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Hannah Hauxwell – This is my Life

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North Yorkshire is England’s largest county and one of the most rural comprising of the Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors, Vale of York and the coastal regions and they all have their own distinctive natural beauty. The county covers an area of 3,341 square miles and 40% of this area is covered by National Parks and with stunning moorland, beautiful dramatic to rolling hills, ancient woodland, a spectacular coastline, splendid waterfalls, many attractive villages and hamlets and many historic sites such as abbeys, castles, priories, stately homes and traditional pubs there is something for everyone of all ages to explore.

The Yorkshire Dales is an upland area of Northern England spanning westwards from the Vale of York, over the Pennines and into Cumbria. Known mainly as The Dales it has outstanding scenery, a diversity of wildlife habitats, a rich cultural heritage and peacefulness. The Yorkshire Dales National Park, created in 1954 and one of fifteen National Parks in Britain, has over twenty main dales each with their own unique character and atmosphere.  Most of the dales are named after their river or stream except Wensleydale which is named after the small village and former market town of Wensley rather than the River Ure. The Northern Dales are rugged and the Southern Dales are less remote but the dales, so beautiful, are littered and scared with ancient settlement sites, disused mineral workings, dry-stone walls and barns. The U and V shaped valleys, formed by glaciers, are mainly grazed by sheep and cattle and provides the hills for walkers and climbers and the valley bottoms for strollers and amblers.

Country Durham is a county in North East England. The county town is Durham a cathedral city. The largest settlement is Darlington followed by Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees. It borders Tyne and Wear to the northeast, Northumberland to the north, Cumbria to the west and North Yorkshire to the south.

Baldersdale is a valley on the east side of the Pennines north of Barnard Castle. Baldersdale lies within the boundaries of North Yorkshire but under provisions of the Local Government Act 1972 it was incorporated into County Durham for administrative purposes on 1st April 1974. Its main villages are Hury and Briscoe. The River Balder which flows through the valley flows through three reservoirs: Balderhead Reservoir, Blackton Reservoir and Hury Reservoir before reaching Cotherstone where it joins the River Tees.

Balderhead Reservoir was built upstream of two existing reservoirs, Blackton and Hury, and added 3,500 million imperial gallons to the storage capacity on the River Balder. The construction of Balderhead Dam began in 1961 and was finished in 1964, with the reservoir being flooded in 1965. The dam which was built of compacted boulder clay and shale is 157 feet high and 3,000 feet long and on completion became the highest earth dam constructed in the British Isles. There are two free car parks located at either side of the dam and a picnic area at the reservoir.

Blackton Reservoir, the smallest reservoir, is located immediately downstream of the much larger Balderhead Reservoir and being almost continuous with Hury Reservoir further downstream. This reservoir has two free car parks and a picnic area located at either side of the dam.

Hury Reservoir is named after the nearby village of Hury and lies about 3 miles west of Cotherstone. Along with Blackton and Balderhead reservoirs it supplies water for Teesdale and are all owned by Northumbrian Water. At the eastern end of the reservoir there are two free car parks one at either end of the dam, a picnic area and a single unisex public toilet.

