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I have a confession to make.

Not a particularly damning or embarrassing one I would hope – but perhaps I ought to let you be the judge of that.

I have a fetish for street name signs.

Not the solitary, dull, diffident, street level signs we have in the UK, but those in the United States where they perch high above the road at intersections, invariably two or more pointing in different directions. Those too that sometimes portray a particular feeling – of romance, magic, nostalgia or even incongruity – through the marriage of the actual names.

And some – for example, Haight and Ashbury and Twelfth Street and Vine – assume a mythic status in the eyes of millions, evoking a meaningful moment in time and space.

Their position in the air often brings into the play other interesting or attractive features such as a pretty house, a bush, other signs, celebrated natural features, and always the ever fascinating dance of the clouds.

And if you don’t buy such fanciful gush, then you cannot deny that, at the most basic level, they at least serve a practical purpose in indicating where you find yourself at any one time, and help you to negotiate your way between specific places.

So I have gathered together a handful of some of the most interesting I stumbled across on my rambles round the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco over the past couple of weeks.

So here goes.

If you come across your street or house, I hope you receive it in the respectful spirit in which it is offered.

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It started within minutes of leaving the cottage on our first morning back in the city.

As we crossed Cortland Avenue in Bernal Heights to indulge in a Progressive Grounds brunch, an elderly woman walking her dog launched a cheery “hello British people” in our direction. No sooner had we digested this unexpected salutation than she had moved on her way, satisfied, I hope, that she had made us feel immediately at home in the neighborhood.

And, less than a week later, that feeling has only grown progressively stronger.

I suspect that it has been partly fuelled by a request from the moderator of the Bernalwood website and associated Facebook page to make us feel welcome if we were spotted out and about.

If so, it has certainly worked!

But the reaction has still been remarkable. I feel like a minor celebrity every time I step out of the cottage.

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But I think it has more do with the fact that the people in this neighborhood are just so nice and welcoming.

Yesterday, a woman leaned out of her car window as she pulled up at Cortland and Ellsworth and called out:

“Hey, are you the British guy?”

As I stood in my Grateful Dead t-shirt taking photographs of a sign explaining how to dispose of your dog poop, all I could muster in my surprise was:

“Is it that obvious?”.

But by this time she had moved away, though not without a friendly wave.

Perhaps she had recognized me from photographs.

Or rather assumed that the clichéd touristy garb and eccentric behavior had me clearly marked down as a crazy limey.

Either way, I was grateful (no pun intended).

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Much as I have enjoyed staying in other neighborhoods in recent years, I can comfortably assert that Bernal Heights has captured my heart like no other.

Pretty, civilised, quirky and friendly (everyone on the street, in the cafes, restaurants and stores says hello – even the dogs), only birdsong and the gentle hum of the occasional automobile or 24 or 67 Muni bus (and next door’s dog on the past two mornings) ever disturb the calm.

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I have two other examples of how willing and accommodating the residents have been to me.

I visited the local branch of the San Francisco Public Library in pursuit of printing my latest blog article on our second morning. I was impressed by the free fifteen minute internet computers but utterly bewildered by the complex process for printing the pages out.

A lady librarian patiently talked me through – twice, or it may have been even three times – the registration and payment procedure until I was able to achieve my aim.

In the course of this, we got into conversation about my arrangement with Bernalwood, which she was fascinated by. We talked briefly too about the fact that, perhaps unlike other San Francisco neighborhoods, Bernal Heights had a genuine sense of community and a real village atmosphere.

I was already beginning to appreciate that.

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Shortly after this I called into the Heartfelt gift shop and enquired, understandably sheepishly, whether they stocked a pencil sharpener. The girl who served me could not have been more helpful,  and eventually, after several false trails – mainly in the children’s section – and mutual chuckling, I parted with $3.81 for a pencil that not only had a sharpener appended to one end but had the added if unnecessary bonus of an eraser at the other. 

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The next morning, after a splendid brunch at the Liberty Cafe, my wife and I called in again. The same girl recognized me and was immediately chatty about what our plans for the day were, joking that she never made it down to San Jose because she could never get up early enough!

