming and other leisure activities.
12 Sunbury Court Island
Almost touching Rivermead is Sunbury Court Island, which is densely developed with 29 timber-framed houses packed closely together, offering river access and views from both the front and back gardens.
13 Grand Junction Island
The tiny Grand Junction Island lies opposite Molesey Reservoirs. It is a very private and secluded place with dense lush foliage and an idyllic backwater. There are no permanent dwellings but several timber chalets are used as weekend retreats, making this charming little island like a throwback to the early days of Thames island life.
14 Platt’s Eyot
The next island is Platt’s Eyot – and what an island! Due to its dramatic visual impact, Platt’s Eyot can justly be referred to as the “mother” of all Thames islands. This is easily the tallest and certainly the most impressive. It is linked to the mainland by a narrow suspension bridge built in 1941.
Unlike any other Thames island, from the eastern shore you actually have to climb up a steep incline to reach the top of the western part. Until the end of the 19th century, the island was completely flat, but from 1898 to 1901 the then Southwark and Lambeth Water Works Company constructed filter beds on the Hampton side of the river opposite the island.
All the earth excavated from what was to become the Stain Hill Reservoirs was dumped onto the upper part of the island, thus raising its level to the height we see today.
Although the island itself is uninhabited, its lower eastern half is occupied by a busy boatyard and light industry workshops with several houseboat moorings. The island is divided into two areas of markedly different character. The eastern end, with its boatsheds, slipways, dry and wet docks and wharfs, is in distinct contrast to the western end, which is a wonderful natural wilderness of undisturbed woodland and dense vegetation.
Platt’s Eyot was used for harvesting osier willows until 1894 when a German engineer, Moritz Immisch, set up a workshop to build electric launches. In 1908, Chiswick boat builders Thorneycroft’s took over and established their business on the island. At the outbreak of the First World War, the Royal Navy’s famous coastal motor torpedo boats, the CMBs, were built on the island under utmost secrecy in large sheds constructed in 1916 for the purpose. One of these is still called the CMB shed.
In 1967, Thorneycrofts moved to Southampton and from then on the island fell into a sorry state of decline. By the late 1980s, many of the old boatsheds had become abandoned wrecks. In 1990, the island’s owners
Port Hampton Ltd, made an application for the demolition of all buildings on the island and redevelopment for leisure uses, to include luxury apartments and a new road bridge. This was a highly controversial proposal because aside from its unique historical industrial heritage, Platt’s Eyot is also a natural heritage site. The high western end of the island had already been designated as a Site of Nature Conservation
Interest and is included in the Green Belt. With the prospect of the proposed redevelopment of the island, the rest was designated a conservation area in 1990.
Today, more than two decades on from being Grade II listed, the buildings are rapidly deteriorating with one huge old shed now being held together with nothing but ivy. There still appears to be a stalemate with all those involved unable to come to an agreement on its future.
15 Benn’s Ait
A few yards downstream from Platt’s Eyot lies the tiny Benn’s Ait, which is connected to the Hampton bank by a chain ferry. Almost its entire surface is occupied by the clubhouse of Hampton Sailing Club.
16 Garrick’s Ait
Only accessible by boat, this densely inhabited island is named after the actor-manager David Garrick, who lived for the last 25 years of his life in the elegant 18th century Garrick’s Villa nearby – he used the island to entertain. Prior to the First World War, it was a popular camping spot with no permanent buildings. During the 1920s and 1930s, canvas cabins and then wooden chalets popped up. Later, some were re-built in brick.
17 Duck Eyot
A few yards along is a tiny islet called Duck Eyot, which has just three large weeping willows and is usually full of sleeping ducks, until someone moors up alongside to have a picnic
18 Tagg’s Island
One of the most interesting islands listed, there is a thriving houseboat community and a magical lagoon at its centre. Its long history has been tainted with frustration and despair. This was an island of dashed hopes, as every entrepreneur who set up a business on the island went bankrupt. Local businessman Joseph Harvey built a beer house and skittle alley called the Island Hotel in 1852 to capitalise on the popularity of fishing but failed to make it prosper and left ten years later.
Boat-builder Thomas George Tagg created the Thames Hotel and transformed the island into a pleasure resort, which became a Mecca for society. Crowds would be drawn there to see the houseboats, which were lit by thousands of fairy lamps in the evenings. When Tagg died in 1897, his son George took over. The worst flood in Hampton’s history, the Boer War and the death of Queen Victoria all contributed to a fall in trade.
Theatrical producer Fred Karno opened the Karsino Hotel in 1913, tempting wealthy patrons with tennis, croquet and a ballroom for 350 people. Billed as “the finest and most luxurious River
Hotel in Europe” it was monumentally successful for one glorious year. Then World War One broke out.
When peace came, few had money to spend on entertainment. Those that did took to the new hobby of motoring. The river had lost its allure in favour of the road...
In recent years, the island has been saved from dereliction and settled into much deserved residential tranquillity.
19 Ash Island
Two weirs span either end of this heavily wooded island, creating an amazing sound of thundering water from all corners. Around 70 people live here and there is a busy boatyard. This secretive island’s thick tree cover and natural vegetation provides a refuge for nesting water fowl and other smaller creatures.
