Saturday, February 11th 2015
Deal is a small seaside town on the east coast of Kent about halfway between Ramsgate and Dover. If you like a quiet place with an almost complete absence of the usual seaside ‘attractions’ and noise, this is a destination for you. It makes even gentle Broadstairs appear frenetic in comparison.
We walked from the station forecourt to the main road, Queen Street, past a pub intriguingly called the Hole in the Roof, though I do not know how it got that name. Deal is small enough for us to cover the main areas of interest on foot.
We wandered east along Queen Street and then turned down the High Street which is pedestrian only for part of its length, allowing you to explore the shops without worrying about traffic. High Street leads into Victoria Road, where we found Isaura’s Fine Foods. This delightfully old fashioned shop, which doubles as a tea room, has a couple of surprises for the visitor. Behind the main shop is a ‘secret room’ (not really all that secret as it is signposted!) where you can sit and have a cup of tea and perhaps toasted tea cakes. The second surprise is that the room contains well stocked book cases and the books are for sale! You choose your drink from a very respectable menu of leaf teas which are served in a proper teapot.
Almost opposite Isaura’s, we found this antiques and secondhand emporium. I was intrigued by the item you can see on the right in the middle distance, a cabinet with drawers and a glass window. It could have been useful in reducing the clutter at home but I can’t imagine where we would find room for it…
Among the handsome houses of Victoria Road is this one, called Prospect House. The name is not accidental. This now built-up area was once part of the Naval Yard. This closed down in 1863 and the land was sold to developers who named it Victoria Town. What is now Victoria Road (presumably renamed in honour of the Queen’s Jubilee, though I have no evidence of that) was previously called Prospect Place and the house name is an echo of that time.
Prospect House was once the home of Thomas Hayward (c.1768-1848), one of Deal’s most important boat builders. He specialized in luggers and built Deal’s largest craft, called the Alexandra, which was unfortunately wrecked on the Goodwins.
Clanwilliam Road leads off Victoria Road and here we admired these unusually styled houses. Built as a pair, they sport pointed gables with decorative red and black brickwork. There is a roundel with a date in it that is a little difficult to read but I think it is 1893.
Via Clanwilliam Road we reached the seashore. Looking at the quiet beach today you might not guess that Deal has had an important maritime history. The waters here can be treacherous and in the days of sail, ships would wait in the sheltered reach, called the Downs, for good weather. Deal would supply these ships and provide pilots for their coming and going. With the replacement of sail by steam, this trade declined and two industries sprang up to replace it: fishing and smuggling! The fishing industry has now declined in its turn though it still continues in a small way, supplemented by the chartering of boats for pleasure fishing.
On the shore we find perhaps the most imposing of Deal’s monuments to its maritime history, the Time-Ball Tower. Standing beside the main gate of the Naval Yard, the tower was built in 1816 on the site of a shutter telegraph set up in 1795-6 as part of a communications line to warn the Admiralty in London of the expected invasion by Napoleon. The 1816 tower used the then recently invented and more efficient semaphore method. (These different signalling systems are described in the Wikipedia article Semaphore line.)
The semaphore system was abandoned in 1842 and the tower left derelict until 1853 when it was converted for use as a time-ball tower, using a system of timing inaugurated by the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1833. Ships’ chronometers needed to be accurately set in order to obtain precise timings for sextant readings in calculating position at sea. The time-ball tower was tall enough to be visible from ships at anchor in the Downs. Each day at 12:55, the ball would be raised half-way up the mast as a warning to ships to prepare to correct their chronometers. At 12:58, the ball was raised to the top and, then, at precisely 1pm, an electric signal from Greenwich would cause to ball to drop.
A little further north along the seafront road, Beach Street, stands the Regent Theatre. These days it looks a little sad and neglected. Is there a bright new future awaiting it?
Entertainment began on this site in 1928 when the Deal Council built and operated a theatre called the Pavilion. This did not prosper and Margate architect P.V. Levett was called in to redesign it as the Regent Cinema which duly opened in 1933. The cinema continued until 1963 when, as with many cinemas, it was converted for use as a bingo hall. When this closed down in 2009, the Regent’s future seemed uncertain. However, planning permission has been sought to bring it back into use as a cinema. This, it seems, would be a popular move but the plans have been stymied by objections from Kent Highways. The planners, however, have expressed their determination to overcome the problems and complete the project.
Deal has a pier and it seems to be popular and well used. It is not as grand as some of the famous seaside piers but it is a solid piece of work and fulfils its purpose.
Entry to the pier is free unless you intend to fish. In that case, you need to buy a fishing permit.
This is Deal’s third pier. The town has never had a built harbour and so, in 1838, the first pier – or perhaps we should call it a jetty – was built of wood to allow ships to moor and load or unload their goods. Designed by Sir John Rennie, it should have been 445 feet long but only managed to reach 250. Disaster struck in 1857 when it was swept away in a gale.
