Eel Pie


Where am I?“ and “Should I stop for a drink here?“ are the two recurring thoughts whenever I venture out somewhere in the wilds beyond London public transport. The thoughts recur again – a couple of lessons already learnt: if you’re hungry, you’re probably just thirsty (after 1000s of hours spent on long walks, where after postponing worthy visits to a dozen pubs I stop in the last newsagent found, and get a ginger beer and a flapjack). And secondly, it never matters where you are. Bus-stops can double-up as maps if needed, but just walk man. Anywhere out of this world. Providing you can get back home alright.

I made a list of things to hopefully do in 2010, and why I do not remember I put visit Eel Pie Island on. It’s a small island on the Thames with a smattering of rock and roll history, linked to the mainland by a small footbridge, with a famous venue in the 60s. Writer and comedian Danny Wallace invaded the island and declared himself its leader in How to Start Your Own Country back in 2005, but was peacefully talked into returning to the territory to its rightful sovereign HM the Queen. But it was not for this I wanted to go. There’s something that can compel you to visit obscure places whose names stick in mind and refuse to leave. At least for me.

I begin reading Montaigne on the train, with his wise inquisitive words, gentle scepticism and wide-ranging insights into human life and what philosophy, experience and history can tell of it.

I pass a sore-looking tattoo in Richmond, then walk on – memories of Kew from visits aged 11 and 13 I think. I took a photo round here of some ducks – as a 10 year old, I cycled round to my gran’s out of boredom, an unusual thing. We drove out to Kew, Richmond, Ham and Teddington with 2 long-absent cousins from Australia (now both dead). I took a photo of a dun-toned duck gliding on the Thames, using my granddad’s camera – he used to have many all hidden in a chest of drawers where he kept his clothes. He also used to have a games cupboard, and each Sunday we came to visit there’s be new toys in there. He’d never say “have a look in there kids“, it was instead an unspoken ritual, we’d go there first, thank him dearly, my Dad looking a little awkward but touched, “you shouldn’t be so generous“. This turned later into a guilt of subtle sorts -we took on our Dad’s logic of not asking for presents we wanted in case Grandpa bought them for us that next week. I reckon my father was in some ways trying to protect us from being spoilt, and in some ways trying to protect himself from losing face, as our smallish pocket money and lack of money generally meant such gifts elsewhere were rare. In the end that’s led to a peculiar guilt and elective muteness in all 3 of us today about exactly what we want.

The water’s nearly up the path up there, you might want to get off“, warns a passing runner. My memories dispelled, I have to move on.

What do I see? Past Richmond and Twickenham now, “In memory of a beloved soulmate“. At Kew Green, children squeak and au pairs walk behind, listening patiently though boredly. I step on a plastic squeaky giraffe toy. Hunger beckons. The giant ear in the woods. A green stream. The Old Deer Park, and behind the sign, the old meridian line which marked the place where ‘King’s Time’ began – the Meridian has since been moved to Greenwich, leaving behind this small unknown monument in the history of time. An old lady picks sour blackberries for some pudding or jam. Gentle late afternoon sun, lapping tide spills over into a cheerful and complacent path. Cows sit lazily on the pasture across the river. The scene is near beautiful, as near as it could possible one. I feel an insect – a spider? – on the back of my neck as I sit and write this, and it feels like the whispering caress of a lover. And not even yet the island, though I sense I’m close.

Eel Pie. Piano practice greets me as I cross the tall green fortress footbridge, the only possible means in. There’s also only one road, or rather one footpath that links the dozen or so homesteads on the island. A shack covered in old signs, a blue double-door and the ominous Aquarius apartments that mark the old Eel Pie Island’s hotel and the end of the thoroughfare (where Eel Pies were once handed out to passing pleasure-boats, and the Rolling stones played a residency). I wander through geese, pigeons and crows gazing like their human brothers atop handrails, back into Twickenham, and past the Eel Pie club.


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