Former Teesdale reporter Jim McTaggart was a friend of Hannah Hauxwell. He gives his memories of his time with the remarkable farmer turned TV star, following her death aged 91

HANNAH Hauxwell led a lonely, frugal life, scraping by on £5 a week in a damp and threadbare old house, until the night of January 30, 1973 when a remarkable television documentary turned her into an international celebrity.

She was aged 49, though her white hair made her look older, and had no prospect until then of ever moving on from her meagre existence at Low Birk Hatt Farm, close to the Pennine Way at the top of Baldersdale.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Hannah Hauxwell, picture in 2008. Picture: North News & Pictures

I lived a few miles from Birk Hatt so made regular visits and got to know her well. She was good company, and was as surprised as anyone about her sudden fame. But after stays in five-star hotels she was quite content to be back in her own downtrodden surroundings. I felt sad each time I left her amid the awful clutter.

Her eventual farm sale and move to a spic and span cottage in Cotherstone got wide national publicity. But it has to be said that all this didn’t go down well with some Teesdale folk. Every time pieces were written about her there were comments like: “Why go on about her? She’s done nowt to deserve it.” One farmer told me: “She’s only famous because she was hopeless at farming. Don’t encourage her.”

Her fame kept increasing, however. My wife and I took her to London by car when the three of us were invited, with many other dale people, to a Buckingham Palace garden party to honour the Queen Mother. There were many celebrities in the palace grounds, but Hannah attracted as many warm greetings as any of them.

Later we went to London by train to take part in a special TV show. She was doing a book signing in a shop near the studio when Michael Aspel moved in with the words: “Hannah Hauxwell, This is Your Life.” There was no sign of shock as she replied quietly: “Thank you very much.”

I happened to be in Cotherstone when Sir Harry Secombe was there to interview her for his Highway programme. I was asked to introduce him. As we stood waiting for her in the front room, which by now was cluttered and dusty, he gasped at the state of the place. But he said afterwards that he loved chatting to her.

Hannah was put up in high class hotels on her travels for various TV shows. She enjoyed fine meals and luxurious rooms. I bumped into her one night when she was staying at Headlam Hall Hotel near Gainford with a TV team. She enthused about its comforts.

I suggested she should treat herself and stay on, as she could easily afford it. But no, she insisted on going back to her chilly, cheerless home, where her meals often consisted of baked beans eaten straight from the tin. She was once treated for malnutrition. This was the strangest feature about the extraordinary woman. She had a taste for the high life, which she was able to sample more often than most, yet she was content to live like a pauper. She would spend week after week trying to mend an old mattress when she could have bought any number of new ones. She dismissed the idea of getting someone in to do housework or cook. “I don’t want any stranger poking about in my house,” she declared.

She stayed at our house a few times and was enthusiastic about the meals, never leaving the tiniest morsel of food on any plate. We took her to the Blue Lagoon restaurant in Darlington and one of the owners was so captivated by her that he named his daughter Hannah. That’s the sort of impact she could have on people. When she had been out of the news for a while I arranged for her to give a question and answer session in aid of St Teresa’s Hospice. She refused a fee, gave a spellbinding reminder of her farm days, and raised a lot of money.

She had two faulty television sets, one with only pictures and the other with only sound, so she had to use them together. But eventually one or other failed, so she relied instead on a small radio for the news.

Hannah had a long memory, and could be severe. She once asked me to recommend a local firm to do a job. I named a well respected business. “Oh no,” she stated. “I would never use them.” Why? She went to a drawer and fished out an ancient newspaper cutting. It was about a man from that firm being in court for some offence many years earlier. The man was now long dead, but the firm was still on her blacklist. She gave the job to one from another area.

Hannah became extremely fond of Barry Cockcroft, who made the original programme. She was deeply upset when he died at an early age. She was also close to Jack Robinson, one of her few relatives, who was landlord of the Rose and Crown at Mickleton. She liked attending functions there on his annual Yorkshire Day celebration and was distressed when he died. These two losses made her sadder than she might have been in her declining years.

There is no doubt that some folk begrudged Hannah her fame while others adored her. But she didn’t ask to be filmed. It was just her natural personality which turned her into a star