One of Darlington’s most popular eating places closes on Tuesday, marking the retirement of a couple who have served the town well. PETER BARRON pops in for a last breakfast…

WITH his coffee still steaming in front of him on a corner table, Howard Moxon pauses from reading his morning paper. “It’s sad, isn’t it?” he says. “Coming here has become part of my day but I’ll have to try and find somewhere else.”

Howard, who lives on his own, is such a regular at The Waterhouse Kitchen – the popular cafe that fronts Darlington’s Victorian market hall – that he’s been given his own mug.

He comes in just about every day for something to eat and drink, along with a bit of company, and he’s going to miss it when Peter and Suzanna Bulmer shut the café’s doors for the last time next Tuesday.

“The food’s good, it’s a friendly place, and it’s just nice to be around the same faces that you get to know,” adds Howard.

On a neighbouring table, Jenny Pearson is also sipping from an honorary mug while she does the wordsearch in her paper. “I’m shocked – I can’t imagine it not being here," she says. "I feel at home here and they make proper coffee. It’s sad what they’ve done to the market, isn’t it?”

The conversation is interrupted by Peter, forever the professional chef. “Your breakfast’s ready upstairs – don’t let it go cold,” he shouts to me.

And what a breakfast it is: perfect fried egg, two Cumberland sausages, bacon, mushrooms, beans, mushrooms, tomato, plenty of toast, and tea.

Like just about everything that’s served in the café, the ingredients are bought from local traders, apart from the produce that comes direct from Suzanna’s allotment. The meat is from butcher David Jackson, and the fruit and veg is supplied by evergreen grocer Robin Blair – two of only four traditional stallholders still standing in the market that dates back to 1864.

“We spend a small fortune in the market every year, but we do it because we can’t get better anywhere else – and we want to serve the best we can,” declares Peter.

The couple also buy their milk and cream from Acorn Dairy on the outskirts of the town, and the jam is home-made by Suzanna.

Yes, Peter and Suzanna have served the town well, though neither began their careers in catering.

Aycliffe-born Peter served his apprenticeship with Black and Decker, at Spennymoor, before working as a technical manager at the Fisher Price toy factory, at Peterlee, then moving into project management in the automotive industry.

Suzanna went into human resources, initially in the Sunderland shipyards, before gaining retail experience with the Jacques Vert clothing chain.

They met on a blind date 27 years ago, had a pirate-themed wedding 11 years later, and came to the conclusion that neither was happy working for other people.

After briefly flirting with the idea of running a pub, they instead took over Coopers Tea Rooms and Coffee House, in Post House Wynd, in Darlington town centre, on December 1, 2007.

Peter's passion for cooking – brought to the boil since childhood – coupled with Suzanna's HR experience were the perfect ingredients for a successful business. They developed the downstairs at Coopers, updated the menu, and customer numbers increased.

"We introduced baked beans – the previous owner didn't like them!" recalls Peter.

By 2011, the couple had built a strong enough reputation to be approached by the council to run the cafes at the Head of Steam railway museum and South Park.

That was followed by another approach by the council, using Robin Blair as go-between, to ask them to open a cafe in what had been the Card Shark shop beneath the town clock.

The new cafe opened in March, 2013, taking its name from Victorian Gothic architect Alfred Waterhouse, who designed the covered market, along with the town clock, old town hall, and Backhouses' Bank across High Row.

The couple ran all four cafes for three years, but with the Coopers three-floor building proving too expensive to run, and Peter having a health scare, they decided to focus on the new venture at the market.

For a decade, the cafe built its reputation for friendly customer service and traditional home-cooked food, including a gluton-free menu. Opening seven days a week, with a proper Sunday lunch, its community of customers grew, and it now employs 13 staff.

When the 10-year lease came up for renewal, Market Asset Management (MAM), which took over market from the council, wanted a £5,000 increase in the annual rent and for Peter and Suzanna to sign out of the Landlords and Tenant Act, which gave them security of tenure.

"That was last July and we weren't given an opportunity to talk to anyone since, so we decided enough was enough. The business couldn't sustain a 26 per cent rent increase," explains Suzanna.

The plan had been to hand over the business to Peter's daughters, Emma and Tamsin, who both have secure jobs elsewhere in catering. Peter and Suzanna would have been in the background to support them whenever it was needed, but the couple are now committed to retiring.

Suzanna will spend more time on her allotment, and Peter has agreed to continue to organise  a vintage car rally that's become a popular feature of the town centre calendar. This year's event takes place on July 22 and he already has 160 cars registered.

In the meantime, a refurbishment programme is underway at the historic market, creating space for street food businesses, a bar, and entertainment area, all aimed at establishing a new nightlife hotspot.

MAM says it's "committed to offering flexible, modern leases to support small and start-up businesses" and the council has also pledged to invest £800,000 in the market for further redevelopment to attract a new generation of businesses.

However, on the day I popped in for breakfast, The Northern Echo was reporting the closure of another two street food traders. And, on the traditional side of the market, just Blair's fruit and veg, Jackson's butchers, Liddle's fish merchants, and J&G delicatessen remain.

It is to be hoped that the modernisation programme will work, and Darlington's historic market will thrive again. I sincerely hope it does because I've long argued that it deserves to be the jewel in Darlington's town centre crown. But, as things stand, the market is a sad shadow of what it was.

"When we came here, there were 27 more businesses in the market hall than there are now. Durham has a thriving market, so why can't Darlington?" Peter asks.

"MAM say they're going for a younger, night-time clientele, but our customers are older people who come here not just to eat and drink but for the company."

"It's become part of their lives and we'll miss the buzz of serving them, talking to them, and listening to them," adds Suzanna.

"In fact, it's time MAM and the council listened to the people of Darlington because we're in danger of losing a special part of the town."

Darlington is promised better times ahead for Alfred Waterhouse's grand old Victorian indoor market. But the town clock is ticking.