Jack Hatt

Farmer, fisherman, crack shot, demolition expert and archetypal countryman

William Jack Hatt, farmer: born Colchester 29 July 1913; married 1941 Gene Meadows (died 1991; two sons, and one daughter deceased), 1993 June Bedford-Hunt; died Woodcote, Oxfordshire 25 January 2004.

His working motto was "Dam and Blast", and the phrase accurately reflected the explosive vigour with which Jack Hatt forged through 90 years of life. Farmer, hydraulics engineer, demolition expert, forester, brilliant game shot, crafty fisherman, noted trencherman, powerful imbiber, he was above all a sparkling raconteur, with a uniquely staccato delivery, constantly in demand for speeches at functions of all kinds.

A tall, well-built man, he walked with a pronounced limp, the legacy of a motorbike smash in his twenties. With his cherry-red cheeks, his curling side-whiskers and frightful old hat loaded with trout flies, he looked exactly what he was - an archetypal countryman, one of the last of his kind.

He grew up on the family's rented farm at Ipsden, near Wallingford, where the Oxfordshire Chilterns roll down to the plain. His mother, a trained teacher, gave him lessons until he was eight, and then he went as a boarder to Epsom College; but his heart and mind were always rooted in the chalk-and-flint-strewn fields of home.

At five he rode on the seat of the horse-drawn binder as it clattered round and round the field at harvest. At 10 he proudly led the 'osses - to the end of his life he called them " 'osses" - as they pulled the wagon-loads of sheaves back to the rickyard. At six he acquired his first airgun. At eight he progressed to a .410 shotgun, and at 10 to a 28-bore. "Get your gun, boy," his father would tell him when guests were expected for lunch. "Go out and shoot two or three plovers."

His mother, he always said, was an excellent cook. "Corn rabbits!" he would exclaim:

They were the best. Three-parts growed. Mother used to boil 'em, fry 'em and roll 'em in breadcrumbs. Oh, they were beautiful! Better than any chicken. Another thing I've eaten and I bet you haven't - corncrakes. We used to shoot them, there were so many of them. Damned good eating, like a partridge.

When he left school at 16, Jack wanted to become a journalist, and he went up to Fleet Street, seeking advice from the country writers Eric Parker, James Wentworth Day and Patrick Chalmers. They all told him to take a course in English and shorthand, so he enrolled at Reading University - only to be summoned home to run the farm when his father fell over and broke a leg. Once back, he never left.

Soon he began to branch out into agricultural contracting, ploughing, sowing and harvesting. Then in 1937 came a new departure. "We had these great big stumps to get rid of," he explained:

Tractor couldn't shift 'em. Then I heard about this fellow down Southampton way who blew things up. Phoned him, arranged a visit. Up he comes - only a little bloke. Drills a few holes, puts in his charges. Boom! Up goes the bloody lot. Job finished. "That'll be ninety quid," he says. Ninety quid! Blimey! That was a lot of money in those days. So I said to myself, "Sod this for a box of tricks! We can do this ourselves."

So it was that Jack Hatt went into blasting, using explosives to drop redundant buildings and to excavate ponds and lakes. Trading under the inspired slogan "Dam and Blast", he travelled all over the country, reshaping the waterways on many famous estates, and his fame spread so far that at one point he was employing 60 men.

No matter how busy he was, he found time to shoot and fish. An outstandingly accurate and quick shot, he was celebrated for his feat of having three pheasants dead in the air while using only one gun: having fired both barrels, he would instantly re-load with a cartridge held in his knuckles. On the riverbank, he was guile personified, casting flies with infinite patience. He loved telling the story of his biggest sea-trout, a 14-pounder, caught in the Test "in the middle of the night - and didn't that bugger go!" When arthritis limited his mobility, he obtained special permission from the Duke of Wellington to drive his car along the bank of the River Loddon, and so was able to continue fishing almost to the end, landing a 10lb rainbow trout in his 90th year.

At home in the village of Woodcote he was a tremendous supporter of local causes - the farmers' club, the village hall, the recreation ground. In the 30 years since the first Woodcote steam rally was held on his land, the annual jamboree has grown into a national event, and donations to local charities have exceeded £250,000.

In 1941 he married Gene Meadows, and they had a daughter and two sons. To their great grief Deirdre was killed in a car crash in 1963, but Mark and Jon both joined Jack in the family business, and, when he retired, took over the running of it. In their hands the firm is flourishing. Two years after Gene's death in 1991, he married June Bedford-Hunt, and in retirement they lived happily in a pair of converted cottages which he called Fox Covert House.

His after-dinner speeches remain a legend in south Oxfordshire and neighbouring counties. Since he liked a drop of port, and could get through a bottle with his main course, his stories tended to become rather fruity - and many a time, after the first few salvoes, the vicar was seen creeping ashen-faced for the exit. But Jack Hatt's high spirits and vitality enlivened everyone who knew him.

One of his favourite descriptions of a person who had impressed him was "Artful old sod" - and he would not mind if the phrase were pinned on him.

Duff Hart-Davis

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