With its array of cafés and restaurants, historic sights and scenic coastal trails, this former fishing and mining town makes for a charming mini-break. Words: Sheryl Garratt
Close enough to the ferries for a day trip to Calais, but far removed from Dover’s industrial bustle, Deal is a pretty town with well-preserved period buildings and Kent’s only pier jutting out from a long, unspoilt pebble beach. It’s a wonderful year-round destination, full of cosy pubs and restaurants for dark winter nights, with stunning coastal walks.
Once smugglers would use lanterns to lure ships aground on the treacherous Goodwin Sands, and the town was a bawdy playground for off-duty sailors. Now it’s a friendly, quirky place, where everyone seems to rub along nicely. There’s a big gay community here, lots of artists, writers and musicians, and it’s popular with DFLs (that’s weekenders down from London).
Every year, on 26 December, you can join some foolhardy locals in the freezing sea for the traditional Boxing Day dip, and it’s also a good choice for a low-key but cheery New Year. If it’s a clear night, look for fireworks on the French coast at 11pm, before joining the crowd by the Time Ball Tower. Built in 1821, the tower once marked the entrance to the long-demolished Naval Yard, and its huge metal ball – added in 1855 – would drop down the pole on top at exactly 1pm so that the ships sheltering in the bay could adjust their chronometers. As it drops to mark midnight, you will see spectacular celebratory fireworks going off all along the coast to Ramsgate.
7PM WINE, MUSIC & GASTRO FOOD
Le Pinardier on the High Street is a small wine shop that is also a bar at night, with French owner Benoit selling great wine by the bottle or the glass, plus plates of cheese or charcuterie to nibble on the side. There is often live music here on weekends – local musicians seem skilled at squeezing into small corners! Then for a relaxed Friday night supper, head for the Deal Hoy on Duke Street. A friendly local pub, it is decorated with dried Kentish hops and nautical bits and pieces plucked out of the sea by landlord Ian Goodban, a keen scuba-diver. On the weekend, the brilliant Burger Brothers take over the garden cook-shack, serving perfect chips and sublime gourmet burgers with inventive trimmings.
11AM CAFÉS, CAKE & CLOTHES
Time to hit the High Street. There’s lots to explore here: charity shops, vintage stores, coffee shops, a fantastic French deli called No Name. Or the boutique-style second-hand clothes shop Castaway opposite for designer clothes and extravagant hats. Mileage is an inspiring vintage store in an old garage opposite the Saturday market, with a Tea Station at the back which is an ideal spot for lunch.
2PM CASTLES, GARDENS & REAL ALE
There’s usually a clear view of the French coast from Deal’s seafront, and Henry VIII built a string of castles along the shore to keep an eye on the neighbours. Deal Castle is impressive outside, but there’s not a lot to see inside. So we follow the coastal path past fishing boats and pretty beach huts to Walmer Castle, an English Heritage site open until 4pm on winter weekends. The gardens are magnificent, and inside there are interesting rooms used by the Queen Mother and earlier residents such as Lord Wellington.
A brisk walk back earns us a drink at The Just Reproach, a micropub in a former shop on King Street, where owner Mark Robson will serve you real ale or perhaps mulled cider at one of the four tables. It’s so tiny you’ll end up talking to everyone else in there, and there’s a great atmosphere as a result.
8PM FINE DINING
Dinner at 81 Beach on the seafront. The menu is modern British, and beautifully cooked: whole baked sea bream with sweet potato wedges and pickled fennel salad, braised shoulder of lamb with Parmesan parsnips and rosemary sauce, followed by desserts that were just too good to resist.
11AM WALKING TRAILS & MEDIEVAL TOWNS
Time for some exercise! Both directions out of Deal are rewarding for walkers. Carry on past Walmer Castle and you can hike over the White Cliffs all the way to Dover, passing the pretty villages of Kingsdown and St Margaret-at-Cliffe and the South Forelands Lighthouse, now run by the National Trust. We chose the opposite direction, walking past the remains of Sandown Castle and up on to a high shingle bank with the sea on one side, golf courses on the other, right up to Sandwich Bay. Sandwich itself is a mile or so inland, a pretty Medieval town with a short but enjoyable circular walk around the old town walls. There are plenty of pubs, tearooms and cafés to have a slice of cake or Sunday lunch.
2PM ALL ABOARD FOR SEAL-SPOTTING & WARTIME HISTORY
Captain Colin runs year-round boat trips from Sandwich Quay up the River Stour to see the thriving seal colony. The journey is around two hours and sails past the docks where munitions were loaded to take over to France during the World Wars. He will point out local wildlife, tell you about the boats and life on the river, and even show you the periscope of a sunken German U-boat.
Afterwards, you can walk up to the rail station on the edge of town for the short trip back to Deal – or, if you’re lazy like us, call a cab!
The Number One B&B
Popular boutique B&B just a stone’s throw from the sea, run by friendly hosts Nicky and Mark. They offer four stylish, comfortable rooms, and a locally sourced Kent breakfast. Doubles start from £85 numberonebandb.co.uk.
The Royal Hotel
When Brit/French thriller The Tunnel was filming in the area, this is where the lead actors stayed. It’s directly on the beach, with sea views from most rooms, but the four luxurious rooms with private balconies and sea-view baths are the best. From £130 per night theroyalhotel.com.
HOW TO GET THERE
The High-Speed 1 train runs from St Pancras Station in London directly to Deal at 16.40pm, 17.40pm and 18.40pm. It takes 1hr 20min. Otherwise take the HS1 to Ashford International, then change to a local train to Deal, which takes 10 minutes longer. There are slower trains also from Charing Cross and London Bridge in London direct to Deal.