I was about 14 when my obsession with Henry VIII began. As an American girl growing up in the suburbs of Michigan, where the only exposure I had to anything British was Hugh Grant’s notorious mugshot and the Spice Girls, I was fascinated with the mammoth monarch. But, not in a sexy Jonathan Rhys Meyers of the Tudors kind of way. No, my interest in Henry took a more twisted turn and my attention fixated on all things odd about him. Like, how he weighed nearly 400 pounds and needed a hoist to mount his horse. Or, how he wrote cringe-worthy love letters to Anne Boleyn where he called her boobs “pretty dukkys.” Or, the sheer size of his codpiece.
So, when the opportunity to take a trip to England arose and I had the choice between staying in London or on Eel Pie Island, named for Henry’s favored snack and rumored to be his old courting grounds, I, of course chose the latter. It wasn’t exactly what Skinny Jeans and Peter envisioned, but what preschooler wouldn’t want to parade through a quirky pedestrian-only island in the middle of the Thames?
I held firm on my decision.
Did she say Eel Pies?
Yup. I guess they used to be delicious, and I wish I could tell you from first-hand experience, but these suckers are hard to find due to a declining eel population in the Thames and an acquired taste that most people in the 21st Century never truly acquired. During my week-long stay on Eel Pie Island, sadly, I never found an eel pie to try. But, this quirky island had much more to offer than squigly fish.
It’s a tiny island located in the middle of the River Thames between Richmond and Twickenham, just a stroll down the street from Twickenham Stadium (think: men in short shorts passing an exaggerated football backwards, otherwise known as rugby). In the 1920s, the island housed the Eel Pie Island Hotel, a rollicking venue for big band dancing, jazz, and later some of the most well-known British rock bands. You know, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, The Who, and the like. Of course, with the bands, came the kids all looking for a place to get up to no good. But, it was the 60s afterall. What did they expect? Unfortunately, teenage antics tainted the hotel and soon it was literally burned to the ground and all the island’s rock-star glory was left in the ash.
Now, the island is a car-free village with about 35 houses, 3 working boatyards, a rowing club, yacht club, and crop boathouses and artist studios. The artists open their doors twice a year to the public: once in June and once in December. But wanders along the twisty paths can catch a glimpse of the beautiful and bizarre anytime of the year as some artists have turned their dwellings into works of art.
The only way to access the island is by the pedestrian bridge, 200 yards from Twickenham High Street with all its shops and restaurants.
And you stayed there?
Skinny Jeans, Peter, my parents, and I all stayed on Eel Pie Island in the most lovely home on the river. Ripple, as the owners call it, is a newly built home brought from the forests of Transylvania. (I’m still not sure how that works, but that’s what they said.) Inside, the three-bedroom, two bathroom home is light, bright, and clean. The master bedroom has an en suite bathroom with a shower. The twin bedroom come with zip and link beds so the two singles can be converted into a king. The other bedroom has bunk beds which Skinny Jeans turned into her own castle guarded by all the toys the host, Sarah, provided. Inside the family bathroom, there was a washer/dryer and stand-up shower. The kitchen comes fully stocked and Sarah had all sorts of goodies in the refrigerator to get us started. Knowing it was my birthday, she even had a plate of cookies and fresh flowers waiting for us upon our arrival. The dining area sits eight and was the perfect place to enjoy my birthday dinner.
Outside, the home had a child-proof garden with railings right at the water’s edge, a BBQ and gazebo. But the best part? The host, Sarah. She was thoughtful and kind and there to help us with anything we needed. For example, after a run-in with a food allergy, Skinny Jeans landed in the hospital. As if administering an epi-pen into the tiny leg of a four-year-old and an emergency taxi ride through London traffic, a six-hour visit to the ER, and one swollen and scared (but gonna be OK) kid wasn't enough stress for one trip, my mom and I had tickets to Billy Elliot and were going to miss the show. Worried we'd lose out, Sarah called the theater and got us tickets for another day. Thankfully, Skinny Jeans was fine by then and the show went on.
Longing for London? The Twickenham British Rail Station is just an 8 minute walk away and you can be at London Waterloo in just 20 minutes. A short 30 minute bus ride takes you to Hampton Court Palace where the grown-ups and kids alike will love touring the castle and its gardens. Skinny Jeans especially liked discovering the kitchens.
After a busy day at Hampton Court Palace, watching a game at Twickenham Stadium, or roaming the city, Eel Pie Island is a much needed retreat. A stay on Eel Pie Island can feel like you’ve dipped a toe into Alice’s Wonderland. Afterward, you’ll marvel at what a long, strange trip it was, and starting counting down the days until you can go back.
This Place Fits: Those who want a unique twist on London.
Where to Stay: Ripple on Eel Pie Island; about $300 per night.
Where to Eat:
Barmy Arms- a traditional British Pub right across the footbridge from Eel Pie Island;
White Swan- a 17th Century pub with an incredible Sunday Lunch. Cozy in the winter and breezy in the summer. Be warned: sometimes, at high tide, the garden is actually in the river but never for long. The staff is used to wading through water and continue business as usual.
The Cabbage Patch- a world famous rugby pub and a great place to down a pint in Twickenham. Note: This might not be the best place to bring the kids on a rugby game day.
What to Do:
Check out a rugby game at Twickenham Stadium.
York House Gardens- a 17th Century green wonderland.
Ham House- a historical building with lots of stuff to do with kids.
Hampton Court Palace- Tons for kids to explore. There’s even a recorded tour especially for children.
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