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THE GAURDIAN Anthony Hayward writes…
Hannah Hauxwell, who has died aged 91, was living a harsh existence as a hill farmer in the Yorkshire Dales, without electricity or running water, when the 1973 television documentary Too Long a Winter turned her into a national celebrity. She was first seen leading her cow into its shed as a blizzard raged at Low Birk Hatt farm, 1,000ft up in Baldersdale. Two members of the film crew shielded the camera from the snow with their sheepskin coats while another held the tripod steady by lying flat in the drift.
Hauxwell had lived in this remote spot next to the Pennine Way from the age of three and had farmed the 80 acres of the holding alone since the death of her uncle in 1961. She often saw no one for weeks at a time and lived on £5 a week. Once a month she collected a parcel of food basics from the nearest road, one and a half miles across fields, and she received two chickens a year. On the farm she had just the one milking cow and two calves. Although she was then only 46, her hair was white.
Following the screening of Too Long a Winter, directed by Barry Cockcroft, ITV companies around Britain received hundreds of phone calls and bulging sacks of mail containing gifts and money for “the old lady in the Yorkshire Dales” – which enabled her to have electricity installed and invest in a few more cows. Hauxwell was one of several Dales farmers featured in the programme, but she was the one who caught viewers’ imaginations, with her gift for articulating her simple life in a poetic, entrancing manner.
As a result, Cockcroft took Hauxwell on her first trip to London, for another documentary, Hannah Goes to Town (1977), to attend the Women of the Year Gala at the Savoy hotel as a guest of honour and meet the Duchess of Gloucester.
When, a decade later, Cockcroft – who made many other films about people enduring harsh existences – heard that Hauxwell was considering leaving Low Birk Hatt, he made a new documentary, A Winter Too Many (1989). Hauxwell’s health was declining and the task of running an isolated farm, particularly in sub-zero temperatures, was becoming ever harder. The farmhouse itself was dilapidated and piled to the rafters with belongings hoarded over six decades. “In summer I live and in winter I exist,” she reflected in the film, which showed her emotional departure just before Christmas 1988. “A big part of me, wherever I am, will be left here.”
The documentary ended with Hauxwell and her remaining possessions – many had been auctioned or destroyed – setting off in a removal lorry, towed from the farm by a tractor as the snows came again. She moved to a cottage in the nearby village of Cotherstone, leaving behind pasture that was later designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and named Hannah’s Meadow, and is now a nature reserve. The Hauxwell family’s traditional farming methods had avoided the use of chemical fertilisers.
When I visited Hauxwell at her new home shortly afterwards, she was enjoying mod cons including a bathroom, central heating and hot and cold water. However, the cottage was already cluttered with piles of her possessions. Living on the village’s main street, she enjoyed seeing life pass by her front window, but reflected: “I miss a bit of ground of my own.”
Hauxwell was an only child, born in the North Riding of Yorkshire at Sleetburn, Baldersdale, where her parents, William and Lydia (nee Tallentire), rented a farm. Three years later they bought Low Birk Hatt. The family suffered hard times during the Depression. When Hannah was six, her father died and her Uncle Tommy took over the running of the farm. She attended Baldersdale school up to the age of 14 and when her uncle died – three years after the death of her mother – she was left to farm alone.
She remained for ever grateful for the improvements in her life that came after she was discovered by Cockcroft, who saw the potential for more television programmes featuring Hauxwell. He took her on a grand tour of Europe for Hannah Hauxwell: Innocent Abroad (1992), during which she met the pope, and across the Atlantic for Hannah: USA (1994). “I thought they would be more civilised and know how to make tea properly,” she said, on visiting New York.
The royalties from books written with Cockcroft – Seasons of My Life (1989), Daughter of the Dales (1990), Innocent Abroad (1991), Hannah in America and Hannah’s North Country (both 1993) – left Hauxwell comfortably off, but her habits of scrimping and hoarding remained.
After settling in Cotherstone, she became a part of the community, attending the Methodist chapel and joining an over-60s club. She moved to a care home in Barnard Castle in 2016, and to a nursing home in West Auckland, Co Durham, last year.