Posts Tagged ‘Golden Gate’

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 DaySkabour 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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My last post explored the area on the north western corner of San Francisco – from the Beach Chalet restaurant along Ocean Beach to the Cliff House and adjacent Sutro Baths.

If you need to return to the city at this point, you can either drive back via the avenues or take the 38 Geary Muni bus. But an infinitely more rewarding, if strenuous, route is along the Coastal Trail, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, that winds around the headland all the way to Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge. The walk begins at the parking lot behind the baths.


The Cliff House, with the huge picture windows of the bistro and Sutro’s beneath, presents its more fetching side when viewed from the ruins.


A few hundred yards along the trail, set in the wild, cypress-filled expanse of Lincoln Park, a short detour inland brings you to the stately Palace of the Legion of Honour, an exact replica of the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d,Honneur in Paris. Built in the nineteen twenties to promote French art in California and commemorate the state’s casualties in the Great War, it houses European art from the last eight centuries, including paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt, Monet and Degas, as well as exhibits from Rome, Greece, Egypt and Assyria.


It might be best known in the public imagination for providing the setting for scenes in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but the gallery is more important for being the home to more than seventy sculptures by Auguste Rodin. Indeed, an original bronze casting of his Le Penseur (The Thinker),  the production of which was overseen by the sculptor himself, greets visitors as they enter via the courtyard.


Returning to the trail, steep wooden steps transport the adventurous hiker onto Mile Rocks Beach, where, even on a calm day, the rugged terrain is lashed by the strong currents of the powerful Pacific.


From here, Mile Rocks Lighthouse sits half a mile off shore. Built originally as a bell buoy in 1889, with the lighthouse completed in 1906, it served to guide the way for seafarers until 1966  when the Coast Guard dismantled the lantern and converted it to a helicopter landing pad. Emasculated it may now be, but it is still a curiously imposing structure.


One of the chief pleasures of the walk is the “now you see me, now you don’t” tease played by the Golden Gate Bridge.


China Beach, so named as it was once home to an encampment of Chinese fishermen, is a small cove with facilities for residents hardy enough to swim in the icy waters. As the trail turns due north towards the bridge, the larger Baker Beach, the original site for the Burning Man art festival, is one of the most popular spots for sunbathing, walking and fishing, as well as being dog friendly. On sunny days, the northern end is notable for the absence of swimwear or any clothing for that matter.

And it affords a stunning view – of the bridge, not me.


It might be feel remote but you should not get lost on the trail.  


At the end of Lincoln Park, the wooded, green terrain gives way to swanky Sea Cliff, one of San Francisco’s most affluent neighbourhoods with its pastel coloured mansions and their immaculately manicured gardens. Its exclusivity is reinforced on every corner by signs forbidding tourist buses, and its list of current and former residents includes Robin Williams, Sharon Stone, Paul Kantner and the founders of both Twitter and Gap. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands are unsurprisingly priceless.


The walk on this occasion ends here on the south west corner of the Presidio. That magnificent former US army base deserves a post of its own, and I will return to it at a later date.

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With my first book, A Half-Forgotten Triumph, co-written with Martin Moseling, now in print, I am keen to proceed with the second. It will represent a significant departure from my first publication which explored in detail the fortunes of one sports team a century ago.  Not only will I be writing on my own this time but I will also be focusing on a subject that exceeds even my passion for cricket – San Francisco.

I am grappling at the moment, however, with the precise form that the book might take.  Initially, I envisaged writing a standard travel diary, based on my experiences over ten visits to the city, varying between three and twenty eight nights, during the past eighteen years. Of course, I would try to make it witty and interesting but it would still be a travel diary.

But there are other options.

I have written nearly twenty blog articles on San Franciscan characters and eccentrics, some famous, others notorious (the characters, not the posts). An expanded work on that subject – along the lines perhaps of “50 Great San Francisco characters” is still an objective. But perhaps not now.

I am intrigued by the unanimously thrilled reaction of my countrymen – and women – to their first acquaintance with San Francisco. Though many may never return, and certainly not as often as I have and will continue to do, they retain fond memories of their visit. The most recent figures from the San Francisco Travel Association show that, at 11.6% of the total of 15.92 million, the proportion of visitors from the United Kingdom only just falls short of those from Canada, the country unsurprisingly supplying the most.

The British have a clear affinity with the city, as witnessed by such literary luminaries as  Dylan Thomas (“you wouldn’t think such a place as San Francisco could exist”) and John Lennon (“we’re crazy about this city”), as well as countless thousands of tourists from its isles.

i think there may, therefore, be some mileage in assessing the British impact on San Francisco since Sir Francis Drake first landed the Golden Hind near the Golden Gate in June 1579, almost two hundred years before the city was officially “founded” by the Spanish. But again perhaps not yet.

