Colourful valerian is everywhere on the beach in the summer, especially on the promenade up past Walmer to Kingsdown. Photo: SE

Colourful valerian is everywhere on the beach in the summer. It’s most striking on the promenade towards Walmer and up to Kingsdown. Photo: SE

“No-one passes through,” declares the fisherman propping up the bar, before adding, “people only come to Deal for a purpose.”

He’s right. Or at least he was – until recently. 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 potential invader from Julius Caesar, who arrived in 55BC (check out the memorial on the promenade towards Walmer) to Napoleon (no, he didn’t quite make it). And it’s this combination of inaccessibility and vulnerability that has allowed Deal to live by its own rules.

The shingle beach is still a preferred landing spot. Photo: SE

The beach is still a preferred landing spot for some. Photo: SE

Its significance in the sixteenth century as the busiest port in England resulted in the building of three castles including Walmer, the most spectacular, but by the 18th Century, a thriving smuggling trade meant the town had gained a lawless reputation: diarist Samuel Pepys called Deal “pitiful”, whilst the author Daniel Defoe talked of its “barbarous hated name”.

Beach Street. The conservation area snakes and twists behind.

Beach Street. The conservation area snakes and twists behind. Photo: SE

So why is it now bustling with delis, restaurants, great pubs, galleries and vintage/interior 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 (see section below).

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).

Quality wood-fired pizzas at the Deal Hoy. Photo: SE

Quality wood-fired pizzas – and a great beer garden: the Deal Hoy. Photo: SE

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 pier at sunrise. Get up early so you don't miss it. Photo: SE

The pier at sunrise. Worth hauling yourself out of bed for. Photo: SE

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 Sundays and bank holidays here – it’s where the town comes together, in fact.

Try these weekend pursuits

Mileage is the last in a parade of chic interiors shops

Mileage is the last in a parade of chic interiors shops. Photo: SE

An old town mooch

Wander round the rarefied streets of the conservation area centred around Middle Street, making sure you don’t miss the winding Brewer Street, and charming Portobello Court, before heading to the old high street for an intriguing selection of vintage and lifestyle shops. Try Hoxton Store (142 High St) for interiors, the very rummageable two-floor Petit Brocante (154 High St) and cavernous Mileage (156 High St, pictured), with its maze of rooms, accompanying tea shop and well-thumbed piles of World Of Interiors magazines. Smugglers Records (9 King St) is the place for both old and new vinyl – with handy craft beer (check the very well-stocked fridges) and coffee bar on site. Just nearby is Fleming’s (10 Broad St), with a carefully curated edit of antiques and art.

Black PigIf you’re self-catering, the local produce is unbeatable: in and around the high street there’s Jenkins fishmongers (or the cheaper South Street fish shop a few minutes’ walk away), the Black Pig and Rooks butchers, the Bakehouse for enviable bread and sweet stuff, Poppy’s Kitchen for organic veg, bread and produce (with garden cafe out back and licensed menu), Le Pinardier for wine, and excellent French cheeses at No Name. A bustling Saturday market is an essential stop for bric-a-brac, books, second-hand furniture, quality Kentish produce, streetfood, local coffee and flowers – not to mention people-watching.

Smugglers Records sells vinyl, CDs and craft beer. Photo: Facebook

Smugglers Records sells vinyl, CDs and craft beer. Photo: Facebook

Need a kick? Try a local coffee from the Real Deal Roastery right in the heart of the market, Miretti (125 High St) or stylish new arrival The Post Room right next to the train station – which has deckchairs outside to lounge about on.

Know your onions

The Royal Hotel on the seafront is where Nelson stayed with his missus. Photo: SE

The Royal Hotel (centre) on the seafront is where Nelson stayed with his missus. Photo: SE

Deal seeps history: the delightful Maritime Museum (23 St George’s Road, 01304 381 344) is a good starting point, then embark on a brisk seafront hike south. You’ll pass the four storey Timeball Tower, rose-shaped Deal Castle, with its dark passageways and authentic 16th century unadorned feel, and reach idyllic Walmer Castle, for a cream tea on the battlements.

