Eel Pie Island


Just twice a year Twickenham’s Eel Pie Island opens its doors to the general public when the normally private island holds open studio weekends for its artists. I availed myself of the the opportunity to visit last weekend for the pre-Christmas opening and crossed the bridge to this most exclusive island, which boasts 26 artists’ studios, only 50 or so houses and around 120 residents.


It’s thought that the island was originally in three parts and may have once been connected to Twickenham by a prehistoric causeway. The footbridge which now connects the island to the mainland was only built in 1957. Once across and on dry land again, one main walkway (pictured above) runs much of the length of this very narrow island, with houses, studios and boathouses along either side. Housing styles vary immensely – from the cute and rustic to the surprisingly modern – and there was even a new house in the process of construction and one to let in case you’re tempted to move in. Despite its extremely narrow nature, views were only available back across the Twickenham side of the river (see below) during the open studios as private houses line the other side.


Eel Pie Island has a long history as a place of leisure and entertainment – its name derives from the pies once served there to visiting boating parties and day trippers. Sadly this taste sensation died out on the island along with its eel population. The Eel Pie Island Hotel was long a top musical destination – particularly for jazz and blues – and also saw one David Jones play there before metamorphosing into David Bowie. The hotel closed in 1967 when the owner was unable to afford necessary repairs – squatters moved in and it has been claimed that by 1970 it had become the largest hippie commune in the UK. The hotel burnt down in mysterious circumstances in 1971 while it was being demolished.


The island is also home to both the Richmond Yacht Club and the Twickenham Rowing Club as well as working boatyards. In keeping with this boating theme, several of the artists studios are housed in old boats, including one with a fantastic roof terrace composed of the old ship’s deck. There are nature reserves at both ends of the island, including a bird sanctuary, but these are not accessible to the public.


Open Studios events are held twice a year, generally once in summer and in the lead up to Christmas. Keep an eye on the Eel Pie Island Artists website for future events. They’re free but do bring some cash as the artists don’t have credit/debit card facilities.

For more historical detail and images see Twickenham Museum’s Eel Pie Island page.

2013 update: another open weekend will be held on Saturday 22nd & Sunday 23rd June from 11am until 6pm.





St Bride’s Church


St Bride’s Church – arguably best known for its wedding cake spire – is a place brimming with history – and even a rather gruesome surprise or two. There have been eight places of worship (the earliest dating from Roman times) in total on St Bride’s Fleet Street site – a location that has also made it the journalists’ church of choice; today it features an altar to fallen reporters. But 1,000 years of its history was hidden away underground until the Blitz unearthed St Bride’s secrets.


St Bride’s was amongst a number of City churches that were destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire and rebuilt by Wren only to be destroyed again during the Second World War. But these bombs did indeed have a silver lining of sorts, as they exposed the crypts that had long lain beneath the church. Sealed up after parliament decreed there were to be no more burials in the City, this underground area was revealed to contain seven crypts, a medieval chapel, two charnel houses, and loads of bodies – many dating from the Great Plague of 1665 and the 1854 cholera epidemic.


You can visit St Bride’s and most of its crypts any day of the week, but to get the full picture of its history – and full access to its underground areas – take one of their regular guided tours. These 1.5 hour tours are the only way to access St Bride’s rather ghoulish – and absolutely fascinating – charnel house and ossuary. A narrow passage past a rather prosaic kitchen and storage area leads you to these unusual last resting places.


The medieval charnel house (pictured above) features literally piles of bones buried on top of one another in an unusual chequerboard pattern – and I’m told it goes much deeper than what is currently visible. The ossuary is decidedly more organised and contains the remains of 227 individuals all neatly packed away in numbered cardboard boxes. The bones were identified by their coffin plates – some of which can also be seen in the ossuary. Names and other data, such as cause of death, have been systematically recorded, along with drawings of each bone.

I managed to catch the last tour for 2012, but they start up again on Tuesday 8th January, and then run each fortnight at 3pm, £6 each. You can book in advance on 020 7427 0133 or or just turn up on the day.


