‘Delightful Mary’ as she is known, has had a colourful life. Having been educated at Eton, she was a driving force in the adventures of her former husband, Polar explorer Pen Hadow. She now runs a luxury Bed and Breakfast on the Moor. The road to this solitary house, it seems, has more twists and turns than first meet the eye.
“Well hello.” Mary welcomes me into her beautiful home, a remote house that manages to render the satnav useless. Over coffee, Mary dives in to her childhood. “I was born in Slough, absolute horror of a place,” I am told, “I’ll never forgive my mum for that.” As a girl she can boast the rare claim of being educated at Eton –the elite boy’s school. “My father was a scholar at Eton for fifty years, so I could study for my A-levels for £65 per term, it was a no brainer I suppose.”
Unsurprisingly, Mary had a number of well known names in her year. “There were a lot of big characters, Hugh Laurie was there, he was the funniest person I’ve ever met. Even funnier in real life if you can believe it. In ‘House’ he just plays himself with an American accent.”
As the master’s daughter the expectation to excel academically was ever present. The pressure was huge, “I was being watched closely, all of the time. I didn’t get very good A-Levels.” Mary won’t disclose her actual results to me, what did she get? “Not telling” she replies. After finishing school and a brief jaunt in London, Mary came to Exeter. Going from the big smoke to Devon was a contrasting move.
“After being at Eton I was relived to see there were other girls. I didn’t know who I was then, whether I was an Eton girl or what, I didn’t know where I fitted. I soon went into Public Relations for a career. I think if you can do PR then you can do anything, it’s just selling,” I’m told, “I wasn’t good enough to become the MD of my PR consultancy, but I loved it.” Whilst working in public relations Mary met Pen Hadow, her future husband and renowned Arctic explorer.
After being together for some time, the couple decided that now was the time for Pen to pursue a rather unorthodox career. “We decided he would become a North Pole guide, he wanted to move to Scotland for the terrain and proximity to the Pole. So I said why not move to Dartmoor? It’s a bit like Scotland only nearer to civilisation slightly better weather and fewer midges.”
As Mary makes me another coffee, the Dartmoor weather lashes and howls at the window of the guesthouse. After deciding Dartmoor was for them, Mary and Pen viewed the house we’re currently sat in. Now, a homely B&B complete with a cute dog who’s decided to play hide-and-seek with my shoes. This home, however, had a long road to becoming the cosy guesthouse it is today.
“Pen and I came to view the house we’re sat in now. It was a disused adventure centre, completely run down and filled with 36 bunk beds. Freezing cold! The water was unreliable and it was a complete mess inside.”
From here Mary and Pen would launch their Polar Travel Company. “I’ve always been good at publicity; my boast is that I can make anyone famous. To launch the company, we put on a bit of a publicity stunt, we hired the only Ski-doo in the UK at the time and parked it outside Harrods with Pen licking a Cornetto during a heatwave.”
“Off the back of the publicity we planned an expedition, my friend Caroline said she wanted to go to the North Pole but she had no money. So we decided to do a relay, the first all-women expedition with girls that had never even been camping, or north of Newcastle for that matter. Soon after the publicity stunt, they realised that Pen had forgotten to set up a phone number for the expedition with BT, meaning the whole stunt was pointless if they couldn’t be contacted by the press. Pen, I am told, is a very intelligent man, but sometimes his common sense misfires. Eventually, The Telegraph called about the trip, having received lots of phone calls from people interested in joining the expedition with plenty signing up to the first all-women walk to the Pole.
The welfare of these new recruits was firmly in their hands. Pen and Mary had to make sure that the women were suitable for the difficult trip and Dartmoor made a great training ground. “We had one hundred women sleeping in the barn here, it rained endlessly and they started getting hyperthermia. We had to send some to the Plume of Feathers at Princetown.
‘The plan was to pick the best twenty people for the trip out of this lot. We got sponsorship from Neutrogena, oddly. We had lots of publicity but we made no profit and were investigated by the auditor’s office, which cost us even more in solicitor’s fees.
