This week, someone who I once spent thirteen hours with died at the age of 91 years in her Nursing Home where she had spent the past two years. Her name was Hannah Hauxwell, and though I only had the pleasure of having one day out of her life, it was thirteen hours that I will never forget. Indeed, the impression she left on me was so memorable that my recall of it today is written more as an article that one might read in a magazine as opposed to 'A thought for today.'
During the early 90s, I had the privilege of spending a full day in the company of one of the finest ladies I have ever met, Miss Hannah Hauxwell. Hannah had kindly agreed to read from one of my books in a Leeds’s primary school, on condition that I collected her from her home in Barnard Castle, fed her at lunchtime and delivered her back home before 9.00 pm. "I'm never out of bed after 9.00 pm," she remarked. Her speech was so soft and silk-like in sound, it was virtually impossible to believe that one was hearing such refinement coming from the mouth of a woman who'd lived such a rugged life on the high Pennine Moors in the harshest of conditions imaginable; often seeing no other human for months on end, and only then to wave to from a distance as she carried water from a nearby stream or fed her cows.
A number of telephone conversations with her agent Barry Cockcroft before the date of the venue with the Leeds’s schoolchildren resulted in me being forewarned that Hannah didn’t like to be rushed and that she had lived her life performing daily tasks at a set pace that was unalterable. I was told that while she may have moved from her earlier home at Low Birk Hat Farm into a village cottage, she nevertheless maintained many of her lifelong habits and behaviours.
Once Barry Cockroft had found such a gem, there was certainly no way he was about to risk her loss to the world by clothing her in unsuitable garments and expectations she would never choose to try on and live up to. His management of Hannah's activities: who she saw, where she went and what she did; while keeping her under tight rein, reflected the actions of a sensitive man. Barry Cockcroft was determined not to change the roughness of this sparkling gem he came across in 1972 on the rugged moorlands of the North Pennines, by introducing her to a lifestyle she never wanted or could have stomached. Consequently, while Hannah remained in the nation's heart and became a celebrity until she died, her needs remained plain and simple.
I arrived at Hannah’s cottage in Cotherstone, Barnard Castle as arranged around 10.00am. I knocked, waited, knocked, again and again, waited.....and waited.... and waited, but received no response.This pattern of announcing my presence continued for twenty minutes, when suddenly a woman’s voice from upstairs replied, “Is that Mr Forde? I’ll be down presently”, as though the announcement that I’d arrived and was waiting had only moments earlier been made by me.
My waiting continued as I’d yet to learn that when Hannah says, ‘presently’, she actually means ‘sometime within the next hour’. While I patiently waited, I couldn’t help but pass my time examining the recently acquired property which had tempted ‘The First Lady of the Dales’ away from the harshly wild and isolated existence of the moorland farm where she had lived alone without electricity or a water supply (save the moon, stars and stream) for over 50 years.
The cottage Hannah lived in was pleasantly located near the centre of the village, and despite having lived there for a good year, the front window frames to the property required immediate replacement, yet remained untouched. Before I’d even met Hannah, therefore, I’d earmarked her as ‘a mend and make do’ person whose behaviour was governed, wherever the spending of money was concerned, by that of sheer necessity and a lifetime’s compulsive frugality.
I could still recollect the very first time her existence in the Pennine wilderness had been brought to public attention by The Yorkshire Post in early 1970 in an article entitled,'How to be happy on £170.' This was '£170 a year,' when the average wage was approximately £2,200. In 1973, the nation was once again reminded of the hermit of the moor's existence by Barry Cockcroft in a documentary for Yorkshire Television entitled 'Too long a winter.'
'Too long a winter' gripped the nation and almost overnight, 'a star was born' and accepted into the nation's bosom. It was therefore with little surprise that Hannah should seek to wring out every last piece of weather resistance that her window frames might provide her with before she next opened her purse to pay for home improvements. If there were another few months wear in the dilapidated window frames before the sills fell out of their sockets, then Hannah wasn’t going to waste good money by changing them now!
Over 50 minutes had passed since I’d arrived at Hannah’s cottage and knocked on her door, I eventually heard it open and a grey-haired woman of polite demeanour emerged, wrapped snugly in an overcoat which I imagined to be approximately half my age. Hannah smiled and quietly said, ”I’m very pleased to meet you, Mr Forde. I hope your journey up here was trouble free?” After the shaking of hands, we made our way to Leeds, some 80 miles South where she was due to read to an assembly of school children in the early afternoon. Having experienced a meteoric rise to fame since she had first come to the nation’s attention, Hannah was being pressed by her agent to write her first book, a task she said filled her with trepidation.
We spoke extensively during our journey to Leeds and despite the absence of any formal school education, Hannah impressed as being one of the most, cultured, educated and most learned of persons I’d ever met or had the pleasure to talk with. The grammatical construction of her speech was faultless without sounding lardy-dardy. Her diction and the pronouncement of every vowel she spoke was clear and precise and would have made Eliza Doolittle’s speech coach (Professor Higgins) green with envy. It was as though her absence from human contact for long periods of her former life had kept her 'pure in thought and unadulterated in speech.'
