A fanciful proposition?
After all, there are no breathtaking bridges (unless you count the Foord Road railway viaduct), no crippling hills (no, not even the Old High Street), no $40 million properties (how much IS the Grand worth?) and no former high security prisons once claimed for Indian land sitting off the shore in Kent’s garden resort.
But, having spent a lot of time in San Francisco over the past twenty years, and written extensively about it in the past five years, I believe there are enough similarities to entitle me to suggest that it has more in common with my childhood playground, and now home, of Folkestone than one might at first think. The only differences are ones of scale and international repute.
Before I plunge into this pool of fantasy, a brief disclaimer.
The only photographs included in this piece are those of Folkestone – for a variety of reasons: 1) Many people will already be familiar with some of the sights I refer to in San Francisco; 2) If they don’t, there are probably millions of images and billions of words on the internet to fill them in, and 3) I have posted hundreds of images elsewhere on this blog and I’d be delighted if you were inspired to go hunting for them!
Back to the proposition.
Firstly, they are both marine ports with world famous stretches of water/land on their doorstep (the Golden Gate and the White Cliffs of Dover) as well as glorious bay/sea views in all directions and weathers.
The boats in Folkestone’s pretty harbour hardly match up to the million dollar vessels you will find docked in Sausalito or Tiburon across San Francisco Bay. But the scene has a timeless charm that is endlessly captivating, whether at high or low tide.
Both places teeter on the edge of their nation. Folkestone, with its proximity to mainland Europe, cemented by the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994, has long vied with neighbouring Dover for the title of “Gateway to England” (personally, I think it’s a draw), while San Francisco is on the seismically challenged tip of a vast continent.
And because of that position, they have both served as major embarcation points for their nation’s military in time of war. In the 1914-18 conflict, it is estimated that as many as eight million soldiers marched down Folkestone’s Road of Remembrance to the Harbour Station en route to the fields of Flanders and France, while in the Second World War, more than a million and a half soldiers left for the Pacific conflict from San Francisco and its neighbour on the other side of the Bay Bridge, Oakland.
“The City” (as (we) San Franciscans call it) is consistently placed high (invariably first) on culinary surveys. The Foodie Capital of the U.S.A is no idle boast. Folkestone may not have attained that elevated status (for a start it’s not in the U.S.A. but you know what I mean), but a number of fine cafes and restaurants have sprouted in the town in recent years, a visible and tasty manifestation of the regeneration, courtesy in no small part to the beneficence of Sir Roger de Haan.
Rocksalt, the seafood restaurant perched alongside the small railway bridge that separates the inner from outer harbour, has recently been named the thirtieth best in the U.K and Googies has been adjudged Restaurant of the Year in the 2016 Taste of Kent Awards.
There are a number of other quality restaurants (Copper and Spices, Blooms @1/4 and Follies are personal favourites), both in the town and dotted along the recently reopened Harbour Arm, capped by the lovely Champagne Bar at the foot of the lighthouse.
And one can’t forget, this being a seaside resort, that there are many establishments serving up fish and chips (not forgetting the mushy peas, white bread and butter and mug of tea).
Coffee culture is strong too – many shops provide coffee and cake in addition to their primary products – and there is a distinct hipster vibe about Folkestone that mirrors – on a smaller scale of course – the atmosphere in neighbourhoods like the Mission, Cole Valley and Potrero Hill on the “left coast” of America.
Any self-respecting coastal resort would not be complete without its harbourside seafood stalls selling freshly caught crab and lobster as well as cockles, whelks and prawns. Bob’s, Chummy’s and La’s are all well established and popular purveyors of the denizens of the sea. A Fisherman’s Wharf in miniature you might argue.
Home to Jack London and Dashiel Hammett, the Beat poets and the Summer of Love, inspiration for the WPA and Mission muralists, San Francisco has always had a reputation for being a town for artists, writers and musicians. After all, it provides a gorgeous natural canvas upon which to create. However, one of the consequences of astronomical rents in recent years has been to drive many artists out of the city.
In contrast, Folkestone’s star as an arts venue of international repute is rising. Every three years – the next is in 2017 – it becomes host to a prestigious arts festival (Triennial), where artists are permitted free rein about town to create public artworks (there are already twenty seven pieces on display by luminaries like Yoko Ono and Tracey Emin).
This is the most high profile manifestation of a burgeoning arts scene centred on the Creative Quarter where galleries and performance space adorn the once run down Old High Street and Tontine Street. Indeed, it is the arts that has been the fulcrum of the regeneration that has become the envy of other coastal resorts around the UK (which, admittedly, have not had the benefit of a sugar daddy like de Haan.
The City by the Bay is renowned for its year round cavalcade of neighbourhood and city wide festivals and fairs celebrating its cherished devotion to diversity, including Pride, the Haight Ashbury Street Fair, North Beach Festival, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Folsom Street Fair.
In contrast, Folkestone’s admittedly more modest, but nonetheless impressive, calendar of annual events, notably Charivari, the Harbour Festival, Leas Village Fete, Armed Forces Day, Skabour and the Folkestone Book Festival among many others.
I cannot resist including a pet (not literally) subject of mine – gulls.
Both places boast a feisty, ravenous population, hardly surprising given their coastal position, but these, reflecting their human compatriots in each town, are genuine “characters”. The giant seagull artwork, now serving on Folkestone’s Harbour Arm as an unconventional tourist information kiosk, has become an unofficial poster boy (or is that gull?) for the town. But generally, so far, I’ve found the local birdlife noisy but reasonably friendly, especially when I cross Radnor Park of a morning when they waddle up to greet me (but don’t let me get too close).
The same cannot be said for those that begin to circle San Francisco’s (base) ball park during the late innings of a Giants game in anticipation of feasting on leftover garlic fries. Fans remaining until the end of evening games have to have their wits about them.
There is one aspect of San Francisco life that I would not want to see replicated in Folkestone. San Francisco rents and the broader cost of living are the highest in the States, due largely to the influx of tech workers from Google, Facebook and Oracle to name but a few.
Now, the Alkham Valley doesn’t have quite the same cudos as Silicon Valley (pretty as it is – Alkham not Silicon), but there are other forces at play – improved accessibility to London through the high speed rail link, continued development and gentrification and relatively cheap house prices (for now) – that increase the risk of Folkestone becoming a town split between affluent “transplants” and residents who cannot afford to live in the place they were born and brought up in.
There is a more substantial analysis called for here, and I may attempt it in due course. Moreover, there are other issues I might have explored – dogs and drinking spring to mind (that’s not about the bowls left outside the Leas Cliff Hall for the delectation of our canine colleagues but rather two very distinct subjects).
But, for now, there is certainly one further similarity between the two places that I must mention – I left my heart in both, in Folkestone as a ten year old gleefully gambolling (not gambling) in the rotunda and in 1995 on a fateful West Coast tour of the U.S.A.
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