Hannah Hauxwell, a Yorkshire legend who became a friend
As I sit down to write this today I’m looking out of the window above my desk and a flurry of snowflakes are falling, followed by a giant burst of sunlight. Bitter winter winds and ravaging gritty cold, mixed with radiance and warmth.
It seems apt somehow, because that mix sums up the wonderful Hannah Hauxwell, a lady whose values and ethics came from a tough and austere bygone era, yet someone who embodied a simpler, less complicated, perhaps kinder time. A woman who I was privileged to become friends with in the final years of her life.
I last saw Hannah just a few months ago, for her 91st birthday. She had finally been forced to surrender her fierce independence and succumb to the ravages of time, which left her with two hip replacements and health problems, many a physical legacy of the gruelling manual work and daily grind she put herself through during her tough life running a farm single-handedly in the Dales.
For her final year she lived in a nursing home in West Auckland in County Durham and spent most of her time in her room at the top of the building, a room chosen by her because she could look out across the fields and countryside and changing seasons every day.
She kept herself to herself, mixing rarely with other residents, preferring her own company and that of the radio which she listened to incessantly all her life.
Despite her years, her mind was still razor sharp and she was a complete news junkie, always up to date and fiercely interested in current affairs. She would often ask me what I thought about the latest political developments or a big story that had recently been in the news. She knew every twist and turn of Brexit.
As well as the news she loved classical music. Hannah told me her favourite all time radio show was Radio Four’s The Top One Hundred Tunes presented for many years by the late Alan Keith and then, Richard Baker – she described that as “very informative” and she lamented its loss to the airways in 2007. However she had recently, thanks to one of the nursing home staff, discovered Classic FM and particularly David Mellor’s Saturday night show at 9pm – so that was now a new highlight of her week.
You could never rush Hannah. She liked to take her time getting up and ready and often didn’t start her day until mid-afternoon. When I first got to know her for an interview I was doing for Calendar, for her 85th birthday in 2011, I learned never to call before 1pm (call as in knock on the door – she had a telephone, but never answered it) and never to expect her to dance to the tune of anyone, especially busy TV reporters! She would worry about what to wear and we’d wait while she changed several times – often into what seemed to me identical outfits (usually darned beyond recognition –Hannah didn’t believe in waste and threw nothing away). One thing was for certain, she would always top her outdoors filming outfit with a woolly hat or headscarf covering that famous white-haired bun – the trademark, unchanging hairstyle (she was white haired even in her forties) that first became so familiar in the documentary Too Long a Winter back in 1972.
But, when we finally started our interviews, magic would happen and, as she did in those documentaries which charmed the nation all those years ago, she would speak about her life in that wonderful,simple, lilting manner. A voice of clarity, simplicity and common sense, always truthful, considered and thoughtful, it was a pleasure simply to listen to her – a voice from a bygone era throwing her own insight on today’s crazy frantic world. That was why she gained so many fans all over the world. Listening to her was like sitting back and enjoying relaxing music.
We clicked from the start and I never failed to be amazed by her kindness. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, just a few months after I first met her, she was genuinely concerned that I was getting enough rest. She always wanted to know how my daughter was getting on at school and was genuinely interested. One time she even reeled Beth’s A level subjects off to me a year after I’d first mentioned them.
She never forgot a name. I once brought her into the ITV Yorkshire studios for an interview on the Calendar sofa with myself and Duncan, an experience she loved as it brought back so many memories, and whenever I saw her after that she would ask after every person she had spoken to that day. “How’s that lovely man Barry who said hello when we went in? He was very kind. And Andrea, who brought mea cup of tea?”
Whenever I was up in the North East I would call in and see her and take some of her favourite Yorkshire curd tart, as she had quite a sweet tooth. At first I’d visit her in her tiny cramped cottage in the village of Cotherstone – a place that for her could never quite replace the isolated farm on what was then the North Riding of Yorkshire that she had lived in when TV producer Barry Cockcroft discovered her all those years ago. But, as Hannah told me herself, she had to give in and move into the village and a place where she had neighbours around her when “I couldn’t lift the four stone bales of hay anymore – only the two stone ones”
Hannah spent her last years before the nursing home there in her armchair, by the stove in the kitchen, darning a mattress that never seemed to get finished and always, always listening to the radio. Her home was testament to her “waste not want not” philosophy, a legacy of her thrifty childhood, with piles of empty Utterly Butterly margarine containers and old newspapers (just in case). Even the paper bag I would bring her curd tart in was folded up carefully for possible future re-use.
She continued this life as much as possible in the nursing home she lived in later, though I suspect the staff there squirrelled away her hoarded bits and pieces, simply to be able to get in the room!
When I last saw Hannah Hauxwell last summer, it was in this sunny room at the top of the nursing home. We chatted for an hour about bits and pieces. She was fascinated by my i-Phone and all it could do, especially the fact that I could get the news updates on it at anytime. One of her nurses also had one. I even showed her how to do a selfie and the picture accompanying this article was taken by her.
I stayed until her tea arrived “ham, eggs and cornflakes” despite the fact it was late afternoon. She said that was her favourite tea “though not as good as at home”.
Just before I went I asked her if she ever went outside and did she want me to take her out one day? She was all wrapped up in shawls and a hat, despite the warm, sunny August day.
“Ah thank you, ” Hannah was always unfailingly polite “That’s very kind of you but it’s a bit cold at the moment, but one day soon I’m hoping to go out in the fresh air”
I left her there looking out of that window, Hannah Hauxwell, the First Lady of the Dales. A true legend and a beautiful soul.
I really hope she did manage to get outside in the fresh air for one last time. –Christine Talbot