Low Birk Hatt Farm is located on the northern shore at the western end of Blackton Reservoir. This was the home of hill farmer Hannah Hauxwell who was born on the 1st August 1926 and died on 30th January 2018 aged 91. Hannah moved into the farm with her parents at the age of three but tragically seven years later her father William died. Hannah then had to learn to work the land with her mother Lydia and Uncle Tommy and though the house filled with elderly relatives all had passed away by the time she was 34 in 1961. She then tended the farm alone leading a harsh, uncomplaining life 1,000ft up in Baldersdale. Although she was an extraordinary very well read character with an openness of speech she had rosy cheeks and dressed in a tatty old raincoat held together with garden twine and although she was very ladylike she never wore make-up, never married or had a boyfriend. She said she never wanted children but instead thought of her animals as offspring giving her cows names such as Her Ladyship, Puddles and Rosa her favourite.  She was so isolated that she never saw anybody for days or weeks on end the nearest road was 1½ miles away down a boggy track, where once a month, the grocer would leave her provisions. Her £5 budget came from the annual sale of a bullock and by renting out some of the land to neighbouring farms bought two loaves of bread, white for her and brown for her cat, milk, eggs and one tin of spam. Two chickens were delivered once a year from the man who did the hay making. The farm was often covered in snow for many months as temperatures plummeted to minus 15C and she admitted she hated the terrible winters which came too soon and stayed to long. She had no electricity or running water, her toilet was an earth closet, her clothes were washed in the reservoir and plastic bags containing food supplies were hung from the rafters away from rats. The coal fire was Hannah’s concession to comfort the one expense she refused to economise on. Her only entertainment was an old organ which she played beautifully, a battery operated radio and reading by the light of an oil lamp. She was approached by producer Barry Cockcroft and John Fairley looking for local people to make a TV series tentatively titled ‘The Hard Life’. In 1973 a TV documentary revealed the details of her stoical existence that someone could survive alone in such brutal and simple conditions. At this time she was aged just 46 but with strikingly white hair of a much older woman, Hannah had spent more than a decade alone at Low Birk Hatt farm, eking out a meagre living from its 80 acres of land. She had no wish for fame and had never even watched television. The response to the documentary was overwhelming with countries around the world bidding for transmission rights. The phone lines at Yorkshire Television were jammed for days and the lanes around Hannah’s home filled with tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the unlikely star. Bulging sacks of letters, many containing cheques or postal orders, poured in addressed to ‘the old lady in the TV programme somewhere in the Yorkshire Dales’. The documentary had such an impact that it led to three more documentaries and six books. Hannah’s new-found fame had little impact on her lifestyle and she steadfastly refused to leave the farm. Money was spent on more cattle rather than home comforts. It did, however, give Hannah the opportunity to see a rather different life, one of many invitations she received was to a prestigious Women of the Year lunch in 1977. It was her first trip to London she marvelled at the 100mph train ride to King’s Cross station and chatted amiably to the Duchess of Gloucester. Most overwhelming was her stay at The Savoy. She returned to London in 1980 to attend a Royal Garden Party in honour of the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday but she found London lonely because she said nobody said ‘hello’ as they would in Yorkshire. By 1988 Hannah was taking tablets for angina and could not live at the farm safely. In 1989 under much distress she tearfully moved six miles to the village of Cotherstone which had central heating, hot water and even a phone. She never returned to Low Birk Hatt and lived her final years in a nursing home in West Auckland, County Durham.

The Walk

From the car park take the gate on the left to the edge of the reservoir and head forward between the shore and the wall on our right. We turn right through a gate then cross over bridge on the left and continue following the reservoir. We cross another bridge and keep following the path at the other side pass a weir. We go through a gate and keep heading forward to Blackton Reservoir. We go through a gate following the path with the wall on our right. We shortly cross over a bridge and continue close to the reservoir on our left and the wall on our right. When we arrive at the building, Low Birk Hatt Farm, we turn right through a wooden gate then right again through a metal gate. At the front of the farm we turn left up the tarmac track through Hannah’s Meadow. At the wall we turn left along the walk boards towards the farm. Inside the stone barn on the left holds information about Hannah and her life. We then go up to the farm and turn left through the gate. We continue past the farm then take the stile on the right next to another barn. We turn left through to cross over another stile. In front of us is Balderhead Reservoir but we turn left and follow the wall downhill. At the track we turn left then turn right over the bridge. At the wall we turn left then cross a bridge and go through a gate then head forwards on the grass path following the footpath sign Pennine Way. We cross over a wall and bear slightly right to cross a stile. We head forward cross a bridge and turn left uphill on the track. At the gate we bear right uphill to the gate in the top left hand corner. We keep heading forwards through fields passing to the left of three buildings/farms. When we come to fourth building which is on our left we head along the track to cross straight over a minor road. We continue to head forward through the fields until we come to some buildings opposite the dam of Hury Reservoir. We turn left through the buildings to the road then turn left then right to cross Hury Reservoir dam back to the car park.

Terrain

This is an easy low level walk on grass/gravel/tarmac paths and tracks. There are some gates and stiles.

Elevation: approx lowest point 260.50m (854.66ft) approx highest point 337.90m (1108.60ft) approx ascent 142.40m (467.19ft)

Distance and Start Point

Approx 6.6 miles allow 2½ – 3 hours using OS Explorer Map OL31, North Pennines, Teesdale and Weardale. This walk is done anti-clockwise.

Start point: car park on the north side of Hurry Reservoir dam.

Location

Hury, Blackton and Balderhead Reservoirs are in Baldersdale in North Yorkshire / County Durham.

Directions and Parking

From the A66 take the B6277 to Barnard Castle then continue on the same road through Lartington to Cotherstone. At the end of Cotherstone and just before a river bridge take the single track road on the left signposted Blackton Reservoir and Hury reservoir. Follow this road and at the y-junction bear right and pass over a bridge. The car park is on the left.

Parking: free car park and picnic area with single unisex public toilet.

Toilets and Refreshments

There is a public unisex toilet in the car park and also a picnic area. For refreshments there is the Strathmore Arms close to the car park. There are also toilets and many shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants in Barnard Castle.

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