I wasn’t expecting to find an artists’ colony on an island in the middle of the Thames in London. Back home in Northern California this kind of thing wouldn’t have surprised me, but here in the Big Smoke it takes me aback. This is not least because I’d never heard of Eel Pie Island before I stumbled across it while walking along the river in Twickenham.
But now that I’m here, I cross the arched bridge from the Thames Path and find myself transported into a Narnia-like land of gardens littered with upside-down mannequin legs and discarded old post boxes.
On either side of a tiny path, overgrown lawns hide colorful cottages while fat orange cats sit sentry atop rusty patio furniture. My pace slows as sensory overload overtakes, and I can’t help peering into each passing garden, my eyes like Edmund’s when he stares into a box of Turkish delight.
Eventually I reach the end of the island, where a twice-yearly open studio weekend is taking place in—ta da!—a working boatyard. As I wander down the narrow alleys past hulking ships and heavy chains, I find myself peeking into little rooms full of ceramics, paintings, and other works of art.
But the real appeal isn’t what’s inside the studios. It’s what’s among them, between them, and around them. The artists’ studios on Eel Pie Island have overflowed onto the paths, with bright mermaid murals covering old sheds, wooden dragons flying over wilted plants, and cigar-smoking mannequins playing scarecrow between boats.
I wander around, taking in a circle of headless mannequins around a table (they seem to like their mannequins on Eel Pie Island!), a wall tantalizingly covered in keys, and heaps of little curiosities in every empty space.
When I’ve finished exploring, I make my way back down the path, stopping again for a bit of garden voyeurism before crossing the bridge back into Twickenham.
Once on land, I feel like I’ve been purged from Narnia and expelled from the Wardrobe to face dull reality and all of its tedious sameness. For all the pretty houses along the river here, none is quite as colorful or eccentric as the ones on Eel Pie Island. But that’s why I love London so much. Just when I think I’ve seen the whole city, I chance upon something completely unexpected. I can’t wait to see what’s next…