A little while ago, following a welcome recommendation from Little Miss Traveller, we went off to explore Newbury. It’s a lovely place, well worth a visit. Driving in, I spotted a brown sign for ‘Greenham Control Tower’. Something pinged in the back of my mind, that name was familiar. But distracted by other things, I shelved the thought for another day.
As often happens when something catches my attention, the ping turned into an itch that I could only scratch by doing a bit of finding out. Hello, Wikipedia and Google. Top of the Pops were entries detailing the sites use as an RAF and US Air Force base. Mildly interesting, but that didn’t scratch the itch. A bit of scrolling and I hit upon the words, ‘Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp’. Bingo.
Slight grumble before I whisk us all off to Greenham Common. It can be hard to find women’s history written from the point of view of the women who made it. Often, it’s recorded, filtered and retold by men. I’m not ranting, I’m just saying. Hence my delight when my internet browsing threw up a book suggestion. Walking to Greenham by Ann Pettitt. One of the original Women for Life on Earth, who established the camp at the gates of Greenham Air Base. To immerse myself in her story, in her words…winner.
Once I’d starting reading the story of how the Peace Camp came to be, a story that winds through time and lots of places local to me, there was really only one thing to do. Get myself to Greenham. The ever patient Mr THL agreed to yet another history chasing, Helen- has- a- grand-idea sort of adventure and off we went. I always call these days adventures. Sounds much more bold and intrepid than daytrip, doesn’t it?
There’s much more to the Greenham Peace Camp story than I could ever do justice to in a blog post, but here’s the nutshell version. In the early 1980’s with Europe divided roughly into the Communist East and the Capitalist West, Greenham Air base was home to the US and UK forces, and Cruise missiles. If called upon, the nuclear weapons would unleash mass destruction. But first they’d be ferried from the base via local rural roads to predetermined launch sites. Can you imagine?
Some could imagine, and found the idea horrifying. Ann Pettitt, then a young mother raising a family and navigating life in rural Wales, started a movement that began with a long walk from Cardiff to Newbury and the gates of Greenham. The destination, but not the end. The march turned into a protest and then a camp. Ann also went on to travel to the USSR, taking the message of peace directly to the Kremlin. It’s an amazing memoir and I’d highly recommend it. The story of Greenham is the story of hundreds of ordinary women doing something extraordinary.
Of course, Greenham Common of today is not the Greenham that the women of the peace camps knew. The fences are gone and so are the military. The land has been returned more or less to use as a common. It’s a green and open space for dog walking, cycling, even cattle grazing. It’s also massive. I didn’t appreciate just how vast until I started meandering around it.
The control tower remains, curiously small and under whelming. I expected a bit more. It serves as a cafe, visitor centre and observation deck. It’s possible to take a tour, but you can’t pre book and we didn’t manage to grab places on the day. I do love that a building that once sat behind guard and wire to keep people out, now welcomes the visitor in.
Visitors are welcome but there’s not so much to see… not of the military days, anyway. The scar of the runway is clear, but nature is slowly reclaiming even that. A rusty flag pole here, an old American style fire hydrant there. Oh, and we did spot a strangely weapon shaped something with an MoD plaque. Answers on a post card. Mr THL didn’t know what it was. Poor him, I always think he should know all the things about all things military. I probably shouldn’t have let the Little Chap perch on it, this army wife should know better. Anyway, no harm done.
When we visited Greenham, I’d not dug deep into the history of the place nor had I finished reading Walking to Greenham. So I missed out visiting the Peace Garden, located at the site of the former gates where the protest began. The garden, featuring Welsh stone and an oak sapling rescued from the Newbury by pass development, is part memorial and part peace offering to the local community. A symbol of differences set aside, I suppose.