The second pier, built of iron this time, was erected in 1863-4. This one survived until the Second World War when Nora, a Dutch ship, damaged by a mine and unable to steer, crashed into it, cutting it in two. The rest of the pier was subsequently demolished, supposedly as an anti-invasion measure. (Brighton contented itself with merely cutting gaps in its two piers.)
The third, and so far final, pier is made of concrete and was built 1954-7.
In front of the pier entrance is a bronze sculpture. It shows a man in a boat grasping a large fish and with other fish beneath the boat. The title is Embracing the Sea and the sculptor is named as Jon Buck. (Click to see more images.) This no doubt alludes to Deal’s history as a fishing port, though the boat is so small as to resemble a bath tub rather than a ship. The shiny patches on parts of the sculpture show its irresistible attraction as a climbing frame.
We sat for some time on benches in the shade at the pier entrance, sheltering from the heat that, by now, was a little excessive. From this viewpoint I took the above photo of the beach, looking north. As is the case all around the southeast edges of the country, beaches are composed of pebbles, rounded by millennia of beatings by the sea. In view of the heat, I was surprised that so few people were bathing and swimming though those that were seemed to be enjoying themselves greatly.
We decided to look for somewhere to have lunch. Unfortunately, we had left it a little late and it seems that in Deal you are expected to have lunch during the lunch hour, whenever that is, and outside that time, food ceases to be available. (This resembled our experience in Strasbourg, another town where food is not available outside recognized meal times.) During our search we stopped to admire the beautiful post office in Stanhope Street. Designed by C.B. Hutchinson and built in the late 19th century, it is Grade II listed and has, in the words of that listing, ‘a most elaborate and fantastic Dutch gable of red brick with stone and flint diaperwork.’ It is also still in use as a post office, something that is becoming rare as more and more of these fine old buildings are being sold off.
Further north along the High Street is the Town Hall. As with the Post Office, one is tempted to call it the ‘Old’ Town Hall but that might, wrongly, imply that it is no longer used for that purpose. Both the Post Office and the Town Hall still serve their intended purposes and are old only in terms of age. The Town hall dates from 1803 and incorporates a colonnade or undercroft. On the corner, a drinking fountain was added in 1875 though it was unfortunately obscured by a banner, obviously by someone lacking a sense of propriety.
The undercroft serves as a venue on Wednesdays and Fridays for a market but it is also used for other purposes. When we were there, it was being prepared for a wedding.
Another reminder of the town’s maritime past is this pretty little mission building. For a number of years it served as the home of Arnold Cawthrow of I-Spy fame but was originally built, probably in the late Victorian era, as a church, and perhaps provider of other services, to seamen.
The little forecourt of the mission building has been decorated at some stage with a mosaic. Good use has been made of local materials, pebbles of different colours no doubt collected from the beach opposite. The mosaic represents a vertical slice through the sea with fish swimming in the depths and a sailing ship passing along the surface above them – a variant of the theme of the sculpture Embracing the Sea. Who the artist was or when the mosaic was made I do not know.
Across the road, we find a contrast of styles. Along the seafront we spotted at least two of these Art Deco shelters though when they were made and who designed them remains, at least for now, a mystery.
We found lunch at last. On the corner of Beach Street and Coppin Street stands an old pub called the Three Compasses or, rather, an ex-pub. These days it is a restaurant and – hurrah! – it was open and serving. I am a bit wary of ‘gastro-pubs’ (the very name sounds like an unpleasant medical condition) and pubs that have turned into restaurants as they are often pretentious and over-priced. This one is neither. It is a pleasant establishment with polite and friendly service and good food at reasonable prices.
Thus fortified, we began walking back south towards the pier and, ultimately, the station. We decided now to go onto the pier and explore what it had to offer. From the pier I took a photo of the beach, looking south this time. You will notice the way the shingle is ‘shelved’ by the tides, something that is typical of this coast.
The pier has little in the way of amenities. This may disappoint people used to the piers of Brighton, Eastbourne and Southend but to others it will come as a blessed relief. You can promenade calmly in the sun free from the din of funfair rides and the stink of snack food. You soon learn to spot the areas where the railings are painted yellow. Why?
Because the pier and its facilities are predicated largely on the needs of people who come to fish. You will see rods, tackle boxes and folding stools everywhere and you learn to look out for weighted fishing lines swinging close to your head. Well, not quite everywhere: fishing is banned from some areas and these areas are indicated by the handrail being painted yellow. Yellow rail means you are safe from whipping rods and swirling lines.
The sun was sinking now, making deep shadows but also sparkling on the surface of the sea. It was time for us to make for the station. Even a small town like Deal has much to interest and fascinate the curious visitor and these photos are just a fraction of those that I took. Our ramble had merely scratched the surface and we will come back another time to explore further.