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Praised for its independent shops in a thriving high street, Deal still needs more high-speed trains, more jobs and less reliance on tourism.
Take a walk to the end of Deal pier, stand next to the new-look cafe opened in 2008 and turn around.
While the landmark might not offer as much materially as Southend’s or Brighton’s, what it does present is a priceless opportunity to glimpse into the 1950s.
Along Deal seafront is a row of Georgian houses, in front of which are newly-built sea defences and the shingle beach, dotted with old fishing boats.
Unblemished by big chains and littered with quaint independent shops, it is easy to see why the Daily Telegraph decided to bestow its High Street of the Year award on the town at the beginning of January.
“The High Street is unusual because people use it as a social place as well as somewhere to buy things,” said Esme Chilton, a business owner who is also a member of the Deal Town Team.
“At the weekend, when you have the market, there are lots of people strolling along meeting their friends.
"There aren’t the big out-of-town shops drawing customers away. You have to go a long way to find a big supermarket or shopping centre.
“In the town, we have a small M&S and Boots, which are in the right proportion compared to the independent shops. It means the independents can thrive and offer a good service.”
Much of the beauty of Deal lies in the fact no one would ever find themselves driving through it unexpectedly. It is a always a conscious decision to seek it out on the A258 between Dover and Sandwich, meaning it has remained a hidden gem for tourists and down-from-London types for decades.
“The fact Deal is cut off from everywhere else is nice,” said Esme. “Long may it last.”
Yet this splendid isolation brings its own problems. Castle Community College and Walmer Science College pump out scores of school leavers every year, with few jobs to go to outside retail and tourism.
Many people have campaigned for more high speed services to the area to bring in more tourists and give locals the chance to travel for work more easily.
Southeastern runs eight services each week day from London St Pancras International using parts of the high speed network.
This is set to run until October but a question mark remains about what happens to it after that.
In December, the operator published a consultation document saying it would provide all-day, off peak services to Deal and Sandwich until 2018 – but it can always change its mind, especially if it is not awarded the franchise after that period. “It is still a long way off being in the bag,” said Trains4Deal campaigner Tom Rowland.
“If we can’t have an all-day service, then the minimum we need is better services to take people from London to Discovery Park in Sandwich in the morning. Then once they are down, they need to be able to get back again at a reasonable time.
“We also want trains at the weekend because people in the tourist industry say they desperately want better transport links to attract people.”
In many ways, Deal feels like the little brother of Dover, which it feels always comes first on the district council’s agenda. There are rumours it is drafting an objection to Southeastern’s rail proposals because it will lengthen the journey time for commuters there.
“The problem is the short-term view of Dover District Council,” said Tom. “Unfortunately, Dover is the parish capital in local government terms and Deal is a sub-colony effectively. That is why Deal has bad rail services.”
Of course, the council disagrees. Head of inward investment Tim Ingleton said: “The council continues to work with partners to support regeneration for the future of the whole district.
“We work closely with developers to bring good quality schemes forward and work regionally and nationally to ensure the district is an attractive place to live, work and visit.”
Among these schemes is the £40m regeneration of the former Betteshanger Colliery into a green technologies business park, creating 1,000 jobs.
Having closed in 1989, the site was sold to Hadlow College last summer, which aims to start construction work there in the spring. The revival will also bring in 100,000 tourists each year at its eco visitor centre.
Nevertheless, the core value for locals is the town’s independence. One of the people who has seen it all is Gregory Holyoake, 60, an author who has lived there on-and-off all his life.
He said: “It seems to be a positive picture here, especially in the summer months. We are proud to show off our town to visitors. What Deal people pride themselves on is the little shops where you get personal attention. They are highly valued here.
“The shops are like little community centres where the owner knows you. When you look back from the pier and see the Georgian town seafront, every single house is different.
“Then you look the other way and on a clear day you can see France and the Goodwin Sands.”
With praise like this, Deal may not be one the Kent’s hidden treasures much longer.
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