“Whatever I am, wherever I am, this is me, this is my life and if there’s a funny old person in years to come, who’s a ghost walking up and down here, it’ll be me.”
These are the words of an incredible woman with an indomitable spirit, who has been an inspiration to many worldwide – Hannah Hauxwell, an English hill farmer, born on the Yorkshire Day in 1926. She lived an isolated life, full of hardships, at Low Birk Hatt farm in Bladersdale, Yorkshire. Her words echo the deep love and attachment she had for the life she led and the Pennine Hills she inhabited. Her father died when she was a young child and thereafter her uncle looked after the farm. Eventually, her mother also passed away followed by her uncle. Since 1961, Hannah, a spinster had taken care of the 80-acre farm, 1000ft up Baldersdale all by herself.
All this changed in 1973 when ITV’s documentary, Too long a Winter, directed by Barry Cockcroft, got screened. The documentary portrayed the life of Dales hill farmer. With the very opening scene of the documentary, Hannah Hauxwell was seen chasing her cattle in a blizzard, in knee high snow. Her humility and demeanour instantly touched the hearts of the audience. Just in her mid-forties, with all her hair white, she was a poignant portrayal of a woman hill farmer of the Dales. She lived a frugal life, surviving on an annual income of about £250. This meagre income was earned by renting out her farm to other farmers for grazing their cattle and yearly raising a calf for the market. There was no running water or electricity on the farm. Her social contact was very limited; at times she didn’t meet anyone for weeks. This life of hardship had little or no mark on her personality. Her love for music (she played piano) and books cultivated by her mother made this harsh life, especially in winters, happy. She was a pleasant, cheerful and sociable woman, ever thankful to God.
Following the screening of Too long a Winter, ‘the Old Lady in the Yorkshire Dales’ became a celebrity. Another documentary, Hannah goes to Town, followed in 1977, where she visits London for the first time, to attend the Women of the Year Gala at the Savoy hotel as a guest of honour and meets Duchess of Gloucester. Her self-assured persona and lyrical style of articulation struck a chord with all those who saw her. Celebrity status didn’t change anything in her, although now she had many friends who wrote to her regularly and sent her gifts. Her friends and well-wishers were ever increasing. Her farm now had electricity, funded by public subscription. Many years later, another documentary, A Winter Too Many, (1989) appeared. It showed that due to failing health and aging, she was finding it difficult to live a remote isolated life. Hannah, then decided to sell Low Birk Hatt farm. Thereafter, she moved to a cottage in the nearby village of Cotherstone. After moving to Cotherstone, much changed in her life. She became a part of the local community attending the Methodist chapel. She featured in another television programme, Innocent Abroad, where Barry Cockcroft took her on a tour of Europe, where she met the pope and also visited the USA. Now her income came from the royalties of the books written with Cockcroft- Seasons of My Life, Daughter of the Dales, Innocent Abroad, Hannah in America and Hannah’s North Country.
Hannah Hauxwell, died at the age of 91 in 2018. The last two years of her beautifully inspiring life were spent in a care home.
The legacy Hannah leaves behind is what makes her relevant even today. As one reads into her persona, one meets a self-reliant and independent woman, who was ahead of her time. She felt no need of a man to either support her financially or for companionship. Although she admitted,” …. there is nothing like a good marriage in the world, but to live under one roof with a man of different variance than yours is terrible”. These words speak for her wisdom. Even while living a frugal life allowed by her meagre income, it didn’t mean she lost sight of things that were essential in her kind of living. One thing she never economised on was fire. In her own words, “…I like fire. Fire is one thing I have never economised on. I like a good fire”.
Hannah’s Meadow is yet another of her legacies. A part of Low Birk Hatt farm has been preserved by Durham Wildlife Trust, since 1988. Aptly named, Hannah’s Meadow is home to many rare species of flowers. This has been possible due to the traditional methods of farming followed by her. She never re-seeded her fields nor used fertilizers, as a result the meadow is an example of an untouched environment.
The ascetic and primordial life which Hannah Hauxwell led was a living example of the kind off-grid life many of us aspire for in the 21st century. Hannah was well aware of the peace and tranquillity in her life, due to the solitary life she lived by choice. Hannah Hauxwell is a true inspiration for millions worldwide who want to shun modern technology and idealize an undisturbed life.
Livneet Shergill, Ph.D. in Economics. Works as an Independent Researcher, who chooses to be a free agent, for better or for worse.