Friendly attentive service was also the order of the evening when we had dinner in Piqueo’s, a superb Peruvian restaurant on Cortland. It was so comforting too not to feel pressurized to eat up and leave as soon as possible, as can often be in the case in American restaurants.

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And the list goes on.

Thank you people of Bernal!

I hope our second week produces further examples of your hospitality and generosity.

 


Our first morning in Bernal Heights was spent in getting the washing done from the week in Tahoe (one of the most welcome features of having your own place in the city), catching up on the morning commute and weather forecast on KRON4, trying to avoid re-living the Giants’ frustrating defeat in Phoenix the night before and re-acquainting ourselves with proper granola and sourdough toast.

We finally slipped out into the warming sunshine (was the rain really so torrential when we arrived last night?) a few minutes before one o’clock, heading for our favourite lunch spot (well, actually our only one up until now) of Progressive Grounds on Cortland.

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Lugging – perhaps unwisely – bagels filled with cheese, egg and peanut butter in our stomachs, we set off on one of the neighborhood stairway walks described by Adah Bakalinsky in her extraordinary book entitled, strangely enough, Stairway Walks in San Francisco. Bernal Heights has the greatest number of stairways, around fifty four, in a city boasting several hundred.

Normally, we would wander aimlessly around the area, stumbling, or not, upon some natural or architectural gems purely by chance. But today I wanted to ensure that we didn’t miss any of the sights (though locals will surely disabuse me of such presumption when they read this ).

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Our walk began at Holly Park Circle at the intersection with Bocana Street. The view looking back towards the hill provided perspective and familiarity.

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One of the most satisfying features of a visually stunning city are the signs at the intersection of streets. For me, they are as iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz or cable cars.

Whilst Haight/Ashbury and Powell/Market may be among the most celebrated, it is those that you discover in half-forgotten corners of downtown or out in the neighborhoods that provide the real thrill, not least when the juxtaposition of names appears particularly incongruous.

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We circled Holly Park, stopping intermittently to scan the horizon – from downtown to Bayview, Hunters Point, Candlestick Park and McLaren Park. The marriage of sky and trees enabled some lovely photographic opportunities.

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The decision to follow a recommended walk was vindicated because we might otherwise have missed a number of delightful and ingenious gardens and stairway as we criss-crossed the streets of the western side of Bernal Heights.

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Stunning views of Twin Peaks, Diamond Heights, Noe Valley lay before us or peeked through overhanging trees at every point.

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The love lavished on these community gems was evident in the signage that accompanied them. How could you argue with such requests?

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This being San Francisco, the stroll was never on the flat for very long.

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Fortunately, there were rest areas laid out to enable the perspiring hiker to take a breather, notably on the long, steep Esmeralda Stairway that we dipped in and out of towards the end of the walk.

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Such a shame there isn’t a Wordsworth Street, especially in such a literary and artistic neighborhood.

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Why couldn’t this have been a downhill stretch at the beginning of the walk rather than the latter?

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Finally, proof that aliens are among us.

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At the top of Esmeralda we joined Bernal Heights Hill where, as had been the case when we visited last year, dogs greatly outnumbered humans. We sought out the mud and pebble path of the short Moultrie Stairway and, via Powhattan and Bocana, returned to Cortland where frappés beckoned at Martha and Brothers.

The walk had been every bit as thrilling – and challenging – as we had anticipated, undertaken in increasingly warm conditions.

A great first afternoon in the neighborhood!

 

 

 


We had not skied Heavenly since 2011, although we had visited in both of the intervening years.

In 2012, a planned three day break slotted between visits to San Francisco coincided with both of us contracting flu and being physically too weak to ski. And last June, logs, pipes and assorted wooden debris were all that lay on the mountain.

And for much of this winter the signs were ominous.

The guaranteed snow levels normally associated with Tahoe, and Heavenly in particular, had failed to materialise. Every day since Christmas, we scoured the webcams and weather forecasts, only to discover that many of the lifts and trails remained closed and the famed snow making operation was being pressed into overdrive.