Ponder some art

Gorgeous: Linden Hall. Photo: LHS

Destination: Linden Hall. Photo: LHS

Deal’s art scene has slowly but surely upped its game recently. Only here for a weekend? Don’t miss the town’s flagship creative space, Linden Hall Studios (32 St George’s Road, open Wed-Sun), whose revolving schedule of contemporary artists is as compelling as the historic 18th century interior itself, with its mezzanine gallery and views over the leafy churchyard. Also recommended is Dunlin & Diver (112 High Street), for art and craft by local artists, the quirky Taylor Jones & Son (152 High Street), with its tiny white space out back, and there are shows by Dealites at Le Pinardier, which change every few weeks. A popular annual event too is the South East Art Trail, which takes place every June (3rd-19th June in 2016), and shows a wide range of work from traditional oil and watercolours to ceramics and textiles.

The long walk: St Margaret’s Bay

Valerian flowers all the way along the seafront.

The seafront gets more Mediterranean the further south you walk. Photo: SE

This 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 newly refurbished Zetland Arms, perched on the beach (right) in the village of Kingsdown en route, and eat at The Coastguard, the ‘closest pub to France’ recently taken over Kentish brewery Shepherd Neame. They’ll easily call you a cab home.

Ten good places to eat (in no particular order)

The summer terrace at Whit's. Photo: Eva Whitney

The summer terrace at Whit’s. Photo: Eva Whitney

Frog & Scot, top Gallic-tinged grub from David Hart, former sous chef at Whitstable’s Sportsman, at this all-day cafe and restaurant owned by the friendly team behind Le Pinardier and often booked solid at weekends (read our review here). Dishes include baked halibut with avruga caviar sauce, plaice with mussel pistou and confit duck. 86 High St

Victuals & Co, housed in pedestrianized St George’s Passage (one of many ancient alleyways that link the high street with the seafront) is a little like a place you might stumble across in Soho. Good value Saturday lunch menu (£19 for two courses) mixes  seasonal and local: the rare fillet steak from Ash is recommended (£7.50 supplement). 2-3 St Georges Passage

A pretty sidestreet: Victuals & Co. Photo: SE

A pretty sidestreet: Victuals & Co. Photo: SE

The Black Douglas, granny-chic interior, leisurely home-made breakfasts, cakes and lunches with cosy garden at the rear. Evening menu and lively crowd on Fridays & Saturdays with local fish, such as Dover sole, and hanger steak from nearby butcher the Black Pig. 83 Beach St

Pop-up Cafe, one of the superior brunch and lunchtime options in town with seasonal salads, freshly baked savoury and sweet things, a Kentish wine and beer list, daily specials and the best coffee in Deal. Regular weekend supper clubs in its bare-brick-bare-bulb interior too. 16 High Street

The best brunch in town is at the Pop-up Cafe. Photo: SE

The best brunch in town is at the Pop-up Cafe. Photo: SE

Whits of Walmer, a long-running Kensington brasserie which has recently relocated to the seafront up near the bandstand. Classical French cooking (from fresh crab to local lamb), a good wine list, friendly service and sunny courtyard terrace with simpler bar menu and sharing plates. 61 The Strand

Deal Hoy, neighbourhood local with stripped back interior, cosy wood-burner, oysters, decent beer and tasty artisan pizzas. Try the charcuterie or goat’s cheese, beetroot and fig specials (around £10). 16 Duke Street

Halibut with avruga caviar at Frog & Scot. Photo: Sarah Ross

Halibut with avruga caviar sauce at Frog & Scot. Photo: Sarah Ross

Royal Hotel is the only place to eat in a beachside garden or terrace. Stick to locally caught fish or a sharing fish platters with ice-cold Cotes De Provence rosé – and the best pier view in town.

Chef-patron Dalziel Douglas at the Black Douglas. Photo: BD

Chef-patron Dalziel Douglas at the Black Douglas. Photo: BD

81 Beach St, seasonal cooking in simply-decked seaside surroundings opposite the beach. Set lunch menus too at around the £13 mark.

