A Ball of a Time in Deal

It’s another unusually warm autumn day in the South East of England, so my hosts decided to get the young ones together and head over to the nearby resort town of Deal, only 13km up the coast, where they had heard tell of an excellent paddling pool for young children. We arrived to find the rumours true, and our complement of children quickly joined the splashing and screaming horde.

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For my own part, I thought I might take the opportunity to slip away and explore the town.

In contrast to the kiddy-zone, the orange-pebbled beach was fairly quiet, with only a few people and several very large sea gulls out and about enjoying the sun.

Beach at Deal
Beach at Deal

I was drawn naturally towards the wide footpath above the beach which formed part of the coastal Saxon Shore Way walking and bike trail, much easier to wander along than the slippery beach stones. It was only a few minutes before I stumbled across something intriguing – a low castle with rounded bastions radiating from a central circle. It’s shaped like a rose, but as we shall soon see, that fact is merely a matter of practicality and not a romantic architectural choice.

Deal castle
Surprise castle!

I’ve already mentioned some of Henry VIII’s exploits, ditching Catholocism in favour of of Protestantism as the law of the land and causing all sorts of upheaval as a result. In Dover we saw the remains of Mote’s Bulwark, one of many fortresses Henry established on the English coast in order to defend against possible attacks by resentful Catholic nations such as France and the Holy Roman Empire.

Deal Castle was one of three coastal fortresses built to protect The Downs, an area of calm water between the town of Deal and the deadly Goodwin Sands, where passing ships would lie at anchor while their crews waited for an auspicious time to make the crossing. The Downs is the reason Deal flourished providing supplies and services for passing ships despite the normally problematic absence of a natural harbour.

Entrance to Deal Castle
Entrance to Deal Castle

Despite a lot of agitation, the expected attack never came. But if it had occurred, perhaps the invaders would have been flummoxed by the low profile of the fortress presenting hardly a target as it peeked over the beach, while their own ships were battered by the cannons mounted on each buttress.

Should an invader get a lucky shot in, the curved floral design of the castle would hopefully have caused the cannon balls to bounce off at a harmless angle.

The castle is now obsolete as far as military purposes go, and is managed by the English Heritage who allow curious visitors to enter for the modest price of £5.80. I wasn’t sure I’d have time today so I moved on reluctantly.

I passed Deal’s small fishing fleet, an industry that has always existed here but became far more important after the advent of steam boats rendered The Downs anchorage obsolete.

Deal's fishing fleet
Deal’s fishing fleet

Across the road I spotted an interesting little tower with a strange contraption perched on its roof and wandered over for a closer look. This building turned out to be the Time-Ball Tower, originally the site of a shutter messaging system installed in 1795 which could send warning to London within two minutes in the case of Napoleonic invasion. After that threat had passed the shutter system was abandoned and the current building was built in 1816 to serve as a semaphore tower (so basically a clacks).

Time-Ball Tower
Time-Ball Tower

Okay, but none of that explains the 4.2 metre pole and ball sticking out of the top of the tower. By 1842 the semaphore was also obsolete and the building was left unused until 1853 when a new method of distributing time was developed and the building was chosen as one of several time-ball stations. The ball would rise half way up the pole at five minutes to one every day, and then all the way to the top with only two minutes to go. At exactly 1pm an electrical current from Greenwich would cause the ball to drop and the waiting navigators on the ships at anchor in The Downs could correct their chronometers. Or at least that was the idea, but sometimes bad weather or a weak electrical current would prevent things from running smoothly.

Obviously this device too is now obsolete, and it’s preserved as part of a museum to time-keeping. It’s still in working order and now drops every hour on the hour. I glanced at my chronometer phone. Twenty to three. If I could avoid getting too distracted I might have a chance of seeing the show.

Wandering onwards, I came to Deal’s 311 metre pleasure pier and enviously watched the many people fishing along its length. A boy had somehow managed to catch a lobster and was showing it off to an impressed crowd.

Deal pier
Deal pier

At the end of the dock is a restaurant and bar and some more platforms for fishing. Looking back, I could gaze both up and down the coast at the long line of neat houses behind the stripe of orange beach.

This place actually has a connection to New Zealand, because it is where Captain Cook first laid anchor in 1771 on his return from his first voyage to the land of the long white cloud. I wonder how he might have felt as he looked upon this shore after three years at sea? Like me, did he miss the wilderness and grandeur of the lands at the bottom of the earth? Or did he feel only relief at the sight of his civilised homeland?

What Captain Cook saw
What Captain Cook saw

After squinting but failing to see France, I started back down the pier which is when I noticed the Time-Ball had risen to half-mast. I’d been so distracted by lobsters and old sea captains that I’d almost forgotten! Quickly I found a vantage point on the edge of the pier.

Time-Ball at half-mast
Gentlemen, prepare your chronometers!

After a few minutes the ball was at its zenith and I was on tenterhooks!

Time ball at its height
Ready to drop

At exactly 3pm the ball fell and I was pleased to see that my cell phone was accurate. Should I need to navigate my way through the treacherous Goodwin Sands I’ll at least be able to note the exact time I crash into something.

Having enjoyed my quick poke around Deal, I decided to return and see how the children were doing. Damp and tired and splashed out, it eventuated. So it was time to pack up and leave the homecoming place of Captain Cook, shelter of ships and watch place against invaders.


2 thoughts on “A Ball of a Time in Deal

  1. Sue Nunn

    Looks a lovely town to explore. Another really interesting adventure

  2. John Nunn

    Another nice story.

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