We have always skied late in the season in the expectation that a) the snow would be plentiful and b) spring sunshine would dominate. So when we heard when we arrived in San Francisco at the beginning of the week that the long awaited snowfall would be pulling into town at the same time as us, and staying for the duration, we had mixed feelings.

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But we have been incredibly lucky.

We had purchased a four day lift pass, taking the Saturday off when the worst (or best depending upon your point of view) of the storms was projected to arrive.

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And it worked to perfection.

Although, with the exception of our final day, sun was in short supply, the wind that often affects resort operations, closing the higher lifts and restricting the capacity of skiers and riders to travel between the Nevada and California sides, was equally ineffective.

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The intermittent gloom and smattering of snow flurries of the first couple of days enabled just to take some satisfyingly moody photographs.

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We were able to ski virtually the entire mountain over the four days. Only on the first day were we prevented from cruising both states, being confined to the California side due to the closure of the Tamarack chair. This was welcome, however, as we tend to spend more time on the longer trails in Nevada. With the Sky Express chair leading to the highest point in the resort open, we were allowed to spend time on our favourite trail, Ridge, which arguably provides the best views of the lake, and the High Five trail that we had not skied before.

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We also managed morning hot chocolate stops and lunch breaks at all the major mountain lodges – California, Tamarack (pictured), East Peak, Sky Deck and Stagecoach – that were open.

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My only regret?

Not having the presence of mind to reach for the camera as Janet struggled to get to her feet, having fallen on the Galaxy trail only minutes after she had joyfully proclaimed ONE NIL when I had suffered a similar indignity.

Ah well, you can’t have it all.

We may not have seen the last of the snow as we look set to grapple with the next big storm on our return to San Francisco tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


During our tenth visit to San Francisco last June, we took the short walk one morning from our Noe Valley apartment to Bernal Heights, ascending the hill from Precita Park, having lunch at the Progressive Grounds coffee house and buying provisions for our evening meal at the Good Life Grocery before taking the surprisingly short stroll back to 28th Street.

We enjoyed the superlative 360 degree views from the top of the hill and the ambiance of this “village within the city” so much that we vowed to base ourselves on our next trip in what has subsequently been dubbed the “hottest neighborhood in America”.

That trip is now imminent.  After a week’s skiing in Tahoe, we arrive on the first day of April (St. Stupid’s Day) at our Bernal cottage where we will be staying for the next two weeks.

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This will be the fifth year we have rented an apartment in one of the neighbourhoods. In addition to Noe Valley (twice), we have also stayed in Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle (or the Western Addition to traditionalists).

Although we will be doing some things that are unashamedly “touristy” (after all, it is those that attracted us to San Francisco in the first place), we have striven increasingly to “live like locals” when in the city. And a good starting point to achieve that aim is to stay in someone’s home (albeit their second one).

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No maids knocking at our door early in the morning anxious to clean your room, no loud conversations going on outside our room at three in the morning and no lift bells ringing or washer/driers humming at all hours.

Our time has taken on a different, more relaxed, you might even call it ordinary, tenor, one that more closely mirrors our home life. Being in San Francisco has become such a familiar and habitual (in the best sense of the word) part of our lives, somewhere we spend more of our time than anywhere else, other than our permanent UK address.

What has happened is that OUR version of San Francisco has shifted both geographically and metaphorically from the waterfront to the neighborhood we have chosen to live in for a few short weeks (oh, that it could be more).

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If all we want to do is “hang out” at the apartment in the morning, watch the news on KRON4 while catching up on household chores, before strolling out to a local café for lunch, followed by food shopping and a return to the apartment for a glass or two of wine on the outside private deck, then so be it. We might then have dinner in the apartment – or try out one of the local restaurants. Or we might decide to take a trip downtown and eat in Chinatown or North Beach.

We feel no pressure to conform to the expectations of others, to be perfect tourists (if that is not an oxymoron), although, inevitably, as the trip draws to a close, the realization will again dawn on us that we haven’t seen and done as much as we would have liked!

