Friday 4 January 2013

Ian “Wattsy Dog” Watts – Wildfowler and Engineer

Ian "Wattsy Dog" Watts doesn't yet quite fall in to the "Local Legend" or "Rum old Boy" category, but I think it's fair to say he does qualify for the title "Very Interesting, Very Clever, Smart Arse". A back handed compliment ? No, if your knew him, you'd agree.

An engineer by trade, at 26 years old he has been shooting since the age of 10. He had two children by 20, got married at 21 and in the intervening years has bought and renovated his own house at Wrabness in the Essex countryside and built his own garage, in which he designed and constructed a full sized double punt. He is also chairman of the Wildfowling section at Tendring and Halstead Wildfowlers Association.Yes, he's been a very busy boy.

Welcome to the world of the Watts Dog.

GL – So how did you first get interested in wildfowling ?
IW – I was brought up on an old farm at Weeley, we had about six acres of ground, paddocks and suchlike. When I was about ten I got an airgun and used to shoot rabbits and other pests. You know what I'm like, I don't do things by halves, after a couple of months it was practically pest free. I was keen to try all kinds of shooting and luckily for me my Dad’s mate was chairman of the local Wildfowling club, so he had a word and one of the blokes, Steve Frost, who kindly took me under his wing.

He started by taking me clay shooting in the summer and by the time the wildfowling season opened in September I was a reasonable shot. I don’t remember the details of my first trip, but I do remember thinking that there was nothing else like it. Out there in that massive expanse of nothingness, I loved it. I got the bug straight away.

GL – This would have been Hamford Water ?
IW – Yes, all my early trips and most of them now are on various bits of Hamford Water. I do remember my first solo trip though. I was thirteen years old and got my Mum to drop me off at the marsh in the morning before she went off to work and then returned in the afternoon to pick me up. It was very cold, certainly below freezing, all day. I didn’t have a dog at this stage, so I was totally alone. It was a very big tide which covered much of the saltings and I remember feeling a bit, erm, nervous shall we say, as the tide came further and further up. I was crapping myself really. I didn’t have a shot all day and when I’d got off the marsh I remember feeling very relieved that I’d survived the day !

After that first trip I’ve never lost the bug, although when I was seventeen or eighteen I stopped for a couple of years, as we’d just moved in to our first house after Charlie was born and we were living pretty much hand to mouth. I certainly didn’t have spare cash to spend on fowling.

GL – How long did that go on ?
IW – A couple of years. When things settled down I re joined the club (Tendring and Halstead Wildfowlers). I still had all my shooting gear and I'd already had Pip, my black Labrador for a couple of years. I’ve never lost the hunger for it and still feel as keen as ever now.

When I’m going fowling in the morning most of the times I’ll wake up several times during the night, it’s the anticipation and excitement. When I’m out there I’m focused on fowling. Nothing else, it’s a release from the day to day mundane stuff. It's like living a parallel life sometimes. When you're at work, trying to concentrate on the job in hand and you look outside and see there's a big north easterly blowing and it's high tide at six. You know the marsh will be full of duck. Can I get back in time for an hour's shooting in the evening?

Or you're on the various weather websites on Monday morning trying to work out what the weathers going to be next weekend !

GL - Yes, I've noticed, whenever I come by you seem to be doing anything other than work....
IW - Normally I'm focused on work, but sometimes it's difficult.

GL – Any close shaves on the marsh ?
IW – Only once. That’s enough. I’d recently got my first pair of chest waders, a cheap pair from Jacks in Colchester, made of very thick rubber. They were far too big, they looked like clown trousers ! They were hideous, they weren’t supplied with shoulder straps, so I made my own by securing old car seat belts to them !

Anyway, we were walking back across the marsh and over several narrow, but very deep creeks when I felt myself sink into the mud above my knees. Before I knew it, I had sunk up to my crotch. Luckily the tide was well out, but it’s not a nice feeling. I gradually worked the mud loose using my wading staff, it seemed like I was there for an eternity, though it was probably only ten minutes. When something like that happens it gives you a healthy respect for the marsh.Everyone should get stuck once.

GL – I know it’s difficult to choose, but are there any trips that stick out in your mind as especially memorable ?
IW – Yes, two in particular. The first was a trip after geese on Hamford Water, with Steve Frost and Bob Watcham. All three of us went got in a little boat from Cardinal’s Wharf and rowed round to Broken Wall. It was unbelievably foggy, you could barely see your hand in front of your face.

We could hear the geese calling, we knew they were very near, but we couldn't see them through the fog. Suddenly we heard them as they took off and two or three appeared out of the mist, about twenty yards away and I managed to get onto them quickly and my first greylag came crashing down. I'll never forget that.

Steve Frost, Bob Watcham and Wattsy with his first greylag goose

The trips after geese are probably the most memorable. I suppose it's the ultimate in wildfowling really.

Another time, me and Steve Frost decided to go out in the evening to the Broken Wall again, on Hamford water, so we could be in position at dawn. This was in January, it was blowing a gale and freezing cold. We packed all the gear, the tent, food, guns, etc and got in this little boat and paddled it round to the marsh. We then hiked over the marsh trying to find a suitable place to pitch the tent. It was a real mission just to get there.

