As she approaches her 85th birthday this summer, Peter McNerney catches up with one of the Dales’ most famous daughters, Hannah Hauxwell.
Hannah Hauxwell has a lot on her mind. She’s an avid listener to the news on the radio and can talk expansively about the Arab Spring. “People will stop at nothing to keep power and don’t care about other people,” she says, adding, “It’s a nasty business, I don’t blame the people, they have a right to have the same kind of life that we enjoy.”
But for all her interest in current and world affairs, there’ still the pressing matter of her mattress and the continuing need to keep mending her clothes with her ever-ready sewing kit.
She’s been working on repairing the mattress for years. It’s already swallowed hours of her time, but she won’t contemplate buying a new one. Why would she? After all as she says, “it fits the bed perfectly.”
In her small cottage in the village of Cotherstone, just over the Yorkshire border into County Durham, Hannah is still as sharp and engaging as the first time she was thrust into the limelight over forty years ago.
It all began with an article in the Yorkshire Post in 1970. Under the headline “How to be happy on £170 a year”, it told about her daily lone struggle against the harsh elements at her Dales farm in Baldersdale and led to her starring role in the award-winning television documentary Too Long a Winter in 1973. Hannah had never had many visitors, let alone a camera crew, but she turned out to be a natural on television.
Then 46, unmarried and with apparently little interest in the changing fashions of the time, she seemed to belong to a different age. The farm had neither electricity nor running water and central heating was something only other people had.
It was undoubtedly a harsh existence, but her observations and honesty as she braved blizzards and ice to ensure her animals were fed and watered made her an instant hit.
Coach trips and autograph hunters began to descend and the local branch of Woolworths started selling postcards with her picture on. Before she knew it, she was travelling across Europe and America for a series of programmes which seemed a long way from where she had started out.
A regular on chatshows, where she seemed serenely unmoved by her celebrity status, Hannah was also guest of honour at a Woman of the Year Gala dinner at the Savoy Hotel and attended a Buckingham Palace garden party, an occasion she greeted with her usual pragmatism. “It was all very dainty,” she said of the event. “There were little pancakes and tiny cakes. Which, for the occasion, I suppose was quite nice, but if you’d been doing half a hard day’s work, it would have left quite a gap.”
She shook hands with the Pope and played piano on the Orient Express. For someone who just a few years earlier had rarely had an escape from the daily toil at Low Birk Hatt Farm it was an incredible turn of events.
The farm had always been a family affair, but following the deaths of her parents and uncle, Hannah had been left in charge and alone aged just 34. She never once complained that her bath tub was a cow pail and her bread was delivered to a gate three fields away. That was just the way life was and besides, the animals were company enough and from her kitchen window she could see the lights of neighbouring houses a few miles away.
It was back in the 1990s when she, remarkably, was still committed to making the farm work, that she had a taste of not just the other half lived, but what most of us were called normal life.
She enjoyed the jaunts to London and abroad and she still has fond memories of the producer, Barry Cockcroft, who was the driving force behind her time in the public eye. He died in 2001. “I was lucky he came, Mr Cockcroft, and I was lucky that he was who he was,” she says, admitting that she’d be wary of working with today’s TV executives.
“There aren’t people of his class. The media isn’t what it was,” she says.
She was still cleaning out cowsheds into her 60s, but when the farm eventually proved too much even for Hannah, she moved into a cottage six miles away down the valley and has never once been back.
Today, sitting in her armchair she muses on a film that she and Barry Cockcroft never made. They were looking at the lives of women in history who’ve struggled against the odds.
The celebrated humanitarian Edith Cavell was going to be one subject. The First World War nurse was arrested and shot for treason by the Germans after helping Allied soldiers escape from captivity. For various reasons the programme never materialised and Hannah’s not holding her breath for a call.
In these days of so-called reality TV, the reality of Hannah’s life is perhaps a little old-fashioned and rather sedate for today’s TV programme makers and an industry whose major currency is shock and scandal.
So as she approaches her 85th birthday in August, appropriately the first of the month on Yorkshire Day, how is she keeping?
Well, she’s still able to get out with the aid of two walking sticks. Friends had taken her out for a picnic just a few days earlier. She had a bad fall 10 years ago, breaking her hip, and she’s been troubled recently by back ache, but with characteristic cheerfulness she says, “the friends I’ve made make me glad to be alive”.
This is her favourite time of year. Winter is over and spring has sprung.
“The winters are too long now,” she says with a twinkle in her eye, adding somewhat ironically for someone who never seemed to be troubled by minus temperatures, that she’s not “a winter person”. Short shrift from Hannah for the season that gave the spinster her season in the sun.
She does own a television, but prefers the company of the radio. Jimmy Young was always a favourite and while she’ll listen to Jeremy Vine, his replacement on Radio 2, she wonders why people interrupt each other so much these days. And she’s fond of Classic FM, but what the rest of us call “pop” Hannah doesn’t even regard as music.
The recent Royal wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton was an event she was happy to follow through sound only. Suggestions that she would have enjoyed a day out in London seeing the Royal couple in person remind her of the time the Queen Mother drove through Cotherstone and Hannah dutifully waited at the garden gate to see Her Majesty.
“The Queen Mother drove by, and all I saw was a silhouette in the back.” So, the Royal newlyweds received Hannah’s attention on the radio, although she admits she did watch the highlights on the TV later.
There’s plenty for this feisty daughter of the Dales to look forward to. A holiday is on the cards at a friend’s house in Sedbergh in Cumbria, where she’s planning to watch the comings and goings of the county’s annual horse fair at Appleby.
And while they might not arrive by the sackload any more, she still gets the occasional fan letter.
“A farming lady in Ireland wrote recently to tell me about her tough times,” she says. Hannah didn’t reply. “I don’t have time for writing.” By way of explanation, she adds that she’s far too busy with her sewing and tackling that mattress.
Times were tough for Hannah, but you can’t help feeling that as she approaches her 85th birthday, the former Dales farmer who charmed a 1970s audience of millions is now perfectly content to live a quiet life out of the spotlight.
As she says, “there’s a lot to be grateful for, good friends and good neighbours.” Just don’t expect a birthday party. Hannah’s not a party person, “They’re a nightmare, parties,” she chuckles.
Although, a party with Hannah as guest of honour would be an invite to cherish.