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But what of our stay in Bernal?

It would be disingenuous to claim that we will be spending the majority of our time in the neighborhood. But we will be exploring the celebrated stairways and gardens, not to mention every square inch of the hill itself, and patronizing the cafés, restaurants and stores (but, sadly, not Badger Books). And we could not visit without seeking out bargains at the Alemany flea and farmers’ markets.

I will be posting photos and thoughts on my blog and other social networks throughout, and would welcome any feedback from neighbours.

But, firstly, ou sont les neiges?


My wife observed the other day that she hadn’t seen me reading my Kindle lately. I’ll confess that I hadn’t realised this was the case, especially as I had been steadily adding books to it over recent weeks.

But she was right – I hadn’t sat down and read anything for any appreciable length of time since Christmas.

And that set me thinking.

What was the point, after years of agonising over the propriety of buying one in the first place, of not taking advantage of the opportunity it gave to read more widely and often? All I was doing was filling yet another bookcase – albeit a digital one – with more books I was unlikely to read (although I already owned some of them in print form).

And then I remembered that one of the prime motives for finally succumbing to the evil lure of the e-reader at all was to enable me to take all the books I “needed” on vacation without compromising my luggage allowance.

I had already been struggling with the dilemma of which guide to San Francisco I would take on our upcoming trip to the area, as well as which book I would take for leisure reading (not that I ever get beyond the first couple of chapters when I’m away, especially since now I devoted most “downtime” to my blog and other social networking).

So how might I resurrect the ailing appliance?

Well, it wasn’t much to look at for a start. The austere black cover I had bought for it, while practical and inexpensive, made it blend into the background in the office (a.k.a. the front bedroom). I’d effectively forgotten about it, except when I was browsing on Amazon.

I needed, therefore, to make it look as appealing as so many of the books I would be obliged to leave at home.

The dilemma was solved, however, by the simple addition of the last Grateful Dead sticker I had bought on Haight Street last June – cool, distinctive, colourful and exactly the right fit.

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Immediately, I wanted to delve inside and re-acquaint myself with my recent purchases.

A case of definitely judging an e-book by its cover.

Yes, the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the novels of Thomas Hardy were there as they should be. But, more importantly, the 2014 edition of San Francisco Not for Tourists and Gary Kamiya’s wonderful Cool Grey City of Love, and not forgetting Armistead Maupin’s latest and last Tales of the City novel, The Days of Anna Madrigal, were there waiting for me too.

So I am actually “good to go” (note how I am already slipping into the Californian vernacular) after all, although I hadn’t realised it.

An added bonus is that I had also loaded a couple of books that my wife might wish to read in the unlikely event that she should finish the supersized novel that she had already elected to weigh her hand luggage down with on the flight.

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So I’m now back into the groove of turning to my Grateful Dead infused e-reader when I have only a few minutes to spare – preparing the evening meal, sitting on a bus and even – no I won’t mention it – conducting business in the smallest room in the house (much more manageable than the Sunday Express my father used to disappear there with).

And with declining eyesight, how great to be able to increase the font size of what I am reading!

Now, where did I put the charger?


Margate, on the north eastern tip of the Isle of Thanet in Kent, sixty four miles east of London, epitomises the rise and fall of the English coastal resort.  A booming seaside town in its Victorian heyday, and still hugely popular as recently as the nineteen sixties, it declined into decay and dilapidation in the past quarter of a century. But now it is slowly emerging from the ashes with an ambitious regeneration programme designed to re-position the resort as an artistic and heritage destination.

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Turner Contemporary

It was the association, during the eighteenth century, of seawater with good health due to its spa qualities that sparked an interest in the coastal resorts around Britain. Initially a fishing town, and a haven for smugglers, Margate capitalised on the growing passion for “taking the cure” in the sea by constructing, as early as 1805, bathing machines that allowed ladies to enter the water from its beautiful sandy beaches with the utmost modesty.

