The view that started it all

I met up with the general manager of Golden Gate Park last week – a lovely man called Dave Iribarne – to get a sense of what it was like to run a 1,000-acre public park. After our chat, I wandered the park and decided that it made sense to revisit the part of the park that started the whole process of me wanting to write a book about John McLaren.

I can still recall it clearly: it was a lovely day and Sapna was looking after our new-born and I decided to walk past the normal Eastern part of the park to see what was beyond the Music Concourse – where the museums are – and Stow Lake, which is idyllic. Just past the lake is the only cross-through road in the park and it acts as a kind of barrier.

Anyway, I walked past and under the road bridge and shortly after was stunned to find a huge Scottish glen in front of me. Stunned because I really wasn’t expecting it and because I’d never seen anything like it in California. And it really took me back to the Scottish Highlands, which I’ve always loved. It’s not exactly like a Scottish glen of course but I do recall immediately thinking of them.

Anyway, I decided for whatever reason that I was keep walking and so what else this park has to offer and so I did. It’s a big park and I was amazed to find a paddock with real Bison in and then the “chain of lakes” which is stunning and then some football (soccer) fields and finally some windmills and the Beach Chalet. I was hot, thirsty and desperate for a pee by the time I reached the Beach Chalet so went in.

And in there I found a series of slightly worn down glass cabinets with an abridged history of Golden Gate Park contained within and in one of those was John McLaren and I learned, with some amazement, that not only was the park largely designed and built by this Scottish immigrant to San Francisco but that he had built it from virtually nothing. Golden Gate Park was nothing but sand dunes and the entire thing had been painstakingly reclaimed from sand dunes.

And that’s when I realised that the Scottish glen I’d seen was exactly that: a gardener recreating a vast landscape from his home on the other side of the world, from nothing. And I was impressed. I decided to get a book on this John McLaren to learn more about him. But I couldn’t find one. And that’s when the thought of writing a book about him hit home. It was nearly a decade ago now. And I have periodically done work on it – buying up books and periodicals about the park, searching old newspapers, visiting the Historical Center at the SF Library to go through the McLaren Collection it has there – but it’s been slow because, you know, life and kids and work and mortgages.

So last week after talking to the park’s current manager I decided to retrace my steps and relive that first journey. And I’m glad I did. It is still just as extraordinary and so was McLaren’s vision and skill.


I saw another amazing thing while down at the Pacific end of the park. Due presumably to the pandemic, they have closed off a chunk of Ocean Drive that I walked in order to the get N-Judah back to the city. And, despite all the protective barriers and 150 years of cultivation to stop it, the sand dunes have started taking over again.

The fierce winds that made Golden Gate Park such an enormous challenge to build in the first place and still there and nature is trying to reclaim it. It would only take a few years for the road to be completely lost under the sand.