Dylan Jones: 'For a period in the Sixties, Eel Pie Island became so popular it even began issuing its own passports'

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The Independent Online

If you take a train to Twickenham, to the west of London, and then walk down to the edge of the Thames, you will discover a magical place that feels as though it's from another era. People like to say that the Isle of Wight feels like Britain did in the Fifties, but Eel Pie Island feels like I imagine London did back in the early Sixties, when jazz and R&B were still the pulse beat of the city.

This is where the grand Eel Pie Island Hotel once stood, a place that Charles Dickens described as a "place to dance to the music of the locomotive band". A bridge to the island was proposed in 1889, but it was not until 1957 that one was completed (before that you had to pull yourself across by rope in a boat), which is when Londoners first began making the pilgrimage in serious numbers. The hotel was already a Mecca for jazz fans, but it was soon to play host to the likes of Long John Baldry's Hoochie Coochie Men (including Rod Stewart), the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds, Pink Floyd and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers (featuring Eric Clapton). For a period, the island became so popular it even began issuing its own passports.

Demolished in a mysterious fire in 1971 (in 1969 it had become occupied by a small group of local anarchists), the hotel's history is still preserved in the stories and songs of the old islanders and musicians who played there. Today, the island has about 120 inhabitants. It has nature reserves at either end, and is also home to Twickenham Rowing Club, one of the oldest rowing clubs on the Thames.

A book celebrating the place, Eel Pie Island by Dan Van Der Vat and Michele Whitby, has just been published, proving that there is no minutiae too minuscule to catalogue. It contains some wonderful photographs, not least the ones of the dancing girls at the Eel Pie Island Hotel. George Melly, who appeared at the hotel regularly, described the run-down premises as being like "something from a Tennessee Williams novel".

More saliently, he also said, "You could see sex rising from it like steam from a kettle – it was very difficult not to get laid on Eel Pie Island."

Dylan Jones is the editor of 'GQ'

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