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The Main Sands (during Quad Bike show)

Growth, however, was slow in the early decades because it took several hours to travel from London to the town and the cost was prohibitive for the average worker   Moreover, accommodation provision was negligible. This all changed in the nineteenth century.  Firstly, steamboat services reduced the cost and time of travel from London, with a discrete service operating to Margate by 1820.  Grain hoys unloading their cargo at London docks would return to the town “laden with passengers”.  Piers were built, initially to provide landing stages, but they soon became the places to be seen.

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The Harbour Arm

The expansion of the railway network, along with the enactment of the Bank Holiday Act in 1871, put the resort within the reach of working class Londoners.  For those who could afford a longer stay than the customary day trip, guest houses began to emerge, often in impressive Georgian and Victorian houses.  Margate was invariably in the forefront of innovation and convenience for the holidaymaker, not least in being the first resort to provide deckchairs on its attractive, sandy beaches in 1898.

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Fine, sandy beaches abound

With improved transport links, fine sandy beaches and a carefree atmosphere, Margate was a highly popular holiday destination during Victorian times, welcoming, by 1879, between 16,000 and 24,000 people every day during the summer.  Its popularity endured beyond the two world wars and well into the third quarter of the next century.  Day trippers, often on works or club outings, would stream off the trains and coaches from the capital for a “day on the sands, donkey rides, cockle and whelk stalls, fish and chips, Punch and Judy and amusement arcades”.

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Queues for fish and chips are long all day

Tracey Emin, a Margate native and impassioned champion of the resort, speaks lovingly of her upbringing in the town, and recalls, in the late sixties and seventies, visiting the “Lido – a giant art deco half-moon pool with an array of diving boards”, and listening to Tony Savage playing the organ while “old ladies dance together to Tea for Two”.  Thousands of striped deckchairs adorned the golden sands and the “Golden Mile would be a siege of people walking eight-deep with candyfloss and kiss-me-quick hats”.

Every day from May to September was “full of golden sunshine and beautiful emerald green seas”.  Carnivals, talent shows, bathing beauty contests, puppet theatres thrived and the Winter Gardens and Theatre Royal welcomed the major music hall and, more latterly, TV stars of the day.

The jewel in the crown  was the fifteen acre Dreamland Amusement Park.  The site was formally opened in 1920 when, inspired by Coney Island, the mile long Scenic Railway wooden rollercoaster was unveiled, carrying half a million passengers in its first year alone.  Other rides followed and the site was augmented, partly with investment from Butlins, by the construction of a huge ballroom, cinema, pleasure gardens, ice rink, zoo and Big Wheel.

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Improving refreshment facilities

Purchased in 1981 it became Bembom Brothers White Knuckle Theme Park, reverting to the Dreamland name in 1990, and, with the addition of a number of “high tech” rides, it was one of the top ten most visited tourist attractions in the UK.

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Once it lived up to its name………maybe again?

But a lethal combination of longer paid holidays, inexpensive package tours to Spain and, more latterly, the rise of low cost airlines, spelt the end of the halcyon days of the domestic seaside resort.  British tourists could now afford to travel abroad where sunshine was guaranteed and the cost of living was often cheaper.

Margate was especially badly hit by the dash to the Med. As fewer visitors stepped off the trains, much of the Victorian infrastructure – piers, sundecks and Grade II listed buildings – were blown up or left to rack and ruin. Natural disasters also put paid to much loved icons, with the 123 year old pier perishing during a violent storm in 1978.

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Sunday lunchtime outside one of its many pubs

Many of the large guesthouses, of which the town was once proud, were split up into bedsits, others became care homes or social housing, inhabited by asylum seekers, refugees and the elderly, placed there by local authorities from as far afield as London.

As the number of visitors dried up, local industry declined, resulting in abnormally high levels of unemployment and social deprivation for the region with the accompanying increase in crime.

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Only the sign remains

The sale of Dreamland in 1996 led to many of the rides, including the Big Wheel, being removed to other parks or sold off.  In 2003 the new owners announced that the park would close and the land sold for retail and commercial use.  Its closure came two years later, sold for a fraction of its real value. Around a third of the Scenic Railway, now Grade II listed and the second oldest in the world, was severely damaged in an arson attack in April 2008.  Despite having its Listed building status upgraded to Grade II* (buildings of special architectural or historic interest) the Dreamland Cinema also closed in 2007, replaced, inevitably, by an out of town multiplex cinema.

