There are around 180 Islands on the Thames with most of them in the middle reaches from Reading to Richmond.
Some are known as islands and others as Aits or Eyots – both Anglo Saxon words for island.
We have some of the most interesting Thames Islands (historically speaking) on the Tideway (tidal Thames) close to our Kew Bridge base.
You can paddle board around all the islands local to Kew Bridge at high tide but at low tide there is little or no water on their Middlesex banks. Take care on the ebb tide as you can run out of water before you reach the main river channel which always has deep water. This will mean a portage (carrying your board until you get to deep enough water). Portages are generally fine but some parts of the island shorelines are very muddy and you may end up ankle deep in Thames mud. Not ideal and wearing flip flops can lead to serious problems as the mud will pull them off your feet and barefoot paddling on the Tideway is never ideal as the shoreline is in many places dotted with bits of broken glass and pottery some of which may be centuries old but can still cut feet.
We overlook Oliver’s Island which legend has it that Oliver Cromwell took refuge on before the Battle of Brentford. It’s said he reached the island by a secret tunnel which has never been found. All very unlikely but it gave the former Strand Ayt its new (post English Civil War) name. Variously used as a smithy and for boat repairs it is now a home to many birds.
Just upriver a few hundred metres we have Brentford Ait. Now uninhabited, it once had pub (the Three Swans) which started off respectably enough in the 18th century but things went downhill and by the early 19th century it had become notorious for drunkenness and debauchery. It faces Kew Gardens and you can clearly see Kew Palace which before sunset is often bathed in sunlight making its red bricks glow vividly.
Local resident Robert Hunter of Kew Green in 1811 described the island as ‘a great Nuisance to this parish and the Neighbourhood on both sides of the River.’ It contained a ‘House of Entertainment, which has long been a Harbour for Men and women of the worst description, where riotous and indecent Scenes were often exhibited during the Summer Months on Sundays’.”
It was a few years later bought by a Kew resident and closed down. Only a few traces of the foundations remain. The most visible inhabitants now are herons nesting high in the trees in their large heronries.
Lots Ait is just upriver of Brentford Ait and only separated by a narrow channel. This was for many years used for boat building. This finished in the 1970s lay derelict until 2009 when the boatyards were revived as workshops for boat building and repair, carpentry and sometimes sculpture. Also residential moorings were created and some of the huge barges moored there are over 100 years old.
In the 1950s scenes from the African Queen starring Humphry Bogart and Katerine Hepburn were shot at Lots Ait. The extent of filming there is unclear but it was certainly a location and watching the film you may well spot bits of the Thames as a backdrop.