The view from Richmond Hill

If you had to guess the location of the only view in England that’s protected by an Act of Parliament, somewhere in the Lake District would possibly spring to mind, or perhaps the white cliffs of Dover. In fact it’s right here in London – the view from Richmond Hill. Sir Walter Scott (Heart of Midlothian) and Wordsworth (Sonnet June 1820) wrote about it, and Reynolds and Turner painted it. The view from the hill looks up the Thames towards Twickenham, and includes tiny Glover’s Island. And all to be found in zone four no less!

Turner – who lived nearby at Sandycoombe Lodge for a number of years – returned to this theme time and time again. A number of his paintings and numerous sketches show this view, or views of Richmond Hill itself – many of which can be easily viewed in digital format here on Tate Britain’s website. Reynolds lived on Richmond Hill itself – his 1788 work The Thames from Richmond Hill, can be seen here.

My photographs of the view were taken from the top of Terrace Gardens, which itself is also Grade II* listed and is on land that was originally three large private estates. The local authorities had been buying up various properties – including Glover’s Island – over the years in order to preserve and protect this area and its view. The view from Richmond Hill was officially protected in 1902 by an Act of Parliament known as the Richmond, Ham and Petersham Open Spaces Act. The National Trust took over the protection of the Petersham Meadows (at the bottom of the hill, on the left of these photographs) – and its languidly grazing cattle – in 2010.

Nearby: You are indeed spoilt for choice in Richmond and surrounds. Next to Richmond Hill is the lovely Richmond Park (pictured below), where you can watch wild deer roam and take tea in Bertrand Russell’s childhood home, Pembroke Lodge. Turner’s old house, Sandycoombe Lodge, will re-open for visits on the first Saturday of the month in April 2013. Nearby grand houses include Ham House (open some weekends in winter) and Marble Hill House (closed until late March 2013, but you can still visit its grounds and grotto).

Update: Written in Soap

Given that it’s now over three months (yes, a quarter of a year, where did it go?) – and we’ve had some pretty inclement weather in that time – I thought it was high time I made good on my promise to keep you updated on the progress of the soap statue in Cavendish Square. To briefly recap, artist Meekyoung Shin created a statue made from soap of the rather unpopular Duke of Cumberland – to fill the plinth that has stood empty in the square since the original was removed in 1868.



Shin’s piece was unveiled back in July and will be on display until 30 June 2013, weathering whatever nature throws at in in the meantime. You can probably imagine my surprise when on approaching the statue there at first appeared to be no change at all. A closer inspection, however, revealed some extra cracking along the hind and one of the hind legs – some cracking was already present when I visited in August. Part of the soap is breaking up around the top of the tail – probably the most obvious new sign of decay – and there are a couple of darker marks elsewhere that might be parts of the underlying metal base showing through.

But all in all horse and rider are in excellent condition considering. The mottling of the colour was already present on my first visit and is probably due to the nature of the soap itself. The major difference to report is that a sign has since been placed next to the statue, explaining the project. This actually constitues a significant improvement, as due to its realistic appearance many visitors to the square seemed unaware of the unusual nature of the statue in their midst.

You can view my original post about Written in Soap here.

Read more about the project at:

Paul Benney in the Deadhouse

Paul Benney’s atmospheric series of paintings – entitled Night Paintings – are the perfect fit for their current home in Somerset House’s Deadhouse. Londonphiles will also be interested to know that the subterranean Deadhouse and the surrounding lightwells – normally only accessible on guided tours or for private events – are currently open to the public for this free exhibition, the first of its kind in these spaces.

The Deadhouse runs underneath Somerset House’s Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court, linking the east and west wings and has long functioned as a passageway for just this purpose. The lightwells that surround the courtyards are home to a number of small alcoves – often used for storage – and some currently have individual works by Benney displayed very effectively within them. The Deadhouse is also home to a number of seventeenth century gravestones – but no bodies. To explain this anomaly we need to go back in time somewhat, into the depths of Somerset House’s long history.

