Taggs Island: A river runs through it

Living on water doesn't float everyone's boat, but residents of Taggs Island, on the Thames near Hampton Court, couldn't be happier. And, complete with garden, their homes are more house than boat.
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The Independent Online

Linda Turner, a lettings-agency owner, and her partner D'artagnan Arbuah, who is an entertainer, were smitten the moment they saw the eclectic mix of houseboats around Taggs Island.

"We bought on a whim," she says. "We'd taken a motorboat along the river for a fun day out, and I thought, 'Wow, what sort of people live there?'. I shouted from the boat and someone said, 'There's one for sale round the corner'."

The couple snapped up the ageing boat and garden on a 999-year lease three years ago, for £237,000.

A century ago, the island, on the Thames, near Hampton Court, was a playground for aristocrats and artists, and the river was jammed with rowers doing a Jerome K Jerome. During the 1960s, it was home to a clutch of hippy houseboats, which are now being superseded by spacious floating homes: variations on four-walls-and-a-roof that combine modern comforts with a back-to-nature location.

Turner has just replaced the old boat - most residents call them boats even though none is capable of independent steerage - with a whopping three-storey, cedar-clad new build. With 2,800 square feet of living space, she believes it could be the largest floating home on the Thames. It measures 44ft by 29ft, and will have three bedrooms, two bathrooms, one vast open-plan living area, and an upstairs party deck that will catch the evening sun.

It cost between £250,000 and £300,000 to build, and she isn't stinting on luxury. There will be a Moroccan fountain at the entrance, iroko balconies, and a free-standing resin bath in the master suite. She hopes to move on board in May.

Everyone on Taggs Island lives on a floating home; there are 40 hugging the perimeter and 20 in the central lagoon, all attached to piles driven into the riverbed. Because the boats are regarded as "chattels", building restrictions are limited to ensuring that the structure can't topple over, so individual quirks abound. Nautical bits and bobs, fairy lights and swans waddling amid the foliage give the place a village-like yet bohemian appearance.

"It's a fascinating place to live," says Turner. "The day we moved on to the island, we received a card, a plant, a bunch of flowers and a bottle of champagne. That evening, we were invited to a party, and it has been like that ever since. We're always in each other's houses for drinks and dinner. It's like any village - there's bickering and gossip - but, on the whole, it's a really nice atmosphere."

The island takes its name from Thomas Tagg, a boatbuilder who opened a hotel there in 1873. The actress Sarah Bernhardt and author J M Barrie were visitors. Just before the First World War, a theatrical impresario, Fred Karno, bought the island and built his luxury "Karsino" entertainment hall and hotel, which, decades later, featured in the film A Clockwork Orange. Karno's own Edwardian houseboat, moored nearby, is now owned by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, and used as a recording studio .

Taggs Island's glory days were long gone when some enthusiastic houseboat owners bought it and, in 1983, redeveloped it as a floating-home community. Its appeal now is to self-employed creative types. "A lot of people here have retired or run their own businesses, and they're not interested in doing the nine-to-five," says Turner.

Ownership favours cash buyers because mortgages for houseboats are rarely available. The boats are freehold but most of the plots are on leases. Residents pay council tax, plus an annual mooring fee to the Environment Agency (£1,000 for a 180ft mooring, for example) and a contribution towards management of the island's sewerage system. The steel-bottomed homes do need occasional repairs, but Turner has opted for a concrete hull, which should be maintenance-free.

The island is unusual in that residents also have gardens and vehicle access via a humpback road bridge from the Middlesex bank. Unlike many boat-dwellers, they are also blessed with all mains services.

One punctuation mark in the tranquillity is noise from the busy main road on the riverbank, but Turner feels it is a small price to pay.

"When you live so close to London, you can't have it all. There is always something happening on the river - rowers going past, people swimming, all the birdlife - and something quite special about being on the water. It makes the light ripple on the ceilings and it's very therapeutic."

Many outsiders suspect that life on the river will be damp and wobbly, but one resident, Mel Stride, has a roaring fire going, and our tea isn't sloshing around. "People are wary of anything that is unorthodox," he says. "They think it will be cold and they'll feel sick." A high wind or passing eight-man skiff can make it rock and roll a bit, but that's all part of the lifestyle.

Stride, a former whizz-kid businessman who has since written a novel and wants to run for Parliament, has arguably the best view on the island: upstream to Hampton church from the sunny curved window-seat in the bow. His home is practically the only one on Taggs that was a genuine boat. It was a Second World War ammunition barge with a single-storey superstructure and a narrow walkway round the outside, which he has recently refurbished. "It was a complete wreck," he says. "There were electrical wires hanging out of the walls. It was derelict, dangerous and very smelly."

It is now a cosy single-berth home with all mod cons, pretty shutters and window boxes. The shared experience of being on water creates a camaraderie that road-users would hardly recognise.

Malcolm Walker, who offers bed and breakfast at his home at the other end of the island (www.feedtheducks.com), loves the light on the water, the ever-changing view and the friendliness of river users. "I've regularly had to rescue the odd person whose engine wouldn't start by chucking them a line," he says. "I could sit here and wave at people all day long."

Like most islanders, he also has a proper boat to hand; a 40-year-old lovingly varnished launch. He uses it in summer to ferry his groceries from Waitrose in Kingston, where he can even tie it up outside. "And you don't have to worry about having a couple of pints at lunch-time!" he adds. He downsized from Twickenham eight years ago, and would only return to dry land, he says, "if you carried me off screaming".

There aren't enough homes on Taggs Island to meet demand, according to Paula Gregory-Dade of Waterview estate agents. "In 10 years, I've seen it change beyond all recognition," she says. "Originally, the homes resembled floating caravans, and people didn't seem very attracted to them. Since the newer, more elaborate ones have been built, it has been quite an eye-opener for people, who recognise the island as a whole new lifestyle, and they're prepared to wait for the properties to become available."

Waterview is currently marketing a one-berth boat on a short lease for £175,000, but a grander abode with a long lease could fetch £500,000-plus, she believes.

It seems that, once installed, people can't drag themselves away. "Even after eight years," says Mel Stride, "when I drive over that bridge, I still have the feeling of being on holiday." Not many places within the M25 have that sort of pull.

Waterview 020-8398 8550