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Irene Clegg 1929 - 2011 PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Eager   
Tuesday, 18 October 2011 00:00

Ledbury lost one its most remarkable parishioners this month with the passing of Irene Clegg.

Irene spent the best part of her life in and around Ledbury and Herefordshire enjoying a life rich with family and friends, finding a love for the natural world by living off the land and discovering a relationship with God that affected not only her life, but that touched those around her.



Irene Gooding on Ledbury PortalBorn in Blackheath, South London on 27th February 1929, Irene was the only child to Walter and Amy Gooding. Her father was a scientific instrument maker at Siemanns in Greenwich working 10 hours a day, five and half days a week for a £5 wage.

"I loved him and my earliest memories are of waiting at our front gate in the evenings for him to come home from work. I would run to meet him and he would swing me up in the air."

Irene's grandmother lived with the family and they enjoyed their spare time listening to the radio, dancing and singing and going to the pictures at the Children's Cinema Club on Saturday mornings.Irene Gooding on Ledbury Portal

"One precious memory of those days is of walking home in the dark on a foggy night when the fog was so thick that you couldn't see a hand in front of your face - we used to call it a pea-souper - and holding my dad's hand very tightly. I could feel the warmth of him right through the two pairs of gloves."

World War Two arrived and had a big effect on Irene. Her father was called up into the army, their house was bombed, she became an evacuee, endured black outs, gas mask training and rationing, did landwork and finally celebrated VE Day with the crowds in London.

"One day walking home from school in the summer of 1941, my mum and nan had come to meet me and it was a wonderfully warm and sunny day. As we walked down the road we heard an aeroplane buzzing along overhead (nothing unusual about that - the Battle of Britain was on and we were used to seeing our spitfires and hurricanes flying over.)

"Suddenly my mum gave a shout, grabbed hold of nan and I and pushed us into a hedge at the side of the road - into the ditch that was alongside the hedge. As she did, we heard something go ping, ping, ping along the road where we had been walking. It was a German fighter plane and he had zoomed down to machine gun us. What sort of person would do that to a small group of females?"

Stroud High School was an oasis of calm and tranquility as the war raged on. Amid its beautiful grounds and buildings and kind staff, Irene found the lure of the library with its oak panelling and log fire. Here she would write out the words of hymns all afternoon as a punishment for forgetting to take her gym shoes.

"It wasn't surprising that I often 'forgot' my kit. I hated games."

Irene took a Saturday job as a nanny helping in a nursery, befriended the district nurse and later got a job as an usherette at the local cinema.

"Mr Mason would walk up and down the aisles during the intervals and spray some kind of air freshener over the heads of the seated customers - no one complained."

Irene had nursing ambitions; she joined the Junior Red Cross and was soon promoted to Quartermaster. She passed various nursing certificates, learnt First Aid and even learnt how to deal with unexploded bombs.

At home she continued to enjoy family music evenings and joined the chapel choir .

When Irene left school she went to work at Southgate Hospital as a probationer nurse. Her excitement soon turned to disillusion, when she found her only duties were cleaning and she received no training.

"So I made up my mind to leave and in the dusk of one evening I slipped away with my little suitcase in my hand and made my way to my nan's house."

Irene worked as an au pair before taking a job in a maternity hospital, LISS in Bordon. It was during this time Irene met her first husband, Eric Middlemiss. After a courtship of dances, concerts and cinema they were married in 1948 in the garrison church.

"I could not get a white dress because of coupons but borrowed one - white moss crepe with long sleeves, a beautiful veil and a small train which was carried by my matron of honour, Olive Foulkes. We honeymooned  in the George and Dragon pub in Coombe Martin."

Irene was 19 and Eric was 21.

On 26th March, 1950 Irene's first son Jeff was born. The family moved to Lydd in Kent and Irene took a job as an uncertified teacher at the local school. Three years later Jeff's sister Janet was born.

"The local midwife was a lovely soul and when the baby didn't put in her appearance at the right time, the nurse gave me a glass of castor oil mixed with orange juice to make it easier to swallow - followed by a bumpy drive down the back road to the sea-shore and then a very bumpy ride along the actual beach - this did the trick and Janet made her safe arrival."

However the marriage was not to last and three years later they were divorced.

"In those days divorce was not accepted as being "respectable" and took a very long and complicated process... My two cousins in London had always kept in touch with me.. but when I wrote and told them of the divorce they never communicated with me again - it didn't matter that I was 'the innocent party' - divorce was a disgrace and they could not countenance it. Sad."

Irene with her father Walter on Ledbury PortalA year later and Irene was married again, to a demobbed soldier with a diploma in agriculture. On 29th June 1957 Irene married Wilf Clegg and they moved to a little cottage in Woolhope.

"It was not until after we moved into the cottage that we realised there was no electric light! We went to switch on a light as it grew dark and found no switch - no bulbs - no nothing!!!

"Next morning, as we talked to people in the village shop, we found out that there was no electricity in the village! Oh dear... and so we had to go into Hereford and buy oil lamps and a battery wireless - even a calor gas iron - we could hardly believe it, but there we were. It took three years before electricity came to the village!"