So there we were, putting the tent up and we're looking for the tent poles and it turns out that Steve's missus, who packed the tent, had left the poles out ! We ended up using it as a bivvy bag, huddled up next to the dog, trying to keep warm. The dog's stinking breath was filling my nostrils while I nearly froze to death.

I barely slept all night due to the cold and the fact that my phone kept beeping as the battery was low, but I had to keep it on as I'd set the alarm. We got up before dawn, looking forward to a warming cup of tea from the Kelly Kettle, but the kindling had got damp overnight and we couldn't start a fire !

Needless to say we didn't have a single shot in the morning. Nothing !

So that trip is memorable for a different reason. The madness of camping overnight on a freezing January in the middle of a flat marsh when everything went wrong.

GL - Where and when did you get the idea of building a punt ?
IW - Ever since I started fowling I've wanted to do it. When I was thirteen or so I read Ralph Payne Gallway's book (Wildfowl Shooting with Shotgun and Punt Gun) which captured my imagination.

I remember drawing scale plans as a kid, based on what he'd written in the book.

GL - Really ? I thought it was a recent idea ?
IW - No. I just had to wait until I had a suitable place to build it.

GL - Ah, yes, the garage....
IW - Yes. As I said to you I built the garage to accommodate the punt. Bearing in mind that the punt is twenty three feet long, the garage had to be rather long. At the beginning of last year I drew up plans for the garage and built it myself in a couple of months. I started in late February.....

GL - Just as the wildfowling season had finished ?
IW - Of course ! I did the drawings myself and started February and finished it April and immediately started on the punt. I based it on RPG's classic design, but have used modern materials where it's sensible to do so.

GL - As someone with next to know practical knowledge and skill when it comes to any form of DIY or construction, the first question that springs to mind is how do you know where to start ?
IW - It's just common sense ( there then followed a long discussion on what constitutes common sense ).  I'd been thinking and planning for so long I had a good idea of how I'd go about it.

The stem and stern blocks are made from oak. I spotted the piece of oak I eventually used down on the marsh at Wrabness, years ago. I kept looking at it, thinking, it'll be perfect for the stem and stern of the punt. One day I thought I'll go and get it, but it was about a mile away from where you could park the car.So I went down there at night...

GL - At night ? Why ?
IW - I didn't want any jobsworth sticking their nose in.

GL - It's only a bit of old wood !
IW - Well, I was determined to have it anyway. It weighed a bloody tonne, so I had to roll it along the sea wall, because I couldn't carry it far. So I'm rolling it along the sea wall and I suddenly got this hideous whiff of dog shit ! I'd rolled it through a lump of it and got it all over my hands. It was dark so I couldn't see what I was doing, but I grabbed what I thought was grass to rub it off and it was a thistle ! My hands were half covered in thorns and half in dog shit !

Any way, I eventually got it home and dried it out in the log shed. When I went to cut it I knackered two blades as it was so hard. It'd been wet and then dry hundreds of time sitting on the marsh and had been literally sand blasted. But it was perfect for stem and stern.

Wattsy at work on the punt

I used top grade marine ply  for the frames and the stringers are made of Douglas fir. As you know, I was working in the evenings, almost dawn until dusk. Evenings as well, whenever I could. I've no idea how many hours it took.

It took about eight months, April to November, to finish.

GL - So, the punt is completed. How did the launch go ?
IW - Yes, the punt itself is finished. I had mixed feelings when I finished it. I was pleased with how it turned out, I got it pretty much how I wanted it. But at the same time I was a bit, sort of sad really, as I'd enjoyed the process, building it and now it's done. I suppose I enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

The launch was fine, no mishaps. All the family came and we took it down to the front at Mistley and had a play about.

I had to make the trailer too, there's nothing off the shelf that a twenty three feet long punt will fit on.

GL - What about the gun ?
IW - Well, I drew up some plans and got a fabricator in Manningtree to quote me. It was about £1000 I think, something like that. At first I thought, when I've got the spare cash I'll get him to do it for me. Then I thought, I know what'll happen. They'll do a decent, commercially acceptable job and it won't be exactly as I want it.

So I thought, I'll do it myself. I'm going to get myself a lathe, probably a Colchester Triumph (Colchester Lathe Company). I reckon I could get one for £3000. Then I can take my time and make it exactly as I want it and I can then use the lathe to make cartridges and loads of other stuff.

When I was in the sixth form I asked if I could make a punt gun as part of a project I was doing. Not surprisingly they wouldn't let me !

GL - What's the next project ?
IW - Well, I want to get the lathe and then make the gun and then I'll see.

You see what I mean when I say he's a smart arse ? As someone who's main (only) success in building anything was three shelves in my office last spring, it's quite humbling to listen to what Wattsy has already done. Anyway, lets not praise him too much, he's not a man lacking in self confidence and we wouldn't want to inflate his ego any more than is necessary*. I'm sure I'll be updating this piece shortly what Wattsy gets his lathe and completes his gun.

*Comment made for comedy effect. No offence should be taken by interviewee. For clarity, I confirm that Ian Watts is not (very) over confident and does not have a (very) big ego.