Just 18 miles from London’s city center, Eel Pie Island has a past almost as eccentric as the images its name conjures. On the tiny piece of land—just five or so acres—perched on the River Thames, 120 residents call home this private island with roots deeply embedded in England’s musical history. From a resort for well-heeled Londoners to a haven for jazz and a bastion of early British rock ’n’ roll to a free-living hippie commune—Eel Pie Island has seen it all.
In the early 1960s, bands like the Rolling Stones played a standing Wednesday gig and stars like Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton found their voices at the famous Eel Pie Island Hotel, a place Charles Dickens described as a “place to dance to the music of the locomotive band.” As Britain began to carve out its place in pop music, the stage soon gave way to budding R&B and rockstars, showcasing yet-unknown acts just getting their footing, from The Who to The Tridents with Jeff Beck to a young David Bowie played monthly shows with his band, the Manish Boys.
The island’s strange name traces to a historic rumor involving a slimy British delicacy: eel pie. According to an unlikely legend, a hungry King Henry VIII insisted on docking at the island in the 1500s and demanded to be brought an eel pie from his favorite local stall. At the time, the island had not yet been named after the delicacy, and went by the decidedly less fantastical Twickenham Ait. Regardless of its name, the island always played host to a variety of attractions, including, in 1740, a bowling alley, according to the book Eel Pie Island by Dan Van der Vat. An 1882 travel guide calls it “a good place for oarsmen and campers to picnic,” with a hotel called the White Cross.