Even the famed Main Sands progressively lost their glamour.  The only remaining donkey ride licence holder in the resort gave up his licence in 2008, signalling the end of a service that had thrilled small children for more than two centuries. And as recently as June 2010 year businesses complained that the “stench of rotting seaweed” on the seafront “driving away tourists”.

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Looking back towards town from the harbour arm

To compound the frustration for Margate, its neighbours Broadstairs and Whitstable , have both enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, trading primarily on their respective Victorian and “foodie” identities.  That said, the typical visitor to those resorts was always a little more sophisticated than the traditional working class visitor to Margate.

In order to remain a viable tourist destination, the challenge for Margate is to enhance and, where necessary, revamp the unique and appealing parts of its product to meet changing tastes.  If it can develop new attractions and facilities that satisfy the modern holidaymaker, as well as entice customers craving a lost past, then even better, especially in a period of austerity.

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Heaven for every child from ages 2 to 102

And despite its recent troubles Margate still has outstanding natural features that ought to be marketed to the hilt.  The beaches are excellent, in particular the lovely sweeping curve of the Main Sands, which has consistently achieved Blue Flag status, though controversially and, it is anticipated, temporarily, it was removed in August 2010.

Moreover, despite their current shabbiness, many of the remaining Georgian and Victorian houses along the seafront have an air of gentility that, with careful renovation, could light up the promenade again.  And the Old Town, with its narrow lanes and streets, also exudes a charm that could be better promoted to attract the missing tourists, though the preponderance of boarded up shop fronts makes it hard for the visitor to look beyond the current down at heel atmosphere.

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Scenes from the  burgeoning artistic quarter

There are two major developments, part of a wider regeneration project, which might just put the town back among those premier seaside resorts such as Blackpool and Bournemouth that have successfully ridden the storm. Dreamland is Margate’s core, talismanic built attraction.

There is now hope for its future.  Rejecting the previous owners’ desire for it to become a retail and commercial site, local people and Government have secured its continued use as a leisure facility. The aim is to redevelop it as the world’s first amusement park of historic rides and attractions, the centrepiece of which will be a renovated and restored Scenic Railway.

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Another of the lovely beaches

Some vintage rides have already been donated, including many of the unique rides from the defunct Pleasureland Southport amusement park such as the 1940s Catapillar Ride, King Solomons Mines rollercoaster, workings from the Ghost Train and River Caves and Hall of Mirrors. The Junior Whip from Blackpool Pleasure Beach and the now-demolished water chute at Rhyl are also destined for new homes on the North Kent coast. The success of Dreamland’s new incarnation when it opens will be fundamental to the town’s financial and spiritual well being.

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Main Sands with artistic quarter in background

Art and culture stand alongside heritage at the heart of Margate’s regeneration plans.  Conceived as a new twist on its tourist offer the £17.4 million Turner Contemporary art gallery is located in a plot of land adjacent to the harbour.  It is already having the same positive impact as the Tate Gallery in St Ives in Cornwall has had.

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Turner Contemporary watches over the fishing boats

J.M.W. Turner said that Margate had the “loveliest skies in Europe”, and painted more than  a hundred  scenes to prove his point.  The controversial gallery named in his honour plans to exhibit work from a variety of artists, including that of Tracey Emin.  The gallery is designed not only to attract high paying visitors but also to reduce the town’s reliance on the summer season by providing year round exhibitions.

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The evidence for Turner’s claim

Margate has endured spectacular growth, maturity and depressing decline over the past two hundred years.  Restoring it to its former glory will be a daunting task but, through the planned marriage of art and heritage, spiced with nostalgia and allied to its wonderful natural assets, it deserves to succeed.

And on a glittering March afternoon like that on which I wrote this piece, there are fewer finer places to be.

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