Despite its popularity and the literature it has spawned, there are still aspects of the San Francisco story that have yet to be explored.

My final approach, and possibly the most likely at present, is a more fluid series of reminiscences and reflections on the everyday life and culture of the city. More challenging would be to convert that material into a fictional narrative, partly because I doubt that I have the skill to do so, but equally because I would have the massive shadow of Armistead Maupin standing over me. An English angle might mollify the challenge but it would still be a daunting task to set myself.

But in a sense, it doesn’t quite matter yet as I am currently pulling together all the pieces I have written on the subject in my blog over the past two and a half years. The strength – or otherwise – of that content might actually help me to identify in which direction I need to go.

So there is no immediate urgency to make that decision while I carry out the necessary research and review the existing material. Equally, however, I cannot afford to let it drift as I want to have some material available to present to prospective publishers towards the end of the year.

I will continue to use this blog to relay my emerging thoughts and perhaps trail some of the content.

Wish me luck! 

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Like many visitors I first encountered the Cliff House on a sightseeing tour of San Francisco in October 1995, calling in after the obligatory orientation stop at Twin Peaks.  We had little more than half an hour there, just enough time to peruse the jewellery stalls on the pavement outside, buy a postcard or a packet of Californian seeds in the gift shop and, most importantly, avail ourselves of the washrooms.

We spied an enticing restaurant (there are two of course, but weren’t able even to fit in a coffee.  The tour guide will probably have outlined the exotic history of the three different buildings that had stood on the site, including the Christmas Day fire of 1894, the majestic Sutro Baths and amusement park, the atmospheric remnants of which can now only be seen.  But the history lesson will have passed most of us by, anxious as we were to move on to the more dazzling attractions of the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Eighteen years and nine trips later, it has become a ritual for us to have brunch here on the first morning of each visit to the city. Sometimes by car, and on other occasions by MUNI bus, we ride out through the Inner and Outer Richmond neighbourhoods, excitedly counting down, or rather up, the numbers of the avenues. We sweep past Golden Gate Park on our left whilst craning our necks for tantalising views of the bay – and the great bridge – to the right as we pray for the interminable procession of traffic lights to be on our side.

We park up behind the wall separating the Great Highway from Ocean Beach and walk towards the Cliff House, hoping that the line for the bistro on the ground floor is not too long.  Being told – as we always seem to be – that we have around a half hour wait, we venture outside to marvel at both the bird life on Seal Rock and the engineering masterpiece that is the Camera Obscura.

On returning to the restaurant, we are escorted by a cheerful waiter to a table at one of the large picture windows, permitting either views of Seal Rock and the vast Pacific Ocean beyond, or of the long, bullet straight shoreline towards Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz and all points south.  Golden Gate Park, with the Dutch Windmill signposting its coastal entrance, sits half a mile away whispering its hidden delights.

We are given ice cold water and divine warm rolls while we scan the menu, though we hardly need it as our order is always Crab Eggs Benedict for myself and Eggs San Francisco for my wife, accompanied by fried potatoes (not fries), onions and peppers, melon pieces, grapes and salad, juice and unlimited coffee. Heaven!

That’s the moment!

It is only now that we feel truly “home” again – with that meal, that view, that hum of civilised conversation that pervades the dining room. The next week, fortnight or, in our upcoming vacation, month, is laid out before us like a procession of Christmas Days, with lavish presents and sumptuous food and drink on every one of them.

As we leave the Cliff House to walk off the meal on the beach or the cliff tops of Land’s End, the next tour bus pulls up and disgorges its occupants, chattering of Chinatown, Pier 39 and Macy’s, all to be ticked off by lunchtime, to the washrooms, gift shop and jewellery stalls.  Perhaps some of them at least will remember that short comfort stop next time they visit the City and decide to inspect the plain looking building by the sea a little more closely.

But I hope it’s not too many, as we would not want our wait for a table to be any more than that customary half an hour would we?


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Though many people – including my wife – prefer the Oakland Bay Bridge, this remains the most iconic image of San Francisco. And that is reflected in the number of photos I have taken of it from various angles over the years.

Here is a selection of those I am most fond of. Some are familiar images, others perhaps less so.


From the Marin Headlands with Sutro Tower

in the distance and the City to the left


I was walking, not driving, when I took this!


From Land’s End after a hearty brunch at the Cliff House!


“The Warming Hut” – does what it says on the tin


Peeking from behind the “Warming Hut” 


Where the tourists get taken


Nearly there! From Crissy Field Beach


Towards Fort Point


Going under


Looks pretty sturdy to me


But it’s still the No. 1 “suicide bridge” in the world


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