THERE’S always been something very appealing about the idea of living on an island for me. Just the thought of being surrounded by water, cocooned from the rigours of the world and able to gaze out on a tranquil, lazily-flowing river is enough to make me smile.
Yes, yes, I know – I’m ignoring, of course, the risks from rising water levels caused by global warming, the inconvenience of having to use a boat to go to the shops and the less-than-tranquil howling gales and lashing waves in mid-winter.
Nevertheless, I still find the idea attractive.
And on our lovely stretch of the Thames, there are a number of islands which boast an interesting history to add to their idyllic setting.
Pharaoh’s Island just upstream from Shepperton lock, is one such.
There are conflicting stories about how it got its name, but the one which seems to be accepted by most people is that the island – formerly called Dog Ait – was awarded to Admiral Lord Nelson to commemorate his victory over the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798.
The little admiral, who was still recovering from losing an arm during a naval engagement the previous year, had been hunting the French fleet all over the Mediterranean. He eventually found them moored at Aboukir Bay off the north African coast on August 1 and went straight into battle causing huge losses to the French and foiling Napoleon’s plans for an invasion of Egypt.
Nelson is reputed to have claimed that his victory was unique for three reasons: it was the first naval engagement to be fought at night, the first to be fought with a fleet at anchor and the first to be won by an Admiral with one arm!
Today, many of the 23 houses on the island have names with an Egyptian theme to maintain the link. The biggest of them, the Sphinx at the eastern end of the island, was recently on the market with a price tag in excess of £1m.
Another island with an interesting history is Tagg’s Island just upstream of Molesey lock.
The island gets its name from the Tagg family who hired punts and skiffs from its banks during the later years of the 19th century. Tom Tagg started a boat-building business on the island which proved hugely successful and brought him to the attention of the rich and famous many of whom bought launches from him.
Tagg’s success with the nobility eventually persuaded him to take over the lease of the island’s run-down bar – The Angler’s Retreat – which he promptly demolished and replaced with a sumptuous hotel that became a mecca for the well-to-do at the turn of the century.
Shortly before the First World War, the hotel declined in popularity and was taken over by entertainer and impresario Fred Karno (he of circus fame). He created a new music hall called the Karsino which flourished for a time. Karno himself lived on a stunning houseboat called the Astoria, one of many which ringed the island.
When the Karsino eventually failed in the mid-1920s, the island fell into decline and it was only relatively recently that it started to revive as a new haven for houseboat owners.
One of the few remaining links with its high profile past is Fred Karno’s old houseboat, the Astoria, which is now moored upstream of the island on the Middlesex bank. These days, it is owned by Pink Floyd rock legend Dave Gilmour.
And these days, you probably need to have the resources of a rock legend to even think about living on an island in the Thames…
Oh well, I can dream, can’t I…?