Obituary: Hannah Hauxwell, Yorkshire Dales farmer

Hannah Hauxwell, the lonely figure of Baldersdale, whose death at 91 was announced this week, had lived two opposite lives: the first in spectacular isolation, the other in the gaze of the world.

Hannah Hauxwell
Hannah Hauxwell

The watershed came in January 1973, when a Yorkshire Television documentary about a few hardy souls eking out an existence in the harsh north Pennine winter, was screened to the nation.

The programme’s lyrical tone and intense, immaculate cinematography had marked it out as a classic even before the introduction of its central character after the commercial break.

But it is no exaggeration to say that the interview with her that followed broke the nation’s heart.

It was not just that she had next to nothing – her income was less than £200 a year and there was neither electricity nor running water in her tumbledown cottage – but that she felt no right to any more.

Alone and unmarried, she spoke with the simple eloquence of one transplanted from another age, and when she had finished, and gone back out to tend her smallholding in the snow, she was a national heroine.

The television critic Sean Day-Lewis spoke next day of her “extraordinary dignity, simplicity and acceptance” which, he said, “shone without a hint of acting or editorial manipulation”.

Hannah had been “found” by the media before – most notably in a 1970 article in The Yorkshire Post – but it was Barry Cockcroft’s film, Too Long a Winter, that got her noticed.

A more prosaic production might not have had the same impact, but in his hands her story became a symphony.

As soon as the programme had ended, the ITV switchboards lit up. Viewers wanted to know if she was all right; if they could help. In the coming days and weeks, so many food parcels and gifts arrived for her that they had to charter a helicopter to get them to her.

It was far from the drudgery of her day-to-day shopping, such as it was. Bread and milk had to be left for her on a wall, three fields away.

Hannah was now famous, and Cockcroft’s cameras followed her again as she went to the Savoy in London to be feted at a Women of the Year event. In subsequent, occasional appearances, she went on holiday abroad and met the Pope. A final, poignant episode showed her, too old to stay, bidding farewell to Low Birk Hatt Farm, and to the cottage that had sustained her.

Hannah Bayles Tallentire Hauxwell was born in the north Riding village of Sleetburn, the only child of farmers William and Lydia (nee Tallentire).

They bought the 80-acre farm at Low Birk Hatt when she was three, but William died three years later and Hannah’s Uncle Tommy took over its running. At 14, Hannah left Baldersdale School and joined the family firm. When Tommy and Lydia died within three years of each other, she was left, at 34, to tend the land alone.

It was nine years later that Alec Donaldson met her for The Yorkshire Post. “You may wish to salute, as I do, the lonely lady of Low Birk Hatt,” he wrote, “remote and independent but quietly content in her upland place, far from a world she tends to ignore.”

Less than three years later, she could ignore it no longer. A local factory raised money to connect her house to the national grid, and well-wishers gave her a cooker and a kettle.

When, finally, she moved on, to a cottage in Cotherstone, not far away but far less remote, the royalties from the books Cockcroft wrote with and about her were her pension.

In Cotherstone, she went to the Methodist chapel and joined an over-60s club. In 2016 she moved to a care home in Barnard Castle and, the following year, to a nursing home.

Her legacy is the extraordinary impact her first appearance had on viewers – which, as the reaction to this week’s news demonstrated, is remembered fondly still.

A more tangible legacy is the nature reserve on what had been pasture land at Birk Hatt, which was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and named Hannah’s Meadow.

Her funeral will take place at the Methodist chapel in Barnard Castle, on Friday, February 16 at 11am.