Greenham Common, Newbury
Ever since the ingenious subterranean and tree top protests of environmentalists failed to halt the extension of the A34, Newbury has become an easy place to bypass. Traffic now speeds past its western edge with a consistent urgency, but with the defeat of the anti-road campaigners in the late 90s the town lost its national notoriety as well a few hundred acres of woodland. Unless you are a horse racing enthusiast or a Vodafone employee (the town is the world HQ for the company) there is little to tempt the casual passer-by onto the streets. The place is perfectly nice while being simultaneously perfectly undistinguished. Given this ordinariness, it’s peculiar to think that just over twenty years ago this sleepy part of Berkshire was a prime target for Soviet nuclear missiles.
What prompted Kremlin military planners to consider the total obliteration of Newbury is to be found a couple of miles to the south east of the town. Greenham Common is now a vast open space full of dog walkers, ramblers and the occasional cow but in the mid 80s it housed a huge military airbase and was one the most guarded places in the UK. The security was necessitated by the decision of Maggie Thatcher’s Conservative government, to allow American Cruise missiles to be located on British soil. These weapons were designed to neutralise the threat posed by Soviet SS-20 missiles which had been deployed in the mid 70s and were perceived to have upset the precarious nuclear balance of the Cold War. The first of the ninety six bombs housed at the base, arrived in November 1983. They were stored in six enormous purpose built underground shelters. Hundreds of anti-nuclear campaigners were on hand to greet the delivery and give notice that they had no intention of leaving the base in peace.
Today nature has reclaimed much of the Common, although remnants of the old base are still visible. The control tower, which once guided in vast military transport planes, is intact, but up close appears disappointingly small. It oversees the remains of the runway which is discernable only as an unnaturally flat stretch of grass which splits the centre of the Common. Pieces of military machinery, so imbedded they must be immovable, still punctuate areas which once would have accommodated taxiing aircraft.
Generally Greenham exudes a peacefulness which belies its violent past but the serenity is most definitely broken when the nuclear silos in the south west corner of the park come into view. The last missile may have departed the base in 1991 but the reinforced bunkers still radiate menace. Emerging out of the ground like Neolithic burial mounds the silos have a strangely primitive appearance and in the half light of dusk they reminded me of enormous eyes fixing the landscape with sinister stares. Although designated as a national monument the area is distinctly forbidding cordoned off by three separate fences. Signs warn against trespass and one gets the feeling that perhaps the site has only been put in moth balls rather than fully decommissioned. The more enterprising will notice that at certain parts the security wire has been breached and some helpful souls have even arranged sticks to point the adventurous in the right direction. Having not tested the limits of the MOD response myself, I have no idea what sanctions may await any transgressors.
During the 1980s those breaking through the fences at Greenham were most likely to be inhabitants of the many peace camps which had been established around the base. Women were the driving force behind this movement and the last campaigners only departed in 2000 when the Common was finally returned to full civilian use. In the intervening nineteen years of continuous protest the actions of the ‘Greenham Women’ succeeded in keeping the media spotlight on the issue of nuclear weapons. A series of non-violent protests saw protestors dodging security to dance on the silos, forming a huge human chain to encircle the base and blocking missile bearing trucks from leaving the base.
Greenham is a curious reminder of a political period when world events operated in the shadow of a nuclear stand- off between two superpowers. In Europe the massive arsenals of the opposing blocs squared up to each other without ever firing a shot, while the ideological war was fought out for real in some of the poorest areas of the planet. Today the ideological boundaries of global politics are less clearly defined but despite the loss of the peace camps the threat of nuclear weapons remains very real. In 1947 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists devised the ‘Doomsday Clock’ to access the likelihood of nuclear war. The closer to twelve it reads the greater the danger of nuclear war. Recently the hands were moved from seven to five minutes to midnight. This is the most serious warning issued since the height of the Cold War in 1983.
How to get there
Greenham Common is located to the south east of the town centre. Follow the signs for New Greenham Park.