HOSPITAL appointments are usually a mundane experience, but on one such visit, in early January, I encountered a chance meeting with one of Plymouth’s former “gentleman” darts players . . . Brian Brownlow.
I remembered Brian well, despite not seeing him for more than 20 years and despite the fact that he will be 80 years old in May of this year, his memory is still as sharp as ever.
His career on the oche only came about due to him showing signs of talent during lunch breaks in Devonport Dockyard and would have happened a lot sooner, if it had not been for the construction of the Berlin Wall!
Brian learned his trade as a boilermaker from 1954 through to 1959 and on completion of his apprenticeship, was all set to carry on his trade in the Dockyard, until, that is, he got called up for National Service, the last intake from Devonport Dockyard to do so.
CUP WINNERS: Brian Brownlow (front row, second right) celebrating with his jubilant team mates after the Weston Mill won the Courage League Challenge Cup in the 1987-88 season.
He received his papers to go to Germany as a recruit of the Medical Corps and subsequently, just 15 days before departure, he married the love of his life Anne, a relationship that lasted for 58 years until she sadly died last year.
Brian had just 39 days to go before he would be re-united once again with his wife, until he was told by his commanding officer that the corps had to undertake an extra six months due to the construction of the Berlin Wall.
After finally being demobbed, he returned to work in Devonport Dockyard, and approaching his 30th birthday, Brian was taken to the No Place Inn by his work colleague, Peter Waterhouse, to see if he would like to play “league darts”.
And the rest as they say is history.
Brian took to darts like a duck to water and after several seasons at the hostelry in North Road, he moved to the Cornwall’s Gate, a pub which had been newly opened in 1962, although since demolished for new housing.
In the 1970s Brian went to the Fellowship Inn where he picked up league champions and Challenge Cup trophies and it was also in this decade that he played in the Plymouth and District Wednesday League at the Agaton Social Club and reached the individual final in 1978-79.
Brian is probably best remembered in a Weston Mill side that triumphed throughout the 80s and told me: “It was without doubt where I had my best years in darts with Howard Edge as the licensee.
“Howard was a fine man of principles and we stayed friends until his untimely death”.
It was also at the Weston Mill that Brian was installed as team captain, a role he cherished with team-mates that also became life-long friends.
Weston Mill won the Nicholls Plate in 1984-85 but in the season of 1985-86 they were in the Courage League’s top division, losing the title by just two points from Cherry Tree.
The two teams also contested the final of the Johnstone Trophy that year, the format being three doubles of 701 and four singles played over one leg of 501 and it proved to be one of the best finals of the decade.
Cherry Tree trailed 3-2 after Mill’s Mark Ball defeated Dave Bell in 16, and could not afford another slip and Col Maddocks, aided by two tons and 140, forced the final to go the full distance when defeating Neil Docking.
But Brian’s Weston Mill side were pipped once again when, in a nail-biting final leg, Derek Watson clinched the decisive point for Cherry Tree when defeating Malcolm Hill.
The following season, Weston Mill had to be content with league runners-up to Cherry Tree again, but Brian realised one of his greatest achievements when winning the Courage League captain’s title.
Against Ralph Lancaster, Brian started the final well with scores of 121 and 100 with his first six darts and should have had the leg sewn up but Lancaster, representing the Fellowship Inn, made up for some indifferent scoring by checking out at the first time of asking from 132.
Brownlow came bouncing back at the start of the second leg with four consecutive tons that enabled him to level in 17 darts and then hit the double first in the decider for a 2-1 victory.
In the season of 1987-88 Weston Mill won the Wednesday League title and Knockout Cup and Brian partnered Del Cole to the doubles title before ending the season on a high by winning the individual title.
During the 80s, summer league darts were very popular and both men and lady players would compete in the Mayflower Summer League which was run throughout the decade by Howard and Joan Edge.
Funds raised by all the teams would go to the Mayflower Children’s Fund, a local charity that each year gave underprivileged children a summer holiday in the Channel Islands.
Weston Mill, under the captaincy of Brian Brownlow, were arguably the most successful.
They were league champions in 1983 and the following summer clinched the double when they won the league title and also the knockout cup, played for by all the divisional winners.
In 1985 Weston Mill again won the title and on a personal note, Brian went through the season undefeated, leading his team to the Knockout Cup final once again where they defeated Woodland Fort by an 8-1 margin.
They were undefeated again in 1988 and claimed another double when beating Futurama in the final of the Knockout Cup.
Brian qualified for the South West area finals of the News of the World tournaments in 1977, 1978 and again in 1987 and as recently as 2014, at 75 years of age, Brian challenged and defeated the then BDO World champion Stephen Bunting.
In the early 1990s Brian finished playing darts at the Kings Tamerton Community Centre, only for the reason that he did not like the new league formats of six-a-side that were now being introduced across the Plymouth darts spectrum.
“I much preferred the old system” he told me. “Man against man, double start, with nine in a team”.
He was not alone in his thoughts, but sadly a lot of teams could not now muster a team of nine players, so that is why the new format was brought in.
But Brian still enjoys his darts and is proud that two of his three children followed him onto the oche.
In the 1990s his daughter Julie Harkin played in the Ladies’ Independent League for Queens Arms, Tamerton Foliot, who won the league title in the season of 1994-95 and his son John, currently plays in the Plymouth and District Friday League for Kings Tamerton Community Centre.
"I still follow the sport on the TV" he told me "and I still enjoy the occasional visit to a local league fixture to watch the up and coming youngsters who are very talented.
"But I do not regret finishing playing when I did, it was the right time for me, and I often look back and recall a lot of good memories spent over the years with good friends".
PHOTOGRAPHS: The middle photograph is of Brian after he won the Courage League Captain's title in 1987-88 and as he is today with the Captain's Cup that he still treasures.