Many will be familiar with the protests at Greenham Common which began in 1981 when thousands of women gathered to campaign for nuclear disarmament, camping around the fences of the military base where nuclear missiles were held at RAF Greenham in Berkshire. Many women spent years at the camp, some were there on and off for 19 years, and there is now a memorial garden to them and the magnificent work they did.
Hidden between a modern industrial estate and a roundabout on a busy road near Newbury is the Peace Garden, all that remains of the camp which dominated the protest movement and the news of the 1980s. It can be hard to find, tucked behind trees and up a road which says it is private, but it is well worth the effort as it is a beautiful garden with a circle of standing stones around a campfire, representing the women who would huddle around a fire for warmth and camaraderie in those turbulent days of the Cold War in the 1980s.
A Brief History of the the Greenham Common Peace Camp
RAF Greenham had been an airforce base near Newbury since the early days of World War II. in 1943 it was given to the US Airforce as a base for their operations during the war, remaining in their hands as the threat of the Cold War intensified in the years afterwards. In the early 1980s, Margaret Thatcher agreed that it could be used as a base for nuclear weapons, intending to keep their presence a secret from the public. People of course found out, and in 1981 a group of women from Wales marched to the base to protest nuclear missiles on British soil.
Various protests followed with thousands of women from across the country joining them. They chained themselves to the fences, 30,000 women encircled the entire base holding hands, they dressed in black and mourned for their children's futures, cut the fence, danced on the missile silos and caused mayhem for the authorities with many other non-violent strategies. Women stayed around the camp near the various gates, living in encampments of tents and old caravans. They would gather around braziers and fires for heat, coping with conditions of physical hardship as well as being ridiculed and bullied by locals and the police.
For many though it was a time of liberation. Women would talk freely in the absence of men, something less common in the 1980s than it is now, and many found support and solidarity dealing with issues normally kept hidden - domestic violence, abuse and assault. There were countless arrests and countless court cases, but they stuck with it and became famous across the world for their dissent and firm belief that nuclear missiles were unacceptable.
In 1987 the INF Treaty was signed by the USA and USSR, when intermediate range missiles were banned. The women had achieved their aim. Some women stayed on, fighting for the land to be returned to its previous common ownership. The nuclear missiles left in 1991, with the last American departing in 1992. In 2000 the remaining fences were removed, and the area is now Greenham and Crookham Common, an open landscape of heather and wildlife.
The Peace Garden
The Greenham Common Peace Garden was built on the site of 'Yellow Gate', the main entrance to the RAF base and where many of the women lived and protested. There were several gates to the site, the women named them after colours, with each one having a slightly different focus and group of protestors. The last protestor left the site in 2000, and just two years later this garden was established on the site.
The garden was designed by Roderick Griffin and incorporates the four elements of fire, earth, water and air. Planting is with native British plants and included an oak sapling from the equally controversial Newbury By-pass which destroyed much of the surrounding countryside in the late 1990s.
There are seven standing stones transported from Wales, representing the Welsh women who marched from Cardiff in 1981 and started the whole movement. They stand tall and defiantly, each a rough hewn grey stone, unmovable and unyielding, each one a different shape and size yet together they form a cohesive whole circle.
Inside the stone circle is a sculpture by Michael Marriott of towering flames, rusted with age to a burnt orange, representing the campfires. Around the circle are low benches of both stone and wood, and you can sit on these around the fire, completing the circle and joining in the fellowship and strength of the sisterhood of those brave women who fought so hard.
Near the stone circle is a garden dedicated to Helen Thomas, the only activist who was killed during the protests. Standing in a safe zone to cross a road, she was knocked down by a police horse box returning from a gymkhana in Oxford. There is still debate over the circumstances surrounding it. Containing another sculpture by Michael Marriott, it is a stone and steel spiral with a fountain in the middle and the words, 'You can't kill the spirit' engraved around the edges. These are from a protest song which was sung regularly by the women at the Peace Camp:
You can't kill the Spirit
She is like a mountain
Old and strong
She goes on an on and on
She is like a mountain...
There is a bench around the circle with a dedication to Sarah Hipperson. Sarah Hipperson spent 17 years at the Peace Camp, joining when she was in her mid-50s and imprisoned 20 times over the subsequent years for her non-violent protests against nuclear armament. She was one of the last four women to leave the camp and lived to see it returned to public use as the Greenham and Crookham Common.
The garden may now be very much off the beaten track and hidden on the edges of an industrial estate, but step inside and down the winding gravel path to a place of female solidarity, strength and unity, when they took on powerful, male dominated aggression, and won.
Visiting the Greenham Common Peace Garden
Address: 48 Main St, Thatcham RG19 6HP
The garden is open at all hours and is free to visit.
There are no facilities on site.