‘No-one passes through,’ declares the fisherman propping up the bar, before adding, ‘people only come to Deal for a purpose.’
He’s right. Deal’s liberal atmosphere and unique culture have thrived from being precisely the place that no-one happens upon, situated as it is between Dover and Ramsgate.
Historically, however, it was the preferred landing spot for every foreign invader from Julius Caesar, who arrived in 55BC (check out the memorial on the promenade towards Walmer) to Napoleon.
Its significance in the sixteenth century as the busiest port in England resulted in the building of three castles, including Walmer (left), but by the 18th Century, thanks to a thriving smuggling trade, the town had gained a lawless reputation: diarist Samuel Pepys called Deal ‘pitiful’, whilst the author Daniel Defoe talked of its ‘barbarous hated name.’
So why is it now bustling with delis, restaurants and antique shops? The clue lies in the famous Georgian conservation area of fisherman’s cottages just behind the seafront. In the sixties, the council nearly demolished a sizeable portion, but gradually the crumbling dwellings were bought up (often by ‘theatrical London types’, according to local estate agents Bright & Bright) and refurbished – to the point where a stroll around this now highly picturesque quarter is the most enjoyable way to spend an hour upon arrival.
And the many blue plaques are testament to the town’s bohemian history – an author here, a painter there – especially that belonging to Carry On actor Charles Hawtrey (who had a penchant for sailors, booze and setting fire to his bed, often all at the same time).
Deal’s busy past and bright future seems to converge on its pier, the only one of its kind to have been built in the UK since the end of the last war. The first, erected in 1838, was replaced by an iron structure in 1864, which in turn was damaged in WW2 by a torpedoed Dutch ship. The present pier, constructed from concrete-clad steel, was opened in 1957 by Prince Phillip and restored in 2008 as state-of-the-art RIBA-award winning glass café.
The piazza on the seafront was also regenerated a few years back, facilitating alfresco drinking and dining. There are always live bands and shows on bank holidays here – it’s where the town comes together, in fact (for Jubilees, Olympic Flames, the annual regatta).
If you like your entertainment a little more arty try the newish Astor Theatre for world and classic cinema, gigs and surreal seaside variety shows a plenty.
The Old Town. Wander round the rarefied streets of the conservation area (centred around Middle Street), then head to the high street for an intriguing selection of vintage shops (try TLC and Le Petit Brocante), delis (don’t miss the charming Allotment at 119, and excellent French cheeses at No Name (110 High St), and bustling Saturday market.
Coast and Castles. Deal seeps history: the delightful Maritime Museum (23 St George’s Road, 01304 381 344) is a good starting point, then work off a fish and chip lunch (at 78 Middle Street) with a brisk seafront hike which takes in the four storey Timeball Tower, rose-shaped Deal Castle and idyllic Walmer Castle for a cream tea on the battlements.
Zetland & St Margaret’s Bay. A wonderful cove, where Noel Coward owned a house on the beach, makes a glorious walk from Deal across the shingle beaches and white chalk cliffs (7 miles one way). Grab a pint at the Zetland Arms, perched on the beach (left) in the village of Kingsdown en route, and eat at The Coastguard, the ‘closest pub to France’.
Borough Wines, High Street, quirky shop-cum-bar with very friendly arty crowd and well priced wines by the glass
The Black Douglas, 83 Beach St, Perfect home-made breakfasts, cakes, coffee and light lunches with cosy garden at the rear. Best on Friday nights for pizzas and wine
The Ship, Middle Street, gorgeous panelled smugglers’ boozer with rowdy crowd in the heart of the old town.
Royal Hotel on the beach (main pic) for sharing fish platters and ice-cold Cotes De Provence.
81 Beach St. Good seasonal cooking in simply-decked seaside surroundings opposite the beach. Service is leisurely.
Dining Club, Middle Street, ‘members’ joint taken over last year by Gary Rhodes-endorsed chef Scott Roberts (BYO wine, 5 course set menus at £27.50).
Fisherman’s Cottage is a little boutique seaside retreat hidden away in a quiet backwater a minute’s walk from the shingle beach at Walmer. It sleeps four in two double bedrooms.
Until August 15 Kentishtowner readers can book three nights for the price of two. Regular price is £140 per night (Fri-Sun) and £90 a night (Mon-Thur).