Dave Watts, National Trust’s Area Clerk of Works for South Derbyshire and 1995 Fellow, tells the SPAB about his love affair with brickwork.
At school I only ever excelled at sport so after leaving at 15 with only two O Levels I embarked on a bricklaying apprenticeship at British Rail in Derby. It was a tough environment and what followed was rather a baptism of fire, the work was very demanding and initially I wasn’t spoken to for 3 weeks as they thought I was the son of a gaffer! Thankfully three older bricklayers who were nearing retirement took me under their wing. They had the skills I wanted to learn and they could see my eagerness, I owe them a lot. I soon started to develop. A significant and proud moment came about three months in when one of the older bricklayers announced to the whole depot that I was already the best at repointing.
After this I knew I could be really good and my love affair with brickwork took off. As soon as I entered college (City and Guilds day release) I took off and ended up being fast-tracked. I achieved my advanced craft certificate in three years rather than four and won several awards for best apprentice.
Work at the railway was mostly station, bridge and tunnel repairs/skew back arches. Working under the older craftsmen I really started to thrive. I began researching brickwork and started my book and tool collection. After working on new-build projects, which I hated, I moved on to the National Trust. I become Area Clerk of Works for South Derbyshire (based on the Calke Abbey estate) by the time I was 28.
When a previous SPAB Fellow, Ray Stevens was recruited to the team I began to hear more about the SPAB. I applied to the Fellowship in 1995 and spent the next nine months travelling the country increasing my knowledge of traditional materials in ancient and period buildings. It was invaluable to me and it has influenced my work ever since. Obviously we visited countless fantastic buildings but it is probably from speaking with other craftsmen, surveyors and architects that I learned the most. Special places for me were St Pancras and Hampton Court Palace for all the various carved, gauged and moulded brickwork from many periods. As a Derbyshire man I also love the ‘crooked spire’ at the Church of St Mary and All Saints in Chesterfield – surely one of the best landmarks in the country – and though I am not a religious person I think there is something wonderful about the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral. Calke Abbey itself remains very special to me.
After the Fellowship I became heavily involved in the William Morris Craft Fellowship Trust (the Trust helps to fund the SPAB Fellowship programme) for a number of years, several spent as secretary, which was great for networking with other Fellows. I do miss it, especially Tom Flemons, Andy Johnson and Janet Darby.
Even though I now only rarely get the chance to use my tools, I am still mad about brickwork. I think it’s because it involves such a high level of artistry to create a true piece of work or repair from just a heap of bricks and mortar. My wife is often chastising me for suddenly slowing the car down to look at a section of wall and for pausing the TV to comment on some background brickwork!
I have never really sought a further promotion at the National Trust. My role there suits me well and it’s where I am most effective, I enjoy having a close link with the men actually carrying out the work.
In recent years, one of my jobs that stands out is the refurbishment of Stoneywell Cottage in Leicestershire. It is a Grade II* listed Arts and Crafts building owned by the National Trust and only recently opened to the public. I can thoroughly recommend a visit.
If you think the SPAB Fellowship could be for you find out more about our 2015 programme. Application deadline is 1 December.