The girls couldn’t know how we were struggling financially, they needed to have full confidence in us. I never thought they’d actually make it there, not in a million years, but they did! We had four teams that made it, the final team was waiting to be flown to take over but we didn’t have enough money to collect them. I had to call The Daily Mail and offer an exclusive interview, I managed to sell it for fifteen grand.”
Although the trip and training for it had taken its toll on Pen. “I don’t think the girls know what it put Pen through, he had pneumonia at the time and there was so much pressure.”
The story has recently attracted interest from major film studios, but Mary isn’t delighted by the prospect. In the year of the #Metoo movement and women’s equality being at the forefront of the arts, Mary is concerned about the timing of the interest. “I became anxious that the film would become a calendar-girls style film. The person at Disney is interested in showcasing the women as the heroines but it concerns me; the executive told me it wouldn’t be about Pen but the women on the trip.”
“When the teams finally arrived back Dawn French was there to meet us as our patron, she snuck in the back. I called 10 Downing street as its normal for Prime Ministers to meet travellers after successful expeditions. They said he [Tony Blair] was busy that day offered us to come for dinner. How many can I bring I asked? As many as you like. We all turned up at number 10. Tony Blair is actually quite an awkward person when you meet him. Pen and Tony are very similar, I met him later and asked him if he wanted Pen as a body double, I forgot that body doubles are meant to be shorter. We had a private dinner with The Queen some time after, I pointed it out to her and she popped on her glasses and said “Oh, yes. I know what you mean.”
Although the women’s only relay was a success Pen’s goal was always to be the first person to walk alone to the North Pole. He managed it on his fourth attempt. “I just wanted him to achieve it and feel good about himself. Three failed attempts take it out of you. If you’re attempting something that’s never been done it makes its quite a depressing business. I think that’s where our marriage ended. I never questioned whether he could do it or not, I have almost zero imagination so I never really worried about him whilst he was doing it. I just worried about him not making it.”
Pen being away on his adventures eventually took its toll on Mary as she juggled a plethora of work and family commitments. “When Pen was getting close to the North Pole I was in contact with him through third parties. I was stuck with two toddlers in my Dartmoor cottage. I was pretending to be based in London as I had PR clients who needed to think I was down the road from all the journalists on Fleet Street. And I was five months pregnant!”
The Foot and Mouth epidemic then struck. “The Moor was on lockdown. One day the fire alarm went off and the fire engine had to be washed five times before it could leave my land.” Mary’s isolation now had a whole new meaning.
After Pen reached the Pole the press ran riot with fake stories about him being close to death. It helped them to secure appearances on national news when he returned. The trip was over but, so it would seem, was their marriage.
“After the divorce we agreed that I would get the house. So I had to make the house work. I absolutely love running a B&B, my guests all love it here.”
As a luxury B&B Mary’s Tripadvisor is rated almost completely with five star reviews. It’s an accolade that Mary is certainly proud of, but she likes to do things her way. “I absolutely refuse to serve breakfast before 9am and my guests absolutely love it here, if I’m ever feeling a bit down I look at my Tripadvisor.”
Mary has since written a series of books about her life, between divorce and setting up a rural guesthouse entitled Back on the Shelf; a collection of thoughts and observations of getting back on the dating scene whilst living in the middle of nowhere. “I wasn’t good enough for a column, I was too posh, too privileged. I wrote most of the books under the name of Mary Nicholson, I didn’t want to be using the Hadow name. I published it myself and I’ve sold 750 copies.”
Mary is always happy to exploit free publicity, whilst having a bit of fun with it. She featured on the Channel 4 show Four in a Bed, falling foul of one the contestants accusing her of unfair criticism. What was the complaint? “A worm in the toilet,” the ‘bum-worm’ as she calls it. Channel 4 took the episode off their website because I said they were purposely stirring things.”
Luckily, Mary has someone to fight her corner – a fan named Gordon who sends her e-cards every day. “Gordon set up an e-petition to have Channel 4 re-instate the Four in a Bed episode online,” I am told.
“He berates the producers regularly for me.” Whether Channel 4 will listen to Gordon, or Mary, remains to be seen. However one thing is for certain – they don’t make characters like Mary any more.