Back in the day, the perimeter fence measured nine miles round. In December 1982, the Women for Life on Earth movement rallied enough women to surround the base, joining hands in a protest known as ‘Embrace the Base’. Organised and publicised with hand written letters, a shoe string budget and no social media. Protesters decorated the fence with their own gifts. Flowers, photographs, even wedding dresses. I’ve been on plenty of military bases (as a married woman, no gossiping!) and they are masculine, aggressive spaces. I can’t think of a more brilliantly bonkers protest than giving it a massive, feminine hug and dressing it in the stuff of everyday life.
Anne Pettitt planted daffodils that day, bought from a Pembrokeshire farm. That was her gift to the base. I’ll definitely visit Greenham Common again, probably many times, while I’m posted in the area. I’d love to visit the Peace Garden, I’m chasing rumours of a bunker tour and I’d like to see Greenham across the seasons. In Spring, I’ll look out for daffodils and wonder if they have descended from those that were gifted by a determined, inspirational woman who walked from Wales all those years ago.
Walk to Greenham is available on Amazon: Walking To Greenham: How the Peace Camp Began and the Cold War Ended
More information about visiting Greenham can be found here
I’m showing my age in knowing instantly what Greenham Common represents. I’m just sorry that I was never part of the significant and inspirational movement that took place there.
It’s all so fascinating to me. I was born in 1980 and I suspect a lot of women my age might not know a lot, if anything, about Greenham. I think the story is too important to be left to drift.
Indeed. Well done for the re-telling.
I’ve also noticed a sign to the tower when approaching Newbury but haven’t been up to it so it was interesting to read about your experiences Helen.
Thank you… I wouldn’t have been there myself if not for your recommendation to visit Newbury. It’s a lovely part of the world, so many nice places to explore.
So pleased you like visiting Newbury Helen. Hope you are adjusting to Mr.THL being away so long. It would be lovely if you could all fly out to Finland and join him for a holiday
Strangely enough, on my way to Hungerford (future blog post – haha!) yesterday, I went through Newbury and Greenham. I didn’t have time to stop but I mentally added them to the places I would like to visit in the future. The book you mention definitely sounds worth reading and I can think of a couple of friends who may appreciate it, as a present!
Small world, I think we drove through Hungerford en route home. So many lovely places!
What a neat story and history, and what a wonderful coincidence that you made the connection!
Thank you so much, and for taking the time to read and comment. It really means a lot to me!
I’ve forwarded a copy of this post to my friend who spent a couple of months at Greenham Common. She gave me a piece of the wire surrounding it which they cut at the time which I keep with my other reminders of the day of yore when being a rebel was life itself, my badges, membership cards, and photos of me dressed like a cut-price Françoise Hardy all in black. Ah, nostalgia. Now you’ve sent me on an unrewarding trip down memory lane.
Ah that’s amazing, thank you. I hope she feels that I’ve written about the early days of the camp in a manner that does it justice. Enjoy the trip down memory lane!
Fabulous post about a fascinating place. Went to Greenham a few times in the early 80s when I was a member of the RAF so saw the womens camp from a different position and a completely different point of view. Strange and dramatic times.
Thank you, it is a fascinating place. Interestingly my dad did some work down there as a civilian contractor and holds a different view to mine on it all. Very dramatic times, hard to imagine really for my generation I think.
It was a completely different world back then that seems so strange now.
I agree with your assessment of women’s history writing. I’m also of the generation that finds the name Greenham Common instantly recognisable. I was an active member of CND at the time, and went for a similar event the year after Embrace the Base. I remember being very cold and wondering how the women who lived their stood it! I’m not enjoying living through a pandemic, but I’m not nearly as frightened as I was at the thought of nuclear annihilation in the 1980s. It seemed a very real threat.
Living with that kind of threat is beyond my imagination. I’m not enjoying this whole pandemic business either, although it’s interesting seeing how it brings out the best in some people and the worse in others. I wonder how this situation will be written about in years to come?
That’s an interesting question, I think a good few years will have to pass for us to get it into perspective.