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The Londoners who live on islands
by Sasha Arms
For me, Hampton Court will always conjure images of Henry VIII's palace and pre-motherhood mornings spent poking around in antiques shops. In recent years, however, I discovered a whole new side to this corner of London: there are islands on this stretch of the river – a lot of them. Actual inhabited islands, where people have an existence far removed from anything I thought possible in my city.
The first is Ash Island, not immediately obvious because of Molesey Lock, a vast weir and a hubbub of boating activity. Yet a long footbridge wraps around the weir, leading straight onto the island. Covered in trees and surrounded by houseboats, this is one of the wilder inhabited islands of the Thames. The man who owns most of it is Suleman, who told me over a cup of tea about his family’s history with the place.
Suleman’s grandfather was an apprentice boat builder in the 1930s, working from a boatyard opposite Ash Island. Years later, his grandparents decided to sell their comfortable six-bedroom home in Esher to buy a houseboat on the Thames. “I can still remember my parents being quite shocked by that!” he says. They went on to buy a bungalow in the heart of the island. Suleman then found himself at a crossroads, realising that he could either afford a tiny flat in Ealing or a whole bungalow on Ash Island. It was a no-brainer; he bought his grandfather out and has never looked back.
One of Suleman’s best stories is about the chairman of the nearby Molesey Boat Club, who used to live in his house. Everytime the old eccentric wanted a bit of publicity for the boat club, he would phone the press and ride his horse Tony through the river to the island. To this day, there is still a shed on Ash Island called ‘Tony’s shed.’
Many people also forget that the River Thames used to frequently freeze over during the winter. In the late 19th century, the islanders had a tradition of barbecuing mutton on the ice, gathering to eat together. This went on for a number of years, until the ice just wasn’t thick enough anymore, and a whole load of people - and the barbecue - ended up in the river.
Neighbouring Taggs Island couldn’t be more different. Often referred to as the “Thames Riviera”, it is surrounded by grand two-storey floating houses. Grant Braban owns the island, and his parents were once hailed as its saviours.
From the late 19th century onwards, Taggs Island was home to a glamorous hotel, a grand ballroom and a German beer garden, frequently visited by the rich and famous. It was owned by the theatre producer Fred Karno for a time, who did so well for himself that he had a grand houseboat built, called the Astoria. Charlie Chaplin did his first audition with Karno aboard the boat, which was the start of his journey towards fame.
Sadly, flooding and World War I took their toll and, after a while, the resort closed and the island fell into disrepair. This is where Grant’s parents, Gerry and Gillian Braban, came in. They rented a small houseboat on the island in the 1960s and fell in love with the place, but there were long standing issues between the islanders and the council.
Grant’s family felt the council saw the island as a "swampy caravan park" that was home to a "shambolic bunch of hippies and dreamers." The war-time bridge was even closed down, causing outcry as no-one could get to their front doors. “Eventually my mum and dad stepped up to the plate and bought it,” Grant says. “They’d arrived skint a few years before and ended up buying an island and a bridge!” The couple single-handedly made Taggs Island habitable again.
Grant’s upbringing was idyllic. “There were abandoned caravans, treehouses and sunken boats,” he says. “There were about 16 kids on the island and we had free rein. We just had to tell our folks if we were going over the bridge.” Grant worked as a helicopter pilot in Australia for several years but the pull of Taggs Island proved too strong, and he went back to the island. Talking about his fellow islanders, he says, “we’re all hippies at heart – although some bury their inner hippy a bit deeper than others.”
A sociable bunch, they host regular parties, including a large event a few years ago called Taggstock. There was a stage with live music, a magician, craft food and drink stands. “It started off as a small idea and grew and grew until we had one of the best private festivals I am aware of,” Grant says. “Once people move here, they gradually bring their circle of travel closer and closer to the island…until they eventually try to stay here as much as possible.”
The magic of Taggs Island is real, attracting everyone from Disney film crews to an eclectic bunch of creative residents. The Astoria, Fred Karno’s boat, is now owned by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who uses it as an occasional recording studio. You can spot it from the Thames Path on the walk towards Garrick’s Ait.
Speaking of which – Garrick’s Ait feels like yet another world. With no foot or road bridge, these islanders have to get themselves over to the mainland under their own steam. Peter Norrey, a BAFTA-winning film editor, told me about booking a house viewing without realising where the house was. “The estate agent confirmed the appointment and said she’d meet us on the boat,” he explains. “I wondered what she was talking about!”
Yet Peter and his wife Cora were immediately won over by the "millionaire's view." They spent their first year "bumping into the quay, bouncing around the river and being rescued by other islanders." They also had to move off the island for a week during unprecedented floods. Even after the arrival of their son, island life continued to hold a magnetic appeal. “Crossing the river gives you a nice divide in life,” he says. “When you come home, you leave everything behind on the other side.”
Indeed, having a true escape from the world is something that every River Thames islander has told me about. "I very much consider myself a Londoner and absolutely love London," says Suleman. "During my first eight years of island life, I worked in the City. It always amazed me that I could be transported from central London to my hermit-friendly London island in less than an hour.”
All pictures © Copyright Mike Quinn