Hannah displayed the art of being able to frame her spoken words in a way that could never cause doubt, embarrassment or offence, whatever message they conveyed to the listener’s ear. When asked if she ever missed her life on the farm she’d inhabited for 50 years and if she had ever been back there since she’d moved out, she replied,” I don’t miss it, Bill (She had called me Mr.Forde until I asked her to call me Bill). I have never been tempted to go back and see it. I couldn’t. My way of life is so different now and the vast difference has softened my bones too much.”
Hannah told me quite a bit about her early life on the 80-acre farm. After her parents and uncle had died, being a spinster, Hannah had run the farm on her own since her mid-30s. She said that she had never missed not being married as she had always been blessed with something to do from opening her eyes at the crack of dawn until she retired to bed with a book, around 9.00 pm. She said that the animals and the land were her companions and these two aspects of her daily routine always made sure that she never got above herself.
We arrived in Leeds in time for me to buy Hannah lunch at one of the large store restaurants. I offered to take her to one of the ‘upmarket’ establishments that Leeds has in abundance, but she declined, saying, “All I need is a sandwich and a nice pot of tea, Bill. We can get that over there,” she replied, pointing to one of the stores. As we entered the modest restaurant, a number of the store patrons instantly recognized the presence of a celebrity in their midst and approached our table. Some requested Hannah’s autograph, most merely wanted to shake her hand and others wanted to have a snap-shot taken alongside her. One or two simply wanted to have a few words with her. I tried to shield Hannah after she had dealt with the first dozen people approaching her whilst ignoring her food, but she told me that she enjoyed meeting new people. It was as though her 50 years life as a hermit on the moors had made the ‘meeting of people’ one of her greatest treats, and had kept it so.
However many people approached her and whoever she met that lunchtime pleased both celebrated diner and her hoard of fans. Hannah's entire manner was unhurried, thoughtful, elegant and entirely ladylike. In this respect, she reminded me of my good friend and TV gardener, the late Geoffrey Smith, who also had the capacity to attract the public like a human magnet wherever he went. Both displayed that easy going, all-the-time-in-the-world charming response whenever engaged in any social interchange with the public.They both revered nature and deeply respected all manner of animal and plant life. In fact, I'd go as far as saying, both Geoffrey and Hannah interacted with the forces of nature with such gentleness of grace, that they could easily have held hands as they jumped in loving embrace through a hoop of human laughter.
By the end of our lunch hour, I’d concluded that Hannah’s concept of time bore no relationship to that of yours or mine. If her house was on fire, there was no way that she would leave it in any measure of haste. She didn't impress me as being a woman who would ever run for a bus. If she caught it, she caught it and if she missed it, she’d simply wait patiently until the next one came along!
I also learned in later months that my one hour at the start of the day waiting for her to answer the door represented ‘no wait at all’. Barry Cockcroft told me and that it was not uncommon for longer to pass between the first knock at the door and it being opened by Hannah.
Her afternoon reading of the book ‘Nancy’s Song’ to the assembled school children was so engrossing that most of the listening audience was moved to tears as Hannah related the death of one of the book’s characters. Hannah may have done things slowly, but what she did, she did well, and it was done from the emotional core of her being. She slept during the long journey by car back home. We arrived back at her cottage around 9.00 pm and she offered me a cup of tea before I returned to my own abode.
Hannah had always been a hoarder. She was a woman who would not discard any object, large or small that could be reused. As I tried to climb her stairs to visit the lavatory, I had to negotiate each step precariously. In fact, whether one climbed upstairs or remained downstairs, every inch of possible space in her cottage was occupied by hundreds of items; all wrapped up in brown paper packages and neatly strung, as was common during the war years.
I had inadvertently discovered 'why' it had taken Hannah almost one hour to open the door earlier that day. It would have been impossible for even the agilest of mountaineers to have safely descended Hannah’s blocked staircase in much less than an hour. I’d also discovered why I hadn’t seen one sheet of brown paper since the 1950s. It was because Hannah had cornered it all in her Cotherstone cottage and she’d no intention of ever opening any of her stored packages again and releasing a mountain of brown paper back into society for recycling.
Since that lovely day I spent with Hannah, I never managed to speak with her again. I must have phoned her on a dozen occasions at various times of the day to find out how she was faring, but without success. I forgot though; Hannah had a tendency to treat the phone like she did the door, something to be responded to in her time; in ‘Hannah’s time.’ I also suspected that the telephone to Hannah still remained one of those new-fangled things. I'm willing to wager that she never answered the phone because it remained a 'strange contraption' to her, or perhaps she could never get to it before it rang off because she was unable to find the brown paper parcel it was hidden beneath! Still, its the prerogative of any lady to speak to whom she wants to, and only then, when she's ready to and not before!
While I never had access to her life after that lovely day we spent together, I feel blessed to have known such an innocent and lovely lady.
Copyright William Forde : February 2nd, 2018