Bridging the Gap

Eel Pie Island Museum takes us back in time to discover the origins of the footbridge linking the island to Twickenham riverside.

For around 600 years, the pale stone tower of St Mary’s Church has been the defining landmark of the river at Twickenham, ‘photobombing’ for centuries numerous paintings and drawings of this historic riverside village. But 300 years ago, this landmark was almost no longer. In 1713, the original nave to which the tower was attached collapsed, to be quickly replaced by a ‘modern’ Georgian rebuild a year later.

Another tale of collapse and rebuild – and a saga that dragged on for considerably longer than the swift rebuilding of St Mary’s – can be found within sight of the church: that of the bridge to Eel Pie Island. 

One of the riverside’s most popular selfie spots, the bridge is quite literally the island’s lifeline, with gas, electricity and communications cable supplies all attached to its arched underbelly. So, when, some 25 years ago, it went all ‘wibbly-wobbly’ and was in danger of collapse, islanders sprang into action, collectively buying the bridge in order to save it.

When the bridge first appeared in 1957, it was a privately owned toll bridge, complete with a turnstile and a toll booth. Before the bridge made its much-trumpeted appearance (quite literally, there was a marching brass jazz band at the grand opening ceremony), there was a ferry, in the same location as today’s bridge. When the island’s famous music venue the Eelpiland Club had opened in 1956, musicians still had to load their double basses, drum kits and other musical paraphernalia onto the small flat-bottomed ferry, as indeed musicians heading to the island’s hotel over the past 150-odd years had been doing.

So, why no bridge for so long? The answer lies downstream in Richmond and the building of the Lock and Weir in 1894. This created the artificially high ‘maintained’ water level between Richmond and Teddington Locks. Before 1894, it had been possible at low tide to walk dry footed over to the island. And one can still walk over, during the month-long ‘draw off’ that takes place every November, when the weir gates are kept permanently open to allow inspection/maintenance of the riverbed and its banks.

Back in 1957, the bridge was called Snapper’s Bridge. It had been built by the (clearly modest) Kingston businessman Michael Snapper, who had bought the island’s hotel and ballroom in 1951. Building a bridge was the perfect way to bring punters to the newly opened Eelpiland music club.

And he was right. The club was an enormous success, and toll charges aplenty came rolling in. Visitors to the Eel Pie Island Museum in central Twickenham regularly share memories of a shadowy figure emerging from the toll both, headscarf on, a fingerless-mittened hand extended, accompanied by a stern request for “Tuppence, dear!” The toll was not to be avoided. Unless, of course, you swam across, clothes tied in a plastic bag!

Fast forward to 1993. The toll booth is long gone. The Rolling Stones have moved on. And who rocks up, much to the island’s delight, but British Gas, bringing gas. Two years later, however, and the bridge starts to wibble and to wobble. It is discovered that British Gas had seriously compromised the bridge’s structure when attaching their supply pipe. “Not our fault!” protests British Gas. 

And so started a five-year-long battle. The bridge was eventually forced to close altogether and the ferry was reinstated. After 66 days of a 24-hour ferry service, at a cost of a £1,000 a day, British Gas capitulated, and several months later a replacement bridge was floated up the river on pontoons. 

Nowadays the bridge is collectively owned, insured and maintained by island residents and business owners. A walk to the top of the bridge to Eel Pie Island (and the taking of the aforementioned selfie) is a must-do moment on Twickenham’s riverside. Enjoy the view – just be sure not to break anything!

Eel Pie Island Museum

1-3 Richmond Road, TW1 3AB  | Open Thurs-Sun 12-6pm

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