20 Thames Ditton Island
Accessed over an ornate suspension footbridge, this is one of the most popular residential islands. One of its more outrageous characters was the notorious purveyor of honours and influence Maundy Gregory, who bought a chalet here in 1910. As an honours broker, Gregory was on intimate terms with the establishment but, by the early 1930s, he had resorted to selling non-existent honours. Today the island is a pleasant, colourful and much loved place but unfortunately prone to serious flooding.
21 Swan Island
Almost touching Thames Ditton Island is a miniscule islet called Swan Island. This little wooded ait’s only building, the old ferryman’s hut, appears like a giant cuckoo in the nest
22 Boyle Farm Island
Named after an historic mansion on the Surrey bank nearby. The island’s only house is surrounded by a secluded garden.
23 Raven’s Ait
At Surbiton, we find a large island called Raven’s Ait, which in the late 19th century was raised considerably by the dumping of waste soil. The island is thought to be the setting for the Treaty of Kingston, which saved England from the prospect of submitting to total French control in the 13th century. In 1989, it was bought by Kingston borough council, after local residents feared the late Robert Maxwell was going to buy the island and build a huge house and helipad on it. In 2009, disagreement arose over whether the island was private or common land. The council argued it was private whilst others insisted it was common land and should not be privatised. Things came to a head in March 2009 when eco-protestors took over the ait in support of that assertion, only to be evicted two months later. The island has since been relaunched by former Olympic sailing medallist Ossie Stewart as a weddings and corporate events venue.
24 Steven’s Eyot
Before leaving Kingston we find Steven’s Eyot, a small, flat island which became the site of Kingston’s first public swimming area in 1872. Today, it is home to the Small Boat Club and throughout the summer is a hive of activity with the comings and goings of all manner of small craft.
25 Trowlock Island
This attractive inhabited, traffic-free island is accessed over a backwater by a quaint hand-wound wooden chain ferry. Almost half of the downstream end of the island is given over to a semi-wild garden where islanders gather for social events. The rest of the island is quite densely built up. It is also home to the Royal Canoe Club.
26 Teddington Lock Island
The biggest lock system on the river, it forms the boundary between the tidal and non-tidal Thames, and it is here that the Environment Agency takes over control of the Thames from the Port of London Authority. The small skiff lock is on a little tree-covered islet called Angler’s Ait.
27 Swan Island
Originally the islet was little more than a mudflat known as Milham’s Ait after its owner a local builder Harry Milham, who built the island entirely out of clay excavated during the construction of the London Underground’s Central Line in the late 1890s.
28 Eel Pie Island
By far the most famous island in the Thames, it has an almost mythical status amongst Londoners of a certain age, who remember the birth of the R&B music scene in the early 1960s. Even without its extraordinary musical legacy, the island is an imposing spectacle to behold. There are no cars on the island, which is reached by a gracefully arched footbridge connecting it to the mainland from the Twickenham bank. These days, it is a very tranquil place, but this hasn’t always been the case. In the Edwardian era, the first little wooden weekend chalets began to appear, allegedly built to house the mistresses of local businessmen.
In 1951, a local antiques dealer Michael Snapper bought the old Eel Pie Island Hotel, and so the infamous rock ‘n’ roll history of Eel Pie Island began. Young jazz and skiffle fans flocked to the island to see the likes of Lonnie Donegan, Acker Bilk, Alexis Corner and Cyril Davies. Just about everyone who was a name in the world of jazz, R&B and rock in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s played on Eel Pie, from David Bowie to Black Sabbath.
Nevertheless, by the late summer of 1969, an assortment of squatters, anarchists and commune members from around the country flocked to the Eel Pie Hotel, which became their doss house. Eventually, Richmond council declared the hotel unfit for human habitation and a demolition order was served.
Following a mysterious fire, it was eventually replaced by a small development of townhouses called Aquarius, and thus began the gentrification that has continued to the present day.
29 Glover’s Island
The next islands form the principle feature of Richmond’s attractive riverscape. Heavily wooded, Glover’s Island sits opposite Petersham Meadows. Forming the centrepiece of the spectacular view from Richmond
Hill – a scene protected by an act of Parliament – it was raised to its present height by having rubble from the excavation of the London tube network dumped on it during the 19th century. Named after local boatman J Glover, who bought the island in 1872, he later tried to sell it to Pear’s Soap Company so they could erect a giant advertising hoarding. Although alarmed at such a prospect, Richmond council could not justify buying it from its limited funds simply to protect the view. Eventually, in 1900, a wealthy local resident bought the island and gave it to the council.
30 Corporation Island
Just under Richmond Bridge sits Corporation Island, with its dense canopy of stately trees provides a secluded home for herons and wildfowl, whilst exuding an eerie quiet and calm, in marked contrast to the adjacent grand promenade where the world and his mother throng.
31 Flower Pot Islands
The last of Surrey’s islands, these two almost circular, willow-shrouded mounds were once a single island.
In 1776 they were cut in two by the Duke of Queensbury and subsequent tidal erosion then reduced them further to the two tiny eyots we see today.
BASED ON THE BOOK
Eyots and Aits: Islands of the River Thames by Miranda Vickers. Available from all good bookshops, priced at £16.99 (paperback). Alternatively, see thehistorypress.co.uk or amazon.co.uk.