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Tuesday 8 Oct 2013
San Francisco, USA

The Bill Leach 25c tour of San Francisco

Bill and Donna gave us the day off driving and took us to San Francisco for their own particular tour of the sights.  This started off with a trip across the new Bay Bridge.  The Bay Bridge is divided in two by Yerba Buena/Treasure Island.  The Oakland side of the bridge has recently been replaced by a tall white single pillar suspension bridge, the cables fanning out from the top of the pillar to support both sides of the road. It reminded me of a little girl spinning with her skirts fanning out.  Driving beneath the cables, they stood out brilliantly against the blue sky.  Along side the new bridge, the old grey trellis bridge stands empty and sad, but the contrast against the new white bridge is fantastic.  It will actually be a shame when they finish dismantling it.  The San Francisco half of the bridge is a double decker construction.  The traffic entering the city gets to admire the skyline from the top deck, while traffic leaving the city is tucked into the semi-tunnel underneath.   

After the bridge we turned down onto the Embarcadero, the road that runs along the seafront past the Piers all the way to the famous Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf.  From there, we swung left and straight into one of my strongest childhood memories… Hyde Street Hill.

On that family holiday back in 1988, the Handscombes and the Leaches set out to ride the historic San Francisco Cable Cars around the city.  For those unfamiliar, the ‘cable car’ in question is not a gondola suspended from a cable above, but an old fashioned tram that runs on rails.  Movement is powered by a moving cable under the ground that the cars manually latch onto or let go of, as controlled by the Grip Man and his levers.  We kids had been told of an old-fashioned ice-cream parlour at the top of the hill and I couldn’t wait.  My brother, Sam, my Dad and I were standing on the runner boards at the side with Bill, while Mum, Donna and the Leach boys, Nick and Mike, sat inside.  On leaving the cable car station by the bay, the cars head straight up the impossibly steep Hyde Street, which is divided into at least five sections by level crossroads between the hills.  We’d almost reached the top of the steepest hill while my Dad, the engineer, had been explaining to us how the system of cables and brakes worked, finishing with the now immortal line “and if all else fails, they go for that big red lever, which clamps the car to the cable and stops it dead.”  At which point, we stopped and started rolling backwards. 

I remember him calmly saying ‘oops, here we go’, gathering Sam and me tightly to him and gripping the pole firmly. I wasn’t initially scared as I hadn’t realised anything was wrong, until I looked across and saw the Grip Man leaping for the Big Red Lever.  Nothing happened.  There was a bang from behind as we crashed into a car that had pulled out after us, sending it flying into a line of parked cars, and still we sped backwards down the hill towards the bay.  Eventually the brakes and Big Red Lever had an effect as we levelled out and we stopped firmly in the middle of the junction, causing a concertina effect in the passengers inside and those of us on the outside to tumble off.  Amazingly, nobody was seriously hurt, just a few knocks and bruises.  The Big Red Lever had clamped onto the cable as it was supposed to, but the friction had generated so much heat that it melted and welded the cable car to the track.  It took them over 24 hours to cut it free.  We were all pretty shaken and Mum suggested now would be a good time to visit the Buena Vista on the corner, famous for its Irish Coffees, which I’m fairly sure were made extra strong that day.  As for us kids, we never did reach the ice-cream parlour and I’ve been sore about that for the last 25 years…

Back to 2013, Bill drove us up Hyde Street, pointing out the Buena Vista still going strong.  I felt quite nervous just driving up the hill, even without following a cable car.  At the top, Hyde Street crossed Lombard Street at the top of the famous crooked hill.  The steepest hill in the city is laid out as a series of tight hairpins zig-zagging down the slope.  It is a favourite tourist spot and we watched a few cars going down before Bill drove us down ourselves.  Following Lombard Street right across to Telegraph Hill, we then climbed up another steep set of roads to reach Coit Tower.  Coit Tower was built in the 1930s as a tribute to the city’s volunteer firefighters and stands tall, round and shaped like a fire hose.  From the hill we looked out across the city to the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz and the spires of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.

Bill’s tour continued past the beautiful homes of Pacific Heights to the Presidio, a former military base turned into homes, museums and parkland.  We had lunch in a small café in the SF Film Centre, the walls lined with intimate black and white photo portraits of well-known directors, each holding a glass sphere.  We continued past Crissy Park to the Golden Gate Bridge overlook, where I persuaded Donna to join our Clapperboard Club.  We then headed out across the city through Sea Cliff – more rich exclusive houses – and up to Twin Peaks for another great view across the city.  This time we could see right down the length of Market Street into the highrise buildings of downtown.  Leaving Twin Peaks, we past the identical rows of multicoloured houses that inspired the 1960’s song ‘Little Boxes’ – “Little boxes on a hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky, little boxes on a hillside and they all look just the same…”

We finished the tour with a drive along the western edge of the city by Ocean Beach, Cliff House and through the Golden Gate Park.  By the time we left the city behind, Verity, Donna and I were all fast asleep and missed the view back over the San Matteo Bridge – sorry Bill!

Verity and I bought Bill and Donna a bottle of Tanqueray to thank them for their hospitality, so we had very generous Gin and Tonics and dinner in the garden to top off a brilliant day.

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