This Lonely Lady From Low Birk Hat Talks To Alec Donaldson
Could you live on £ 170 a year – and be happy? It can’t be done, you say? It’s possible, you know, but for proof you’ll have to explore one of the northernmost parts of the Yorkshire Pennines.
You should find Miss Hannah Hauxwell very feminine in her masculine work clothes, who has a small farm deep in the quiet confines of Baldersdale.
She is quite happy, far from the world of the lowland that she rarely visits, with her £ 170 a year.
His detachment is remarkable. Out of deference to my calling, no doubt, she asked me at one point, “That Mr. Anthony Gray, the gentleman of Reuters, has he ever been freed by the Chinese?”
Nothing could have underlined Miss Hauxwell’s loneliness in the distant world of her valley so much. The owner of Low Birk Hat Farm had no idea what the rest of the world had been through these many months
She only sees newspapers when they are abandoned, sometimes by her few friends. His radio is not working. Neighbors are few in these remote and desolate regions. Still, she has around £ 170 a year and is happy.
Low Birk Hat, about 1,000 feet above sea level, sits on the edge of the ground that drops sharply to the top of Blackton Reservoir, the middle of three man-made lakes with a striking valley west to Cotherstone in Teesdale in the Pennines.
Its limited acres make for a small world of last year’s wilted grasses, powdery snow, and a cold wind that whistles or howls depending on the mood.
The land covers approximately 80 acres. Thirty-seven of them are described by Miss Hauxwell as meadows; the other 43 or so are much rougher.
She arrived at Low Birk Hat at the age of three, although the family has had her for over a hundred years. She is deeply attached to it.
“I don’t have another home. I love this campaign. I love privacy and I love freedom, she says. So here it is… with a farm, 80 acres of farmland and £ 170 a year. And she is happy.
Her mother died 12 years ago; her uncles, who had lived with her mother and daughter nine years ago. At around 34, she found herself alone with Low Birk Hat and her sour acres.
Thought for most of her life she worked outdoors, she knew she alone could not cultivate Low Birk Hat like he had been. She therefore sold the thirty or so dairy cows and left the land in the subdivision to neighbors for grazing sheep and the land in reserve for summer cattle.
This rental of land constitutes his main source of very limited income.
Hannah Hauxwell is 43 years old. Her life has been hard, but she has a smooth pink and white face. Her hair is graying, her hands, primed for work, are fine and sensitive.
She has a curious grace and courtesy out of this century in speech and manners. She even shows a woman’s concern for the ritual of preparing and serving tea, despite her old Harris tweed jacket, gum panties and boots.
She must draw water from a stream some distance away. In winter, when the highlands around her house are so snowy that the outlines are rounded, she has to dig up to the stream to reach that water.
There is also no electricity or gas at Low Birk Hat. The lamps are used for winter lighting; charcoal and wood for cooking.
In summer it’s different. Miss Hauxwell, on the freezing cold day I visited her, spoke longingly and hopefully about summer. “Ah, so it’s really beautiful,” she said. “You couldn’t ask for a better place when the days are long and the air warm.
Then she can make hay for her own herd of three or four head of cattle that she overwinters indoors.
Then she can go around the farm repairing the dressed stone walls, putting stakes where they are needed, and spreading a lot.
Then this single, independent woman who has no siblings or other close relatives can expect visitors other than the postman and her few other visitors.
Because Low Birk Hat is standing on the Pennine Way, and by May she can expect her very toned down traffic to start. She looks forward to this and is obviously flattered when people greet her with a “We saw you last year and wondered how you could be alone.”
Oh yes, when May arrives, the hold of loneliness on Low Birk Hat is loosened – reluctantly and almost imperceptibly.
Her needs are few which is also good, as she has to budget carefully. The coal – a heavy object – is delivered to his home by the closed gras-twack of CLove Lodge about a mile and a half across the valley.
She has to walk three fields to a door to collect her bread where it is left. She travels from other fields to High Birk Hat (“I have good neighbors over there”) where her groceries are delivered.
She considers herself “not good at cooking and baking because much of my life has been spent outdoors,” but sews to save on personal and household needs.
Is this life sufficient or satisfying, even so far from financially rewarding? Is there enough work, in the household and in the places, to occupy it?
“Well, I have more to do than I can do,” she said. “I know I’m not one of the fastest or most capable women out there, but I kept going so much that I could really do with more time.
Does she move away from Low Birk Hat, perhaps to go to the Barnard Castle auction when she has a beast for sale?
“No, I don’t think I’m a business woman, and that’s what is for me,” she replies. “I had only been out of the valley five times last year. Four times I had to go to Barnard Castle on business, and once I visited a half-cousin in Mickleton, a few miles away.
She talks animatedly about the time two years ago she spent in a Northallerton hospital. She had gotten “pretty bad” and the staff and other patients were “very, very nice.” His eyes lit up with the memory of this intimate contact with other humans in a nearby community.
Is his life to recommend to others?
She thinks and ponders, as she does with every question. Then, with unexpected politeness, which is so unusual, she replies: “I think this may not be recommended. It’s too extreme. My income is very low and I try to keep expenses down to £ 150. Computing is inadequate and barely provides the basic necessities of life.
This is not about complaining or criticizing one’s own oddly remote place in British society. It is simply a comment in response to a request.
Miss Hauxwell continues: “I guess there is a happy medium. I think it would be nicer to see a few more people and hear something about what’s going on in the world.
“Yes, I have sometimes thought about leaving, and I guess as I get older I will have to think about it more and more. But for the moment it’s my home. I have not known another.
She has few pleasures outside of her job. She enjoys reading, although it becomes a restricted pleasure because of the eye pain.
She loves the birds around her houses; the swans and geese and ducks on the reservoir below, the curlews bubbling in the highlands around her, and the owls crying around the house.
She enjoys the pleasure, which most peasants know, of gluing or collecting kindling and larger wood for her fire. And she loves to play the harmonium (“I play simple things for my own entertainment”) which is a big part of her living kitchen.
You might wish to greet, as I do, the Lonely Lady of Low Birk Hat… distant and independent but quietly content with her high altitude location far from a world she tends to ignore.