Three little mini-histories of three-ish islands in The Thames. And a note about eyots too (added June 2023).
Here are just three brief historical items about islands in The Thames in Caversham. The history of a place can often be interesting, and it can sometimes help provide an explanation of why somewhere is the way it is today. (It’s also worth keeping in mind that sooner or later, our present day will be someone else’s historic times.)
Fry’s (or de Montfort) Island
Fry’s Island is between Caversham and Reading Bridges, close to the newer Christchurch (foot) Bridge. It’s a fair size and, looking at the island now, it is not hard to imagine the scene that would have greeted an onlooker on the 8th April 1163. The island was chosen by Henry II as an interference-free site for a duel between two of his knights, Henry de Essex and Robert de Montfort, to settle a charge of cowardice. (Needless to say given the island’s subsequent name, de Montfort won the day, although de Essex survived and spent the rest of his life in Reading Abbey.)
This is an old nugget I found in my archives. And yes, the ‘Evening Post’ is, indeed, history in its own right.
‘A letter to the ‘Evening Post’ provided some interesting background on Piper’s Island – close to Caversham Bridge (and now – sometimes – home to a bar). According to the letter, when the first Caversham Bridge was due to be replaced with an iron one in 1869, waterman James Piper and his family were living on the island – and refused to move out. Authorities finally moved the Piper family’s cottage in its entirety using “a new American technique” – to a safer site a few yards away. The house weighed 150 tons and operation lasted three hours. Not a pane of glass was broken, and “Piper’s Island remains as a memorial to one of the most stubborn Victorian ferrymen in Caversham”.’
The Buck Side ‘Island’
Or ‘Buckside’ as it is on the road sign and some maps.
This is why I say ‘three-ish islands’, as there is a bit of land in the river here, but it’s a pretty meagre thing – and it doesn’t really show on the maps.
Buck Side is the track off Church Road near the Griffin pub. This is a way down to the river, dating back to when eel-fishing was a way of life for some. The baskets made out of willow rods to catch the eels were known as bucks – hence the name Buck Side. Presumably, the island was used for the eel-fishing. The bucks remained in operation until the early years of the 20th century, with the publican of the ‘Griffin’ having the rights to the eels that were caught.
Eyot is pronounced eight, and is also spelt ait. Ah, the joys of the English language. Basically, an eyot is a small island, typically found in a river. And, yes, there are plenty of eyots in the Thames – and surely the island reached by Buck Side qualifies.
As with the Buck Side eyot, they are often home to trees and provide a good haven for wildlife. Historically, eyots were incorporated in efforts to cross the river but, of course they are prone to flooding when the river’s running high.
There’s a local-ish eyot in Henley, Rod Eyot, that’s significant enough to get its own Wikipedia entry.
But in truth, with its roots in Middle English (which is around about 1150-1450), it’s not a word in common use these days. It certainly isn’t one I normally use and hence this later addition to the information about Caversham’s islands. (And thanks to H. for first introducing me to the word a few years ago, when we were out for a walk in Sonning.)
To illustrate the above there are three not very good photos, below. But, really, you need an aerial view to properly see how the islands look. The big search engines offer it – take your pick from the two that follow the photos.