Seasons come and seasons go. The Black Douglas has gone; The Black Pig’s still here. It’s the place of quirky decorations (horizontal Christmas trees) and quirkier houses (a late 17th century chapel masquerading as a 19th century gothic cottage orné on High Street) and even quirkier house names (Comarques, home of composer John Ireland from 1936 to 1939, and Winkle Cottage) and super quirky architectural details (shell decorated fanlights and doorstep windows). But there’s only one place to be on a wintry Friday night in East Kent’s most fashionable resort: the private view of The Green and Found, England’s only gift shop abutting a Grade I brick garden wall built by Henry VIII.
Bucolia should be a noun. Feet resting on the window shutter while reading a novel next to an open balcony. Champagne on the rocks on the beach. Strolling along meandering streets of quaint gaily painted cottages. Goat’s cheese soufflé from The Dining Club later. All on that most special of days. Deal is more than a verb and a noun. A proper noun for a proper place.
On a rainswept late Friday evening, The Black Douglas along Deal’s esplanade is an atmospheric hive of joyful activity. “My name’s pronounced ‘DL’,” says owner Lady Dalziel Douglas. There are a few visual giveaways. One is the sepia soaked photographs of distinguished aristos in court dress – lots of ermine on display. Another couple of clues are Dalziel’s cheekbones to slice Manchego with and her piercing blue eyes. She is of course the great great niece of Lord Alfred Douglas, the dashing poet better known as ‘Bosie’, Oscar Wilde’s amour. “My great great great uncle, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, invented the Queensberry Rules of Boxing!” smiles Dalziel, pointing to one of the photographs. The Douglas clan motto is Jamais Arrière which means ‘Never Behind’. True to form, Dalziel confirms, “We were one of the first places to open in Deal of this nature. We’ve been here for 14 years and it’s given other people confidence to open up similar businesses.”
Just as The Rose and The Black Douglas have weekend dinners down to a tea tee, Deal Pier Kitchen upholds the great British breakfast tradition with a twist or rather lots of vegan twists. Eating the first meal of Saturday to the rhythm and splash of lapping waves is a must. Suspended over the sea at the end of a 1950s concrete pier, the café is in a timber and glass pavilion designed by Níall McLaughlin in 2008. The architect has continued Deal’s centuries old dedication to romantic maritime architecture.
It’s the last weekend of summer. As the train meanders past the chalky White Cliffs of Dover we come over all Vera Lynn. Altogether now: “There’ll be love and laughter; and peace ever after…” Although it’s hard not to dream of the cliffs as topography’s answer to Fanny Cradock’s powdered cheekbones. Past Priory (no, that one, although smuggling is involved), our sun kissed naval base looms into view. Maybe not quite looms. Deal isn’t big. Nor raw. Deal meal. Puns (mostly) over, we’re here for the domestic architecture.
A tale of two towns. Kind of. A higgledly piggedly jumble of centuries old topsy turvy Georgian or Georgian faced townhouses squeezed between the esplanade and High Street contrasts with voluptuous Edwardian villas strung out along the coast. Of course that’s a gross oversimplification but wherever there’s pudding to be egged there’s Lavender’s Blue. Britain’s only brutalist pier doesn’t fit our narrative. Nor do the Brightonesque Regency houses. Nor does the tulip shaped Tudor castle. Ours is a binary filtered storyline of sepia saturated prose.
Close of play is more like end of day as a cricket match on the pebbly beach unfolds unabated through an unforgiving sunset. It is, though, a spectacularly balmy evening. We stroll past The Black Douglas Coffee House. Named after a tyrannical 14th century Scottish ruler, the surname is more closely associated with his descendant Bosie. It’s owned by Dalziel Douglas. Her partner is closing shop. “Come for breakfast tomorrow and Lady Douglas will give you the full history! She’s the great great niece of Bosie.” Oscar Wilde called the Douglas family a “mad, bad line”. The aptly black painted shopfront is in a quintessentially Deal block. Four buildings – four window levels – four eaves heights – four colours. All perceptibly lopsided, living in fear of the perpendicular, clinging to each other like tipsy aged fishwives.
We dive into the orb speckled alleyways behind Beach Street. No minimum distances between dwellings; no wonder everybody knows everybody. Tiny windows peep above pavements and a dusting of Dutch gables graces the slit of artists’ sky above. Christmas House; The Paragon; Steadfast; Tally Ho. Some have planchette plundered passageways; others, secret hidden rooms. Collectively, a smugglers’ paradise of the past. And if you didn’t benefit from ill gotten gains back then, there was still plenty of booty to be had. A poster on a wall announces:
“Wreck sale on the quayside of this port at 10 o’clock in the forenoon on the 24th day of April 1796. Part of the cargoes of ships that have recently come to grief in these parts. Consisting of: 56 Bales of Wool | 124 Deer Skins | 37 Cases of Flour | 9 Casks of White Lead | 287 Oak Handspikes | 21 Barrels of Tar | 341 Pieces of Cloth | 67 Articles of Pewter | 23 Barrels of Potash | 154 Pieces of Firtimber | 1 Open Boat | 16 Hatchets | 20 Casks of Cudbear | 112 Cases of English China | 45 Pipes of Linseed Oil | 209 Spills of Cotton Yarn.”
A poster on a bow window advertises the clandestine sounding Dining Club. Temptations listed include potato and mushroom terrine followed by roast mullet and pea fritter. Leaving the twisted grid of ghostly cross lanes behind, we head south. Between the two halves of the town we promenade past an antiques shop named 1815 in a building that looks 1915. The mesmeric shop window displays chandeliers, piers and a stuffed seagull. The art of the deal.
Beyond, the Edwardian villas are unabashedly self important, acutely aware they can be viewed from all angles unlike their narrow northern neighbours. Widows’ and Juliet balconies galore. There are terraces and balconies and verandahs and terraces on balconies on verandahs. One especially memorable house is crowned with a gloriously top heavy coven of witch’s hat roofs. Their inhabitants aren’t self important: they even say hello on the street. Goodness, this really isn’t London-on-Sea. Shame that discovering The Black Douglas was on our last night. But it’s not a deal breaker. We’ve an excuse to descend on Deal again. Not that one’s required. Last pun (for now). It’s a deal.