Generations of families who have camped on Shiplake Island from April to September each year for over 100 years have been stopped by the Environmental Agency (EA) this year due to health and safety issues.
The island is a recognised heritage site with 18 camping plots and has a fascinating history. It was originally privately owned until 1891 when the land was offered for auction for a potential hotel development but a kind benefactor brought the land adding a restrictive covenant to preserve the camping rights and then it was sold at cost to the City of London. In 1914 the City of London found it difficult to administer the site so they granted a £1 per year perpetual lease for 2000 years with the restrictive covenant in place to the Thames Conservancy. In 1974 the Thames Conservancy was taken into the Thames Water Authority, later to devolve to the Environment Agency. In the early 1900s the campsite was run by lock keepers who hired out skiffs and punts to islanders. Plot holders then took on the restoration and maintenance of the rare Victorian whiffs, wherries and punts. The unique set up of the Island enables the nurturing of traditional boating skills and it plays an active role in preserving this heritage. Many islanders compete in the local Wargrave and Shiplake Regatta, one of only a handful of remaining regattas that keeps the legacy skills of skiffing and punting alive.
Danny Prior and his family have been coming to the island to camp for many years. The campers use traditional frames, ropes and canvases. Danny said, “Our family is in its fourth generation on the island. My wife’s parents, David and Anne Hawkins, met as children there in 1960 when their parents were both plot holders. Our own children are now between 20 and 11 years old and have grown up going to the island too. Many other families also date back four generations – or more.”
The first contact the islanders had with the EA was a letter on 17 March this year stating that they were not allowed to erect the camps stating “following an external review of the non-tidal Thames, we have a duty of care and we need to ensure the site is safe prior to opening.” On 28 April, a month after the islanders would normally erect the traditional canvases another letter was received stating “We are unable to open the campsite this year, due to the immediate health and safety concerns on the site. We will keep you informed of any updates or changes to the situation at the campsite on a monthly basis, with our next update being provided during the week commencing 29 May. It is possible that the review will require significant changes to how we manage our campsites, if we continue to operate them at all.” Danny said: “A few representatives of the island met with the EA at the end of May to discuss the closure but have received nothing since and they cancelled the next meeting which was scheduled for mid-June. We have tried to engage in dialogue with the EA to address their health and safety concerns, but have got nowhere and so we have started a petition.”
In July there were break-ins to seven of the huts including Danny’s where thieves stole fishing equipment. There has also been anti-social behaviour and flying tipping of a fridge and washing machine on the island this month. Residents of Mill Lane called the police about the anti-social behaviour. Local resident Catherine Saker said, “I have grown up seeing the holidaymakers on the Island. Generation after generation have camped for the summer there. These Thames campsites are a rich part of the rivers heritage and it would be a complete tragedy if they were to disappear.”
Danny added, “We feel privileged to be part of the community in Shiplake and Wargrave for so many decades. Going to the regatta last week was wonderful but also pretty painful, as we would normally walk back to the island at the end of regatta for a big meal together as a community, with more than 100 of us putting tables in a ring in the centre of the island to celebrate together. We believe the local community values our presence on the island, our contribution to shops in Shiplake, events like the regatta, our quiet and careful enjoyment of the river and much more – as demonstrated by the response to our petition and the supportive comments from so many residents.” You can sign the petition here.
An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “In April, following a review of health and safety requirements and compliance with Public Health Act at Shiplake Island, the decision was made to close the Shiplake Campsite for the season. This decision was shared with plot holders at the time and we recognise the disappointment that created. We are however working with a small group of seasonal pitch holders to overcome current issues with the hope of re-opening the site at a future date.”