Seaside postcard: Deal You'll find Deal on the east coast of Kent - it's the next big town round from Dover. Deal was once the busiest port in England, which might seem odd given that the town doesn't have a harbour, but it is strategically placed at the mouth of the English Channel. Ships anchored offshore while waiting for the wind to turn, giving sailors the chance to nip ashore for ale, smuggling and loose women. These sheltered waters in the lee of the Goodwin Sands were called the Downs, and you'll hear about them in every museum and marine attraction in the area. Repeatedly. A great Deal.
The old town is linear, following the line of the coast. Picture three parallel streets, one hugging the beach, then a wiggly road called Middle Street. Inland is the High Street where the shops run from M&S to cosy boutiques, and where the tourist information centre is housed in an old twin-spired church. As a leafletoholic I was terribly impressed by their takeaway collection, and would have told the lady behind the counter so if only she hadn't been away on a 15 minute break. The beach is pebbly throughout, so not somewhere for spade and bucket. At the northern end I spotted several topless retired gentlemen with bronze-tanned paunches, revelling in the bank holiday sun, while further to the south were a lot more families and chip-eating daytrippers. They clustered mostly around the Royal Hotel and the pierhead, breaking off occasionally to wander out to sea along the wooden promenade. Deal boasts the only public pleasure pier in Kent, not that it's enormously long or anything, but the view back towards the lowrise Victorian seafront is charming. I liked it a lot. A good Deal.
Deal Timeball Tower: A little to the south of the pier is a most unusual museum with a ball on a stick on its roof. The Timeball Tower started out in 1821 as a semaphore tower for the sending of messages from Deal to the Admiralty, via a chain of similar towers all the way to London. The electric telegraph superseded that system, so in 1855 the tower was requisitioned for use as a timepiece visible to ships out in the Downs. Every day at 12.55pm the ball was raised to the top of the mast, then at exactly 1pm it fell back down allowing navigators to synchronise chronometers. If you've ever been to Greenwich Observatory you'll know the story, and if you've ever been at lunchtime you'll have seen the action.
Since 1984 the Timeball Tower has been open to the public as a museum. It takes 'time' as its theme, and contains all sorts of clocks, both pendulum-based and electronic. Do ask to watch the video in the first floor gallery. It was filmed in 1988 by "Kent Educational Television" and is presented by a woman who looks like she recently left the Human League. The opening titles feature the late eighties intro from the BBC One O'Clock News, two jobbing actors perform ill-advised historical sketches, and the explanation of latitude tests the very limits of contemporary graphics. Climb to the top and there are two telescopes trained on the skyline, perhaps allowing you to see the wind farm off the Isle of Thanet, or maybe even the Goodwin Sands. I accidentally visited Deal at high tide so, alas, saw no treacherous yellowness creeping above the waves. I was also the only visitor to the Timeball Museum, which was nice, but also sad. All those daytrippers wandering by and not one tempted within, nor even to the fundraising table of jumble outside. But you, dear reader, are exactly the kind of visitor they're looking for. For just three quid. A square Deal.
Deal Castle: Don't think traditional castle, because this one's Tudor not medieval. Henry VIII built three along this stretch of coast, low and squat, to keep invading Catholics at bay. Deal Castle is the largest of the three, resembling a six-petalled flower if viewed from above. It's not pretty, and would be even uglier were it not for the crenellations added as decoration in the 18th century. Take the audio tour and you can wander the interior discovering more about its history whilst clutching a small black box to your ear. Ideally try to visit when the inner chambers aren't full of running shouty toddlers, and after the large French schoolparty has just left.
The view out is better than the decor within, but that's only to be expected in a soldiers' garrison. Information boards are scarce and sparse, hence the need for the audio guide. But the grimmest part of the castle is the best of all, the 'Rounds' in the basement, which in this case are at moat level. A dark passage slinks round the perimeter past a succession of gun emplacements, though it's part flooded at the moment and I didn't dare wade my trainers through the gloomy puddles. But not bad for a fiver. Big Deal.
Walmer Castle: Don't bother walking north to Sandown Castle, there's nothing left apart from a bit of basement embedded in the sea wall. But absolutely do walk half an hour south to Walmer Castle, past the memorial bandstand, past the paddling pool, past the derelict crazy golf. Walmer's a four-tower version of Deal, but it's had a very different history. In 1708 Walmer Castle became the seat of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, and since then it's evolved into an increasingly luxurious abode. William Pitt the Younger lived here for a bit, while the Duke of Wellington died in a chair in his bedroom on the upper floor, which you can still see. And his uniform. And his cocked hat. And his wellies.
It makes quite an entertainment space, the interior of a Tudor castle. Utilitarian surfaces have been softened, rooms have been knocked together, and a weatherboard extension has been added to one side. Ideal when Victoria and Albert came to stay, which they did for three weeks in 1842, which is the cue to show you another bedroom. Step out from the upper corridor onto the gun terrace to sip cocktails amid the cannons, then step out across the moat to enjoy the gardens. These are lovely, and surprisingly extensive. Winston Churchill suggested the unusual contouring of the gnarled yew hedge - he was the Warden from 1941. The Queen Mother introduced a classically symmetrical garden - she was the Warden from 1978. At the moment the pink and white tulips are amazing, in a variety of terraced locations. Rest assured it was Walmer Castle drawing the crowds, not Deal Castle, for that ideal middle class day out. Not such a raw Deal.