True daughter of the Dales: Inside story of how Hannah Hauxwell's lonely life moved the nation
In the suburban warmth of the 1973 winter, the sight of a fellow Briton struggling to survive without electricity or running water, and with an income of less than £200 a year, convulsed the nation in sorrow and pity, and food parcels began to arrive literally by the truckload.
She was, for a while, the most famous Yorkshirewoman on the planet. But when death came yesterday, at 91, she was once more a solitary figure.
It was a story that had begun with an article in The Yorkshire Post about “the lonely lady of Low Birk Hatt Farm”. It had been in her family for a century and she had lived there since she was three. Now, she farmed its 80 acres alone.
Her mother had died 12 years before; her uncle three years after that. It was so remote that her groceries had to be left by the roadside, two miles away.
A thousand feet above sea level and taking in some of England’s most forbidding terrain, it was, said the article, “an upland place far from a world she tends to ignore”.
But a couple of years later, when television came calling, the world did, too.
The serene dignity with which she conducted her life, reconnected older viewers especially with a Britain they thought they had lost, and the tears they shed for her were almost palpable.
It was the late Barry Cockcroft, a producer at Yorkshire Television with a keen visual sense, that had made her a star.
His documentary, Too Long a Winter, was a work of art on 16mm film, an intimate yet unintrusive portrait of a handful of Dales characters whom time, it seemed, had forgotten.
Inside the tumbledown farmhouse in the lonely Baldersdale valley, Hannah sipped tea and in her softly lilting Teesdale tones, spoke of the simple joy of walking the lanes around the farm. “If I haven’t money in my pocket it’s one thing no-one can rob me of,” she said.
Literate and God-fearing, her plight – though she didn’t see it as such – triggered a wave of sorrow and perhaps guilt.
No-one at YTV was prepared for the outpouring of emotion that followed. The phone lines to Leeds were jammed with people wanting to know what they could do for her. In the days that followed, so many people sent food parcels that a helicopter had to be scrambled to get them out to her.
“It was one of the most memorable broadcasting nights I remember,” said John Fairley, who as head of documentaries had been executive producer of the film.
“Her extraordinary strength of character and charm, in the most challenging of circumstances, enthralled the whole country.
“Hannah became instantly renowned as the epitome of a way of life in the Yorkshire Dales. She remained so through all her time on the farm, and afterwards in retirement.”
There were more films about Hannah in the coming years. The cameras followed her to the Women of the Year gala at the Savoy, where she was a guest of honour, and eventually she was persuaded out of Low Birk Hatt, to Europe and America, and to a garden party at Buckingham Palace, before finally selling her few remaining cattle and upping sticks to Cotherstone, six miles away, over the Yorkshire border into County Durham.
“It was all very dainty,” she said of the party at the Palace. “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 was asked what she liked most about her new home. “The heating,” she said. “And the bathroom.
“I was just thinking yesterday – when I was late, as always, getting ready – I haven’t a pan of water to boil up and a bucket of cold water to mix in when it got hot.”
It was Hannah “curious, out-of-this-century grace and courtesy” that had most struck Alec Donaldson, the Yorkshire Post journalist who had been, in 1970, the first of the media people to cross her path.
Dressed in an old Harris tweed jacket, breeches and gumboots, she told him of the simple pleasure of seeing passers-by on the Pennine Way in summer. “One could not wish to have a better place when the days are long and the air is warm,” she said.
Would she recommend her life to others? “I think, perhaps not,” she reflected. “It is too extreme and my income is not adequate. It barely provides for the necessities of life.”