It’s a Story of Love

Maureen Colquhoun & Babs Todd and their interconnectedness with iconic women past and present

It’s a story of love. It is also a story about the interconnectedness of women and northern landscapes, of shared community through generations, through time and place – specifically, Ambleside, Cumbria.

Our story starts with the writer and activist Harriet Martineau, who moved to Ambleside in 1845 to live and write as an independent woman, away from a society that didn’t see the possibility of female independence from men. A journalist and international correspondent, Martineau was Britain’s best-known female writer at the time. She built a house in Ambleside that looked on to the Loughrigg Fells and, when she died in 1876, she was eulogised across Britain, Europe and America. She had a wide range of interests and pioneered the sociological method to observe the world around her, from religion in Egypt to slavery in America and the rights of women everywhere. She wrote about economics for those outside the elite and, due to her popularity, was invited to the coronation of Queen Victoria, one of her readers. Harriet was 43 when she moved to Ambleside, and stayed there for the rest of her life.

Fast-forward over 100 years, and two women flee London for a life away from the prying eyes of misogynistic and homophobic society to live in Cumbria. This was Babs Todd, writer, actor, activist and publisher of 1970s lesbian magazine Sappho, along with her wife, the activist, writer and Britain’s first openly lesbian MP, the legendary Maureen Colquhoun. Maureen and Babs’ relationship began in 1975, when both were working mothers who campaigned passionately for women’s rights. They were fearless and determined – in 1979, Maureen introduced the Protection of Prostitutes Bill into the House of Commons, turning up with 50 prostitutes in order to campaign for the decriminalisation of prostitution. Homophobic society couldn’t handle the brilliance of Maureen and Babs. They were hounded by the press and paparazzi.

Harriet Martineau.

Understandably, life in London lost its pull, the Lake District called them, and they decided to move to Cumbria. In 1992 Babs and Maureen found a house for sale, the house built by Harriet Martineau in 1845, The Knoll, in Ambleside.

Later Maureen served on the Lakes Parish Council. Equal rights continued to run through her political activity. She argued that members of the park authority should disclose their membership of the Freemasons. Babs didn’t know why, but she was drawn to Ambleside. She spoke about this moment as a significant suggestion, an intuitive knowing.

Maureen: We couldn’t afford anything.
Babs: But anyway I said – you know how rainy it can get, you’ve been through the rainy bits here, it was like that – I said ‘I don’t know why I am saying this but have you the energy to drive over the Kirkstone Pass and let’s drop down near the Ambleside side and look there?’ and Maureen said ‘But you’ve never liked Ambleside, you said it’s a horrible little touristy village’ and I said: ‘well I know, but before we go home let’s just try…’ So we came down to an estate agents just down the road here and I saw this house up on the notice board and I said ‘Maureen – I think that’s Harriet Martineau’s house!’ … and she said ‘well, let’s go and have a look at it’
So in the drizzly rain, we walked up this driveway and the sun came out, and we saw the view from the terrace and I said ‘we’re having it, go and get the money!’

– from a recording made in 2018

The Knoll.

They lived in Ambleside with their art, activism, love and marriage in the house Harriet built and continued to look out onto the view of Loughrigg, through the window that Harriet had placed just so.

Maureen Colquhoun by the window.

The story continues.
Fast-forward again to 2018, when we, working as the northern artist collective ‘F=’, meet Babs and Maureen. We found ourselves in Ambleside at the Armitt Museum in search of Harriet, sparked by her enthusiasm and use of mesmerism, a precursor to hypnotism.

Mesmerism was believed to have healing powers through the transferral of energy and the creation of trance like states. Harriet claimed mesmerism healed her long-term illnesses. Mesmerism developed into hypnotism; a state in which the conscious and unconscious minds are woven into a higher consciousness capable of creativity and transformation. This altered state of mind or trance is akin to the creative flow state and also is in the lineages of shamanism and meditation.

Set the scene. Following the clues, we traced a path from the Armitt Museum to Harriet’s old stone-built house, and this was when we first met Babs and Maureen. Babs we knew had written the book ‘Harriet Martineau at Ambleside’ and, a trained actor, also dressed as Harriet, sometimes performing her famous orations throughout the town.

Here sparked a friendship. We had the sense that these conversations between women – about politics, through books, performances and activism – flip-flopped back and forth through time, through a shared house where the view from the window is both in the constant flux of weather and light, and at the same time has not changed one bit since Harriet built her house around the window that framed her beloved view of Loughrigg.

We became friends with Maureen and Babs late in their lives. Babs was 89 when she died in February 2020 and Maureen was 92 when she died a year later in February 2021. Their deaths marked the beginning and end of that first year of Covid, a year of beginnings and endings.

Are you still with us?
In summer 2021 we gratefully returned – and this time we dressed as Babs and Maureen, just as Babs had dressed as Harriet. We became them. We imagined their early years in Ambleside, and their relief at the escape they’d made.

Laura as Maureen and Casey as Babs climb up Loughrigg and gaze down at Ambleside.

Laura as Maureen and Casey as Babs on the driveway at The Knoll, Ambleside, the house that Harriet built.

It was love in the time of Covid – we remembered them and celebrated knowing them, diving into the lakes and diving into them and their incredible histories. We climbed their mountain, looking across the shared landscape that had soothed and supported them. The ancient paths walked by Babs and Maureen, by Harriet who believed that to really learn about society, we should get on top of a high point and see how the land lies and how it’s used.

We were giddy on Maureen and Babs’ love of each other and what their story had given us. In this time of the pandemic, that brought so much separation, we memorialised Babs and Maureen’s sweet and powerful connections and friendships. We comforted in the belonging we felt as part of these past lives, and in the beauty of the mountains and lakes who accept us, who never judge. We comforted in making art together, in this time of separation, of the terrible and frightening world unfolding through the pandemic.

Laura as Maureen and Casey as Babs rest by their grave in St. Mary The Virgin Churchyard, Ambleside, happily remembering their friendship.

Laura as Maureen and Casey as Babs hold time together. Rydal Water, Cumbria.

To be with these women beyond their deaths helped us to understand our relationships, concerns, struggles and loves as shared experiences throughout generations.

How does it end?
The story continues. It becomes yours.
Ambleside and these women became a community for us, we felt we belonged with them in this nature. Babs and Maureen are in the earth of Ambleside, becoming the landscape. Getting to know Harriet, Babs and Maureen and remembering that time now reminds us that when people die, your relationships continue, they carry on through conversations, through writing and ideas, through art and through the landscape.

Harriet, Babs and Maureen remind us, too, that life is short, that love is sweet and that brave women walk in each others’ shoes and sometimes wear each other, like clothes.

The group together at The Knoll.

The window at The Knoll.

Opening image Maureen and Babs at The Knoll.

Words by Casey Orr & Laura Robinson Photography by Casey Orr
Art by Laura Robinson

Laura Robinson is a Leeds based artist. Casey Orr is a photographer and artist. Saturday Town is Orr’s award winning photographic portrait project. Since 2013 she has travelled the UK with a pop up portrait studio photographing youth culture whilst exploring identity and self expression. Saturday Town is a regular collaborator with Queer Cumbria and is in Cumbria throughout 2024. @caseyorrphoto / @saturdaytownphoto.