The charms of a tucked-away town lured city-dweller Martin Wharton to a totally different way of life by the sea. Words: Kathryn Reilly. Photographs: Penny Wincer
Watching Martin Wharton share a joke with his customers in the buzzy vintage emporium, Mileage, you would be forgiven for thinking he’d known them forever. But his move to Deal, and his role as an interiors dealer and property developer, are relatively recent – and have been life-changing.
‘When I first visited Deal, I didn’t really get it,’ says Martin – now a confirmed Dealite and successful entrepreneur in the east Kent town. ‘I really don’t know why.’ Lucky for him, then, that a friend moved to the town’s conservation area and invited him to stay as often as he liked. ‘It didn’t take long for the penny to drop, though. I soon became a “weekender”,’ he smiles. The locals call such people ‘DFLs’ (Down From Londoners) – it’s something they’ve been used to for generations and a term of affection.
BARBAROUS AND BAWDY
A decade later, Martin is very much part of the bohemian creative scene that has burgeoned over the past 20 years. It’s yet another incarnation for a town that has had its fair share of ups and downs. Once the busiest port in England – and the place Julius Caesar first set foot in England – by the 17th century it was awash with smugglers’ dens and bawdy houses, prompting Daniel Defoe to write, ‘the barbarous hated name of Deal shou’d die, or be a term of infamy.’
Those dark days are long gone and the town has fared better than many, weathering recessions, the demise of the fishing industry and the closure of local mines. That may partly be due to the buoyant second home market but there is also a growing number of non-locals, like Martin, relocating to the town. What’s the appeal? ‘It’s the strong sense of community and simplicity of life. And the exceptional social life. You can’t help but make friends here,’ Martin asserts. He and his partner, Daniel Dumoulin, made a snap decision to buy a holiday home there in 2007 when invited for drinks by their friend’s neighbour, who happened to mention she needed a bigger place. For Martin, that was the beginning of a new life and, eventually, career.
‘I have always been fascinated with buildings, architecture and interior design,’ Martin explains. In fact, a 13th birthday trip to Chatsworth led to a correspondence with ‘Debo’, the Duchess of Devonshire, who encouraged Martin’s interest in aesthetics while he was at school in Doncaster. But life took him in a different direction and it was years later, while working full time as an Account Director in magazine publishing, that Martin began to turn his attention to designing and ‘de-modernising’ property in Hampstead. Deal was going to make the real difference, though. Deciding to make a full-time commitment to property development, Martin launched Settle – a one-stop service offering design and project management solutions to homeowners.
Settle properties have a distinctive feel, and that’s reflected in Martin and Daniel’s double-fronted Georgian home. What he found in 2011 as a wreck – complete with heinous seventies top-to-toe pink décor – has now been returned to period elegance. ‘Somebody recently described the Settle look as “modern British”, which is as close a description as I’ve got to. The feel is pared back, simple but old at the same time. It’s practical. I think about what works with the building and how we live today. So while I try to reveal original features, it isn’t a slavish approach to historical accuracy. I do, however, have a passion for unfitted kitchens!’ And balancing modernity with history is pertinent for the many older properties in Deal.
Key to the town’s spirit are the largely Georgian streets that make up the impressive conservation area. In 1968 it was the first in Kent to be designated as such – just escaping destruction by the council. It quickly became wildly fashionable with theatrical Londoners who christened the area ‘Little Chelsea’ and whose number included Charles Hawtry (a blue plaque on Middle Street marks his home). Unusually, the tightly terraced houses on these narrow streets are all different from one another, so each renovation throws up a multitude of challenges and conservation considerations. Martin is now starting his sixth renovation in Deal, while also finding time to meet customers in Mileage and take on property projects in London.
Deal’s appeal lies not only in the vast, clean, never-crowded pebble beach (‘It gives everything such a sense of space. And the light is incredible – it definitely influences my work’) but the rolling countryside and charming villages easily accessible from the town. Its proximity to the continent gives it another twist – French, German and Dutch visitors are often to be found on the quarter-mile-long pier or discovering the Tudor castles dotted along the vast beach between Walmer and Sandown.
A DIFFERENT PACE
‘I love the fact that even the major chain stores shut at 5pm and few open on Sunday,’ says Martin. ‘There’s even half-day closing on Thursdays. It’s distinctly old-fashioned and that’s no bad thing. The pace of life is delightful.’ Having said that, Martin is frenetically busy. One of the signature elements in Settle designs is the lighting, which is distinctive in both its form and placing. The style has earned many admirers and, from that, Martin has opened a bustling vintage homes shop located on the High Street in the Old Town. Mileage is a joint venture with two other dealers, and features a hugely popular ‘tea station’, serving drinks and delicious homemade cakes.
Has relocating to Deal affected his creative vision? ‘In some ways it’s quite metropolitan here. It’s not without sophistication but it’s a relaxed version,’ says Martin. ‘I think there’s also an individualism and deep appreciation of leisure that our cities lack.’ Another popular line in Mileage is Settle’s quirky upholstered pieces. Adding a couple of vintage blankets to classic sofas and chairs introduces the kind of twist that characterises his home.
‘Deal is geographically remote. So you have to make an effort to come here – you don’t stumble across it. I think that gives the town a certain quality, a uniqueness that makes it a special place to live and work. And it’s not “seasidey” – it’s a proper town that has the added advantage of a breathtaking beach. I still have no idea why I couldn’t grasp that the minute I arrived! I’m definitely here to stay.’
Martin's Deal Top 5
1 The Black Douglas: a quirky dog-friendly seafront café with oodles of charm and tasty treats.
2 Borough Wines: more than a shop, it’s also a bar in the evenings and a great place to mingle with other wine-lovers.
3 Union Street Market (Saturday mornings): a real social hub – I love to buy something delicious from the Creative Foodie (creativefoodie.co.uk).
4 The Ship: the heart of the Old Town. Deal weekends start with the Friday evening ‘happy half hour’.
5 The Astor Community Theatre (theastor.org): there’s always something on, from art house cinema to comedy and more.