Tea in the Park
Dartmouth seemed to undergo a collective embracing of Coronation Park in 2010. The big green space to the north of the town was tidied up and hosted a hugely successful cricket tournament. Children came with footballs and frisbees, parents sat in the sun while youngsters played on swings and slides, pensioners dozed.
Even now as winter tightens its grip, a steady stream of people make their way to Coronation Park, and this rediscovery is due in no small part to the huge success of Browney’s, the refreshment kiosk that wafts bacon butty and fresh coffee smells along the North Embankment from first thing in the morning.
Behind the counter is Colin Brown, a son of Dartmouth as well known for fishing as fry ups, and a chef of national acclaim whose work has featured in the Which? Good Food Guide.
By The Dart caught up with Colin on a crisp morning, grateful for a steaming mug of tea. He chatted while he cooked fresh breakfasts for a steady stream of builders, taxi drivers, walkers and tennis players. Colin looks after the tennis courts and putting green for South Hams District Council, taking payments and bookings, and also manages the boat park on the opposite side of the green. When we meet he is doing a roaring trade in Christmas cards for the RNLI (the lifeboat station is next door) and tickets for various local events. “I like to help out – I’m happy to sell tickets for local organisations trying to raise a bit of money,” he said.
Fifty-one-year-old Colin is “Dartmouth through and through.” He was born and bred here, like his father, David, before him, growing up in Townstal with his brother and two sisters. His mother, Bernice, was from Rochdale. Colin said: “She used to come here on holiday, met my Dad and stayed. They went roller skating together, and she never went back.”
From an early age Colin was at home on the sea. David Brown was a crab fisherman and often took Colin with him when he needed an extra pair of hands. He also ran boats on the river, and Colin helped there too.
“I loved the water and when I left school I joined the Merchant Navy. In five years I travelled all over the world. It was a brilliant life. That’s where I got my cook’s ticket.”
When he left, Colin came back to Dartmouth and took up deep sea fishing, around the Channel Islands and Scotland for months at a time.
“I enjoyed it. There was a crew of five and I was the one who looked after the food, as well as fishing. On one trip we stopped off in Cornwall and I stayed behind – for 15 years. The usual story, I met a girl and got married.”
Colin fished out of Newlyn before returning to the catering trade, working in hotels, pubs and restaurants around Penwith.
“I ended up in St Ives running my own seafood and game restaurant, called The Hunter. It was listed in the Which? Good Food Guide. I was pretty pleased. You don’t put your own restaurant in there – their writers visit you anonymously and if the restaurant is up to scratch you get your place. I didn’t know about it until Which? sent me a copy with a note saying which page we were on.”
Circumstances changed. Colin’s marriage ended and he met Halina, now Mrs Brown, who worked the front of house in the restaurant while Colin was the chef. But the couple were keen to change direction and location, and returned home to Dartmouth. For 11 years Colin worked as a landscape gardener – and then, in the saddest of circumstances, the kiosk became available. Former proprietor, Eddy Preece, passed away.
“I’d known Ed since school days, we were both involved in the Gig Club, and it was very sad when he died,” said Colin.
No-one liked seeing the kiosk empty. Colin took it on in April. He’s revamped the décor and the menu, and developed the snack shack into a popular new venue that sits happily with Dartmouth’s foodie reputation. It attracts both locals and visitors seeking breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea.
Ever modest, Colin said: “It’s going alright thanks – I’m pretty busy. I’ve got a good relationship with my customers and I’m building up a growing group of regulars as well as making the most of the holiday trade.
“It is a beautiful place to sit outside and see the river. In the winter everyone is wrapped up warm and they just like to be outdoors.
“Mums tell me they’ve never used the park so much. Where else can they sit and have a cup of tea with their friends while their children play? It’s ideal and there’s a great atmosphere. During the cricket it was brilliant.”
Colin cooks all the food himself, from curries and sweet and sour dishes to pates and home baked cakes. Sandwiches, breakfasts and salads are made fresh to order.
With his shock of blond hair, Colin is an instantly recognisable and well known local figure. He’s the chairman of the Dart Gig Club and has been involved with them for seven years as a qualified coach, as well as rowing and coxing. On rare days off he still loves to fish, and is chairman of the Dartmouth Fishing Festival committee, about to start planning “a really big bash” for the 50th festival in 2011.
Although he professes to being shy of the camera, he was photographed in just his wellies for the tremendously popular Dartmouth Caring 2010 Calendar, a strategically placed crab pot covering his modesty.
“I got a lot of stick when I first did it and the photos went on display, then it all started up again in September which was my month. They took my photo last - when everyone else had done it I couldn’t back out. If it hadn’t been for Dartmouth Caring, there’s no way I’d have done it. It was such a good cause.”
Colin’s two sons live in Cornwall, and he has a granddaughter, born in July. Wife Halina, from Swindon , grew up in Australia. Asked if she works with him in the café, Colin replied: “She tries to but I try not to let her! Halina has a full time job and works really hard as a team leader for a sheltered housing organisation. I think it’s too much to ask for her to work in here too, but I don’t always win.”
He added: “I’ve been in this trade a long time and you are only as good as your last meal. I enjoy it here, but I work hard and it is up to me to make sure this is a success.
“Dartmouth is a very special place to live and it means a lot to me to be by the water, after all I’ve known this river all my life.”
First published December 2010 By the Dart