In short, a former incarnation of Somerset House used to be the Buckingham Palace of its day for the three queens who lived there. Charles I rather contentiously built a Roman Catholic chapel for his French queen Henrietta Maria here. This site also included a burial ground. When this version of Somerset House was demolished and replaced by the current building, which was built between 1776 and 1802, some of these gravestones were kept and relocated into the walls of what is now known as the Deadhouse. These walls actually serve to support the quadrangle due to the sloping nature of the site.

But back to the art… London-based Benney has a studio at Somerset House – which also explains why his works suit the space so well. Night Paintings includes some works featuring an interesting use of resin and a number of water-based subjects. It was raining on my first visit to this exhibition and the watery works seemed well suited to the mysterious, damp, enclosed environment, which was literally dripping in places. The shadowy, paved alleyways of the lightwells, with their individual works placed inside the alcoves, lead the viewer neatly round to the Deadhouse, where the larger body of works are found.

So both the rare opening of the Deadhouse and Paul Benney’s evocative works make for two very good reasons to visit Somerset House right now. You have until Sunday December 9th, when the exhibition closes.

Free guided tours of Somerset House – which visit the Deadhouse and lightwells – run all year round on Thursday and Saturdays afternoons.

Vale of Health

Despite its name and current rarefied status, Hampstead’s mini-neighbourhood the Vale of Health actually started life as a bog variously known as Gangmoor or Hatchett’s Bottom – and was later home to factories, fairgrounds and laundering operations. It’s come a long way since – it is now said to be one of the most expensive residential areas in the world. It’s certainly one of the most exclusive, being composed of just a small hamlet’s worth of houses (and absolutely no amenities) entirely surrounded by Hampstead Heath. And while its name might suggest a former health spa or some such, the reality is that it probably originated as a euphemism or an invention aimed at changing the area’s tarnished image.

Please note the dog in the window.

Certainly the now purely residential nature of the Vale of Health was not always so – along with the odd factory, the area was once particularly popular with day-trippers (especially after the railway came to town) and was home to tea-houses, boat rides, grottoes, arbours and a fairground. Though the merry-go-rounds and slot machines were packed away some time ago, the legacy of these more giddy days continues with the existence of what would otherwise have been one of the least likely caravan parks in London, which abuts the Vale along one edge. Today it is still inhabited by fairground employees, and has been owned by the same family for over a century.

I first stumbled across the Vale of Health by complete accident while exploring Hampstead Heath. I’d remembered it as a quaint semi-village full of white houses. This recollection was only partially correct  – there are indeed a number of white residences but not exclusively so and these share space with two more modern apartment buildings. These flats were built on land once occupied by the two hotels in Vale of Health and have a lovely setting over the pond on one side of the settlement (see the before and after images below). Building in the Vale was severely curtailed in 1872 when the Metropolitan Board of Works bought the heath, limiting construction to the existing area.

By 1890 there were 53 houses in the area – and it’s much the same today, with the residences strung out along the one main road (called Vale of Health), an unnamed side road (where the apartments are) and a series of interconnecting alleyways behind these. It is a fascinating little area to explore or stumble across, with an unusual history and a number of listed buildings. Two blue plaques can be found for previous residents DH Lawrence and Rabindranath Tagore. It’s well worth a detour when you’re next rambling across the heath.

The Vale of Health can be reached via East Heath Road. The closest tube station is Hampstead Heath on the northern line.

Sandys Row Synagogue

Hidden behind a fairly nondescript brick frontage in one of my favourite warrens of old streets in Spitalfields is London’s oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue – Sandys Row. Sandys Row actually started life as a Huguenot church (circa 1763) and was later a place of worship over many years for various Baptists congregations. The local Jewish community – composed primarily of Dutch Ashkenazi workers – created a fellowship in 1854 and took ownership of the site in 1867.

Utilising the chapel’s balcony as the women’s gallery, they also instigated a re-design to create the new main entrance on Sandys Row. The old entrance on the eastern side can still be seen today in its bricked-up form on Parliament Court, the alley behind the synagogue. It was relocated as the Torah Ark (a cabinet containing the synagogue’s Torah scrolls) needed to be housed on this side as it’s the closest to Jerusalem. Following the destruction of the Great Synagogue of London in Aldgate during the Blitz, Sandys Row became London’s oldest Ashkenazi synagogue.

