The Thames meanders through Sunbury & Shepperton. As you walk along the tow path, or perhaps pootle along in your boat or canoe, you can see the islands dotted here and there, some inhabited and some very much taken over by wildlife. There is a beautiful book by Miranda Vickers about the islands of the Thames and we have been taking a look at it.
There are in fact around 190 islands on the Thames. The majority have been created over many centuries by the accumulation of silt and debris, although some, such as Desborough Island, were created artificially to aid navigation and to alleviate flooding. Some islands have disappeared entirely, silting up and joining the mainland, showing how dynamic they are in the ever moving floods and tides along the Thames. The islands are known as “Aits” or “Eyots” (pronounced eight), an old English terms used almost exclusively for islands in the Thames.
It is fascinating to understand the value of these islands, Wheatley’s Ait in Sunbury being one such, which were used for cultivating osier willows, and also for trapping eels, aided by woven basket like traps, made from said willows. The willow was also used to make a multitude of other baskets much in demand for transporting produce to and from markets.
Some islands are much larger, such as Platts Eyot at the end of Lower Hampton Road. After the Great Fire of London in 1666 barges transported stone up the Thames for its reconstruction, removing debris and dumping it on the way back. Likewise in the 19th century as the London underground and sewerage systems were under construction, large quantities of rubble and soil were dumped. This artificial raising of the levels meant the islands provided much more solid foundations and were developed for residential use.
It was also around this time that the railways arrived enabling Londoners to escape the big smoke and retire to the tranquillity of places such as Sunbury & Shepperton. This saw the emergence of leisure activities such as rowing, punting and fishing and consequently saw increasing numbers of summer houses and houseboats spring up in the area. Today about three quarters of the Thames islands are inhabited.
Three of the five islands in Sunbury are as are four out of five in Shepperton. Some are accessible by road, some by footbridge and some by chain ferry or boat only. There is no doubt that island living seems to attract a special sort of person and the magic of island living seem to outweigh the challenges as there is a steady demand for property by the river.
Eyots and Aits: Islands of the River Thames by Miranda Vickers