Cream Of The Country: Deal

Fishermen still haul their boats up to the sea wall to sell their daily catch in this pretty town, says Nick Lloyd Jones
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The Independent Online

The charming seaside town of Deal on the East Kent coast is dripping in history. Julius Caeser landed here in 55BC. Henry VIII built the squat Tudor castle in the shape of a rose on its southern boundary in the 1540s. In the 18th and 19th century, Deal became a notorious centre for smugglers and beachcombers trading in booty from ships wrecked on Goodwin Sands - a treacherous belt of quicksand four miles offshore.

The town huddles behind a vast expanse of shingle beach where ruddy-faced fishermen still haul their boats up to the sea walls to sell their daily catch. Inland stretch the North Downs, while from the end of the long pier one can just about make out the outline of Calais shimmering on the horizon 25 miles away across the water.

The town's historic core is the Middle Street conservation area - a tangled enclave of narrow lanes and cobbled courtyards just to the back of the seafront. The houses here are quaint - fishermen's cottages interspersed with the occasional more opulent Georgian town house. Many of the older buildings are connected by a labyrinthine network of subterranean tunnels - a hangover from the smuggling days. This is where most of the town's more atmospheric restaurants and pubs are, while shopping - a good selection of independent stores and chains - is concentrated along the pedestrianised High Street that runs just to the back of the old town and parallel to the seafront.

Property prices within the conservation area as well as along the front tend to be 10 to 15 per cent higher than in the rest of town. Most of the seafront architecture is 19th century - Victorian family houses that were later converted into flats. Nowadays, though, the majority of the larger properties are to be found just south of town beyond the castle in neighbouring Walmer - a predominantly Edwardian area whose leafy parks, gardens and broader streets are more suited to family life than the relatively cramped conditions of Deal itself. Walmer was also for many years the headquarters of the Royal Marines and quite a few of the more palatial former naval buildings there have now been redeveloped for residential use.

The local housing market is relatively stable at the moment, having peaked about a year ago following a lengthy period of sustained growth. Since then the buy-to-let market, in particular, has slackened off although the demand for premium properties has remained buoyant. Local agents report that around a third of their buyers are newcomers to the area - a mixture of commuters, holiday-home owners and those choosing to relocate.

"The housing market in coastal resorts like Deal has traditionally been quite fickle," says Simon Greaves of Colebrook Sturrock. "In the past people have often tended to buy holiday homes here when the economy was strong and then sold them off again when the next downturn came and they've been strapped for cash. However, what with changing work patterns and the increasing number of people working from home, we've noticed an interesting reversal in the trend in recent years. Nowadays more and more people are choosing to buy their main family home here in Deal and to just keep on a pied-à-terre for brief visits back to town. It works out cheaper and they prefer the overall quality of life here."

The recent hikes aside, property prices have remained competitive - typically 15 per cent lower than in Whitstable 20 miles away. Why the discrepancy? "Whitstable is the first seaside town you come to when you leave the Thames Estuary," says Edward Church of Strutt & Parker, "and because of that it's traditionally attracted a lot of Londoners. It also acts as a buffer zone in protecting Deal from being overrun by holiday-home owners. As a result, Deal has retained much of its original character and charm and identity. It undoubtedly represents the best value for money in Kent."

The lowdown

Cost of living: One-bedroom flats on the seafront from £125,000; two-bedroom flats from £160,000; three-bedroom terraced cottages in conservation area from £180,000; four-bedroom family houses along seafront or in Walmer from £295,000.

Attractions: Good shopping facilities as well as a French market that regularly visits; architectural heritage including Deal Castle; museums; bracing walks along the white cliffs and downs; good access to France via boat and the Channel Tunnel; nearby golf courses; leisure centre.

Downsides: Parking.

How to get there: Trains from Deal to London Charing Cross take 1hr 50 mins.