Today Sandys Row is Spitalfield’s last surviving, operational synagogue – in an area that was once home to a flourishing Jewish community. After years of a declining congregation, it has experienced a renaissance of late, with an increasing number of Jewish families moving back into the area and board members who are keen to open the synagogue to visitors. A recent £250,000 English Heritage restoration project allowed for the repair of the Huguenot roof, which had been badly damaged by vibrations from exploding bombs in the Second World War.

A rare glimpse of the human face in these lights – not usually depicted within synagogues.

Currently on display in Sandys Row is a series of fascinating 1912 street photography of the local area by C.A. Mathew. Mathew was an Essex-based photographer – these photographs represent his only surviving body of work. They show a heavily populated Spitalfields that is at once both familiar and unfamiliar: some areas have changed out of sight while others are surprisingly recognisable. Anyone familiar with the wonderful Spitalfields Life blog will probably have read some of the Gentle Author’s pieces about Mathew’s work – or even about Sandys Row itself.

Mathew’s photographs will be on display until February 2013 – Sandys Row is open to the public on Sundays from 10:30am-4pm, but check their calendar to confirm as the synagogue may be booked for private events on some dates.

Crossness Pumping Station

Those Victorians definitely didn’t do things by halves. I don’t know about you but if I was designing something highly practical like, say, a sewage pumping station, I’d probably be inclined towards a design that was fairly basic, plain and, well, practical. Not so with the Crossness Pumping Station, whose highly ornate cast iron belies a decidedly less pretty purpose…

In the unusually hot summer of 1858 the Thames became so unbearably polluted with sewage that Parliament hung special curtains soaked in chloride of lime in a effort to hide the smell and the politicians realised they finally needed to act – this became known as the Big Stink or the Great Stink. The engineer Joseph Bazalgette (who also engineered most of the embankment of the Thames) was tasked to find a solution, and designed 85 miles of new sewers to replace the many that emptied into the Thames. Part of this new system involved the construction of a number of new pumping stations, the only one of which surviving in any reasonable form is Crossness, near Thamesmead, which opened in 1865.

Left to decay in the 1950s after the current sewage treatment works opened next door, a team of mostly volunteers has worked to restore the this gem of Victorian industry. The painted cast iron decorating the station is truly stunning. Interestingly, although Bazalagette is usually given credit for the entire structure, it is possible that the building itself was designed by Charles H Driver, who was renowned for his decorative cast iron work. There is a section that has not been re-painted and it’s interesting to see the comparison, though the old industrial sections also have their own appeal.

This surprisingly large complex holds open days most months, with the final one for 2012 slated for Sunday 21st October, 10:30am-4pm, £5. They hope to have more regular openings next year – keep an eye on their website for details. The pumping station is also open as part of this year’s Open House weekend – which is on this weekend – on Sunday 23rd September only, 10:30am-4pm, free of charge. If you’re arriving by rail I highly recommend using their free, regular shuttle bus service from Abbey Wood station.

Turner’s House

The Londonphile has been out to Twickenham again, this time to visit Sandycoombe Lodge, the former house of Britain’s renowned landscape painter, JMW Turner. This fairly modest Regency house in St Margarets is thought to have been designed by Turner himself, with a little help from his close friend John Soane. Today, Turner’s former abode is surrounded on all sides by houses, but it once sat on a plot of land that stretched all the way to the Thames, where Turner strolled, went fishing and gained inspiration.

Turner bought the plot of land in 1807 as a country residence for himself and a permanent residence for his father, Old William, a Covent Garden barber and wigmaker who had long had a hankering to play farmer. The house itself was not built until 1812. Although his father generally maintained both the house and garden for him, it was Turner himself who snuck into Pope’s nearby derelict villa to steal a cutting of the poet’s famous willow tree for his own garden. Some lovely Soanian touches are still evident in the curved walls and decorative roof light in the stairwell.