The shock of moving from the South to the West of England, from urban to rural life manifested itself throughout their daily life. Water was drawn from a well ("cold and lovely"), Irene learnt to skin and gut rabbits, live poultry was bought and sold at market, firewood collected and chopped and the toilet was a lean-to with a seat over the ditch.

"Deep down I loved it... this was REAL life."

Soon Irene was expecting again and in December 1958 John Henry was born. As a boy, John later adopted the name of Jake after the radio character 'black Jake the pirate'.

However, Irene and Wilf both felt a presence in the house - at first benign, but becoming increasing malevolent. It was the ghost of George, who had lived and died there some years before. After a kitchen fire, a brown rat discovered in John's cot and, the last straw, the oil stove smoking black soot everywhere, they decided to leave, almost immediately. Two days after Christmas they hired a tractor and moved to two dilapidated cottages on the far edge of Broadmoor Common near Woolhope. They converted the cottages into one house and Irene fell in love with place.

The family had a magnificent view over Haugh Wood with a babbling brook from which deer would drink.

"In the quiet half light of the evenings owls, badgers, foxes and rabbits were our regular companions - it was very spartan, but a wonderful way for children to be brought up."

They kept pigs, chickens and goats and lived the good life.

After being a 'legal' member of the Anglican Church since 1941, at the age of 31 Irene discovered "what it meant to be a Christian" and on September 13th 1960 she became a born again Christian.

"We always had a 'larder' full of food - sacks of vegetables, potatoes and flour all stored inside huge barrels to protect from mice and damp; apples on trays under beds and jars of preserves filling the shelves till they almost bent with the weight.

"There was always enough to spare so that when Harvest Festival came round we could contribute to the display in the chapel. It was customary for everyone to take produce and then that was distributed to the old and poor of the village. It was something that had gone on for years and was just a great time for rejoicing and sharing - good neighbourliness."

They made good friends with their neighbours and regularly went to chapel. They renamed the cottage 'Sleepy Hollow' after an incident in which a neighbour had imagined a highwayman stalking him in the woods. It turned out to be an old stag.

"Venison casserole is a tasty dish and most nutritious. We also got pheasants from him and one or two rabbits and I soon became proficient at skinning these and gutting them."

In 1963 Irene had her fourth and final child, Rebecca.

Irene Clegg making the news on Ledbury PortalAttending chapel influenced Irene to start a small Sunday School. She also started Sunday School by Post for rural families across the country funded by The Farmers Christian Postal Service, which she became secretary of. Circulation rose from 100 to 1,000 in a couple of years and lasted until 1990 when it was no longer needed.

The Farmer's Christian Postal Service was very important to Irene and she put much work and effort into making it a success.

Having left Sleepy Hollow in 1964, the family then "escaped" to a house in Munsley after spending two years in "dreaded" Bromsash, near Ross-on-Wye.The new house had two acres of land and they set up a small pig farm with chickens and goats, while renovating the house.

Just before Christmas in 1969, Irene and Wilf separated. Irene stayed put and renamed the house Sleepy Hollow ("II").

In the early 1970s Irene became school secretary at Ashperton school, where her job gave her various duties. She enjoyed the company of the children and the working relationships with staff and parents. Irene described it as a happy and caring school and singled out Jean Istance as an unorthodox teacher who would suddenly finish a lesson and take the children outside for country dancing or rounders.

"Several of the children were from gipsy stock and their parents were working the land - so whenever it was obvious that some had missed a breakfast, Jean would insist that they had some hot buttered toast and a warm drink before beginning lessons."

Irene started to take in a few children on a temporary basis for social services, in effect giving them short holidays to give their parents a break.

Through Irene's friendship with Ian Sim, the Minister of the Baptist Church, she was given a second hand caravan to provide free holidays for rural people in need of a break. The caravan was parked up at Sleepy Hollow. Irene described the venture as exciting and successful and got to meet all manner of people from those looking for a quiet retreat to young families looking for a holiday.

"One day an ex-farming friend from Gloucester asked if we could help an ex-prisoner friend of theirs who was homeless, had two artificial hips and was "in a bad way". Don eventually rolled up with an old Robin Reliant car and DJ, a sheep dog. He was a rough diamond, but kept himself to himself and gave no trouble at all; he made home-made wine, grew himself some tomatoes and rolled his own cigarettes. Don turned out to be a helpful friend and later performed some useful services for us."

Meanwhile, Irene's daughter Janet had left school and was working with Social Services in Worcester. She was attending a popular house fellowship at Derek Gitsham's place with a large number of like minded people. Irene started taking Jake and Becky and they would spend the whole Saturday there. It is here that Irene met Dr Douglas Calcott and his wife Elizabeth, who became Irene's "spiritual parents" and lifelong friends.

"This fellowship came to quite an abrupt end, sadly, and we stopped going over there, but nothing in the way of church life or fellowship has ever been quite the same since."

Irene heard about an appeal by the Fellowship for Evangelising Britain's Villages asking for people to offer accommodation for young people who wanted to live and work in villages. Irene wrote and invited Gill Aizlewod to come and live with the family at Sleepy Hollow.