Dining Club, members’ joint (only a tenner to join) taken over a few years back by Gary Rhodes-endorsed chef Scott Roberts (BYO wine, 5-course set menus at £29.50). 69 Middle Street

Burger Brothers, for that essential hangover patty and bun. This firmly Kentish burger joint (with craft beer room downstairs) is a decent option for a meat feast. Gets busy at weekend. 51-53 Beach Street

And not forgetting fish ‘n’ chips…

It's licensed so you can knock back the vino. Or grab a takeout on the beach. Photo: Flickr

It’s licensed so you can knock back the vino. Or grab a takeout on the beach. PhotoL Flickr

In the old town at feeding times queues snake out of the Fish Shop at 78 Middle Street, but equally recommended are Sea View (69 Beach St, try the local huss) and Blue Mermaid (8 Victoria Rd), which is signed from the seafront to save you using up your GPS.

Thirsty? Read this

Unmissable: Deal's famous old town boozer The Ship Inn. Photo: Flickr

Unmissable: Deal’s famous old town boozer The Ship Inn. Photo: Flickr

Deal’s smuggling past means that its watering holes are legendary. Start with a pint on the piazza outside oldest pub in town, the 17th Century King’s Head (9 Beach St), then head north to The Bohemian (47 Beach St), with its pleasingly ramshackle sunset garden, neighbouring bar The Taproom (51 Beach St) for a local Walmer-brewed Time & Tide; or west to new craft beer hangout The Taphouse Cafe (5 South Street), before disappearing into the old town and micropub the Just Reproach (14 King Street).

New kid on the block: The Taphouse Beer Cafe. Photo: Taphouse

New kid on the block: The Taphouse Beer Cafe. Photo: Taphouse

From there classic 18th century wood-panelled boozer The Ship (141 Middle Street) is a few minutes’ amble; a little further is the tiny Prince Albert (187 Middle Street), Saracen’s Head (Alfred Square) and Deal Hoy (Duke Street, see above). Wine-lovers will gravitate towards affable French bottle shop Le Pinardier (102 High St), with live music on Saturdays at 7pm, or Bloody Mary’s (160 High St), which also boasts classy Curious Brew lager on tap (from acclaimed Tenterden winery Chapel Down).

For a pint a stroll away, try very popular locally-loved alehouse The Berry (23 Canada Road); further still, and up the hill a bit (up near Walmer train staion), is busy new micropub The Freed Man (329 Dover Road). Burp.

Like your entertainment a little more arty?

Comedy night at The Lighthouse. Photo: Facebook

Comedy night at The Lighthouse. Photo: Facebook

Visit the Astor Theatre (Stanhope Road) for world and classic cinema, quality gigs and surreal seaside variety shows a plenty (recommended is the regular cabaret bash Private Widdle).

And The Lighthouse on the Strand in Walmer, about a twenty minute walk, is the place for an eclectic (and often free) programme of singer-songwriters, folk acts, comedians and DJs. There’s plenty of both London and locally-brewed craft beer on tap, too, as well as supper clubs, tapas nights and a popular Sunday Reggae Roast.

Accommodation

Stylish: Allotment Apartment. Photo Stephen Emms

Stylish: Allotment Appartment. Photo Stephen Emms

There aren’t still too many decent hotels in Deal, but for seafront splendour book The Royal Hotel, complete with historic verandahs, or try smaller boutiquey places like Bear’s Well and Number One. For self-catering there are dozens of fishermans’ cottages on Airbnb or Keepers Cottages. If there’s a group of you, Allotment Apartment is a three-bed maisonette above popular deli and cafe Poppy’s Kitchen, right in the centre of the old high street. There’s also a treehouse-like wooden roof terrace, with views over the town gardens beyond. More info here.

Getting there

The Timeball

Seafront towards Deal Castle: note the piazza to the right of the signal on top of the Timeball Tower.

By car it’s the A2 out of London (via Blackwall Tunnel). Trains run from St Pancras regularly but due to engineering works there’s a change at Ramsgate. Journey time is 1hr 45 approx rather than the standard 80 mins. Normal service should resume by end of 2016.

An edited version appears in the July print issue of our sister title Gasholder, available free across King’s Cross, Euston, central London and at selected outlets in Deal (see here).

Stephen Emms has lived in and written about Deal, and the Kent Coast, for well over a decade.

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