Turner’s father also looked after his son’s West End studio – it’s not known for sure whether Turner had a studio at Sandycoombe Lodge, but at the very least he would have sketched here. Old William lived at Sandycoombe Lodge – his quarters were mainly in the basement area – until poor health forced him to return to central London. Even today the house is clearly still very damp. Interestingly, Turner’s mistress and two daughters never visited this house. After his father’s departure, Turner sold the residence in 1826 for £500.

Having served as a secret factory during the war (producing pilots’ goggles), the house was bought by one Professor Livermore in 1947, who was interested in preserving it as Turner’s former home. He certainly undertook very little modernisation during his time and the house is now awaiting a substantial restoration, overseen by Turner’s House Trust. This means that current visitors are allowed a rare opportunity to see the ‘before’ picture of what promises to be a significant project.

Sandycoombe Lodge has been open on the first Saturday of the month since April and will have its last opening of this year on the 6th of October from 10am-1pm (last entry 12:30). £4 gets you an informative guided tour of the premises. It will also be open for free guided tours as part of Open House on the weekend of 22nd and 23rd of September, from 10am-3pm both days, on a first-come, first-served basis. The Trust is still seeking donations towards restoration and maintenance so do get in touch if you can help out at all, or show your support by paying a visit.

2013 update: this year the house will be open on the first Saturday of each month from April-October. 10am-12:30pm, no booking required, and still only £4! It will also be open 10-12:30 on Saturdays June 8th, 15th, 22nd and 29th as part of the Twickenham Festival.

City residential church towers

Fancy living in an old church tower? The towers that have been converted into homes must surely be amongst some of London’s most unusual residential options. The City’s churches have taken quite a battering over the years – once numbering over a hundred, 35 were lost in the Great Fire of 1666, while many of those which were painstakingly rebuilt afterwards were again damaged or destroyed during the Blitz. In between these two catastrophic events, yet more were demolished from the late eighteenth century onwards. The towers of a number of these lost churches were saved and put to new uses – while the conversions into commercial premises are more obvious, some have also been turned into rather intriguing private residences.

Christchurch Greyfriairs on Newgate Street (above) was damaged in the Great Fire and rebuilt by Wren between 1684 and 1704, only to be destroyed during the Blitz. Luckily the tower survived and was restored in 1960, along with the urns that now grace it which had been removed in the nineteenth century. The area that was once part of the body of the church is now a garden, which has been planted to follow the lines of its original layout, pews and pillars. The rebuilt Vestry House adjoining the tower is now a dental practice, while the tower is indeed somebody’s home (with the rather flashy front door at the top of this post) – you can see their dining area from the garden.

No doubt visitors to Wood Street over the years have pondered exactly why there is a lone church tower standing in splendid isolation in what is now the middle of a traffic island (directly across from the police station, you can’t miss it!). St Alban Wood Street (pictured above and below) was also rebuilt by Wren after the Great Fire – sadly it was destroyed on a single night during the Blitz, 29th of December 1940. Wren’s gothic-style tower survived – a glance through its doors reveals an entry foyer (when the wooden doors aren’t locked) and old stairs leading to the residence above.

I’ve heard that the tower of St Mary Somerset on Upper Thames Street is also somebody’s home, but I’m not so sure. It looks pretty desolate and boarded up to me. Another church that Wren rebuilt after the devastating fire of 1666, St Mary’s was not a victim of the Blitz. Instead it was scheduled to be demolished in the nineteenth century as it was deemed no longer necessary due to low attendance rates. Fortunately someone recognised the beauty of Wren’s wonderfully intricate Baroque pinnacles (seen below) and the tower was saved. The good news is that there appears to be some work being done on it – so maybe there could be some vacancies coming up…

If you’d like to discover more about the City’s lost churches try Gordon Huelin’s book Vanished Churches of the City of London (available at the Guildhall Library for only £5), which lists 69 vanished churches in total.

St Mary Somerset

Christchurch Greyfriars