Irene Cranwell 1910-2010
Reprinted from Saffron Walden Historical Journal No 19 Spring 2010
Local historian, Mrs Emily Irene Cranwell died at her home in Chrishall in January, just a few weeks short of her 100th birthday. Born Irene White at Clavering in 1910, she lived at Place Farm where her father worked. She left the village on her marriage in 1935, and had lived in the same cottage at Chrishall ever since. Irene became a gifted teacher of children with special needs, transforming the learning experience of many children at schools in Chrishall and Barkway. In Chrishall she established a museum collection of bygones, and researched widely on parish history. When she left teaching, this led her into a second career as a favourite broadcaster on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. She appeared in a regular slot on Christopher South’s BBC Radio Cambridge programme, having first met the broadcaster when he worked for the Saffron Walden Weekly News. Her unusually sharp recall for events and people, coupled with a wonderful gift for story-telling, can be seen in her vivid descriptions on radio. Through the radio, Irene Cranwell became known to thousands of listeners, speaking of local history, folklore and country wisdom. Her breadth of knowledge and memory for detail was astounding, and her contribution was recognised in 2006 with the Cambridgeshire Association of Local History Award. Her legacy lives on in recordings, the medium in which she excelled.
I first came across Mrs Cranwell at a Clavering Local History Group lecture in the 1980s, and remember well how mesmerising an experience it was – the past came alive. Her stories had a beginning and an end and a proper narrative theme. They conjured up a different world when, as an observant little girl, she saw the labour of men in the fields and the blacksmith in his forge; the village women in the First World War making garments for the troops; schooldays and church services and village fairs; the men walking home under a harvest moon and the sound of their hobnailed boots on the road. Irene Cranwell felt an almost mystical connection with the created world, and it seemed entirely fitting that at the end of her funeral service in Chrishall Church, after interment in the churchyard, two bowsmen let fly arrows over her grave, symbolically carrying her soul back to the earth in the fields below: a memorable end to a remarkable life.