"She was a lovely girl who had trained at the Welsh Bible College near Swansea. She came, complete with her bicycle, and visited schools and homes in the area, being very well received by all the locals, and we even ran a Sunday School for a while."

Irene's second son Jake had always wanted to follow his brother Jeff into the police force. Jake moved down to London waiting till he was 18 to join the force. However, it seemed that he changed his mind. He returned to Sleepy Hollow with Chris Dale and announced they were off to live in a cave in Wales.

"It was such a relief to see Jake again, but I was deeply grieved by the state he was in - mentally, physically and spiritually.

"One good thing was that he never quite lost touch with us - I am thankful for that but many problems lay ahead, with a police record, non-communication, anger against the world and me.

"I resolved in those dark days that I would always be there for him, and would pray every day for him to come back to his senses.

"I also adopted the idea that if I wanted people to 'befriend' him on his various travels, I needed to 'befriend' anyone who crossed my path - that was to lead me down some very strange routes, but I truly believe it was an idea given to me by God."

Little did Irene know it, but this line of thinking was to take her on her own journey into the biker and drug scene. Jake's friend Chris decided to stay at Sleepy Hollow and over the years he was visited by his friends and family.

"We began to learn about cannabis, drugs, injections, courts, police raids, fines, imprisonment.

"Funnily enough as I ran the Information Centre for the F.C.P.S., I was beginning to get requests for help and advice from farming families all over the country, whose youngsters were beginning to get involved in drugs."

The Christian Information Centre was set up by Irene in the early 1980s. Her idea behind the centre was to inform visitors to the area of Christian groups, meetings and events of all denominations.

Irene was working as an assistant in the science labs at the Ledbury Grammar School with its impressive and beautiful grounds, and she'd drive her daughter Becky to the school after she passed her 11+ in 1974.

With her new biker guests making themselves at home, Mrs C. (as Irene became affectionately known), laid down a few rules: No drugs and no drug use; no women staying overnight; no bad language and no nasty films on her T.V.. A couple broke the rules and were evicted and Mrs C. was prepared to use the police if drugs were suspected. However, Mrs C. was generally given the respect that she deserved.

"There were arguments and fights broke out, but nothing that couldn't be sorted out by a clip round the ear and a bit of straight talking.

"One memorable evening, Becky and I had cooked a chicken for tea and a couple of them were late, so theirs had been kept warm, then put on the table for them when they appeared.

"It was obvious they were upset and almost at once a fight broke out and the table was knocked over and a chair broken. That made me furious so I grabbed one of the chair legs and was going to hit them with it - instantly they all fled, the fighters and the onlookers... I learned later they had rushed off to the empty pig huts to hide and refused to come out until they knew I had calmed down.

"That little episode stood me in good stead and added to my street cred."

Irene's 'street cred' grew as she found a passion for the raw power, the thrill and excitement of riding pillion on a powerful motorbike.

Many colourful characters came and went through Sleepy Hollow; some would always have a soft spot for Mrs C., to see her as family, while others experiencing her spiritual love and kindness, would also feel the divine touch of God.

Mrs C. on the Ledbury PortalIn 1990 Irene was shocked and distraught when she heard the news of the Philippines earthquake. Her daughter, Janet, had been living and working there as a missionary since 1984. The earthquake had hit the island of Luzon the hardest killing hundreds, and it was here that Janet, her husband and three children were living. When Irene failed to hear from them she feared the worst. However, news eventually came through that they were safe and unharmed.

Irene soon visited the Philippines and Janet and her family returned to England.

Irene left Sleepy Hollow in 1993 moving to Welland before her 'itchy feet' led her to a farm in Newport, Wales. But Irene was homesick for Ledbury and returned in 1995. She rented several properties in and around the old Plough Inn ending up in Skittle Cottage.

Irene was very happy back in Ledbury and was seen daily walking down to the shops with a blissful smile on her face and time to stop and chat to shopkeepers, acquaintances and friends.

Irene enjoyed people's company and always welcomed visitors to her house. Back in Ledbury, she attended various prayer meetings and continued running the Christian Information Centre.

By her own admission, Irene had lived a fascinating life, and there is no doubt she had also lived the good life.


The Last Journey to Munsley on Ledbury Portal

Her body was laid to rest at Munsley Church on 12th October; while her spirit immortal resides in heaven awaiting her loved ones.

Irene lost her son Jeff in 2010, but is survived by her three children Janet, Jake and Becky, eight grandchildren, five great grandchildren and a dozen or so of her (unofficially) adopted children; those she took in, cared for and loved, and who loved her in return and saw Irene as their mother.


Isaiah 55:10-11

New King James Version


For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven,

And do not return there,

But water the earth,

And make it bring forth and bud,

That it may give seed to the sower,

And bread to the eater,

So shall My word be that goes forth from my My mouth;

It shall not return to Me void,

But it shall accomplish what I please,

And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.

[Passages in bold type are Irene's own words taken from her unpublished memoirs.]

Last Updated on Saturday, 29 October 2011 12:36

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