Return to Greenham Common

It's 21 years since women began arriving at a US airbase in Berkshire to protest against the decision to store 96 cruise missiles at the site. They set up an all-female peace camp, and went on to dominate the news for a decade. The camp broke up two years ago, but what was life really like there - and how did the experience change those who took part? Nicola Norton takes four former residents back to find out
Bethan Mcdonald, 23

I was two years old when I went to Greenham for the first time. My mum and dad took me and my twin sisters to a protest event before it became women-only.

I continued to make visits until I was 12, when the camp closed down.

It was quite a lot of fun being a child there. I enjoyed being outdoors, running around, climbing trees and sitting around the fire.

One of my strongest memories is sitting round the fire with the sun on my back. I felt really warm and happy. But I understood in a sort of basic way that there were nuclear bombs behind the fence.

I knew what had happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and that we were protesting to stop that ever happening again. When I was older we got a bit more involved in climbing up the fences. One time we all broke into the base and went and stood on the silos after the warheads had gone - it was really exciting.

There were so many other women doing it as well so you felt really secure. It was a good thing to do; it wasn't criminal. Our parents and other women shielded us from a lot of the harassment.

But the worst bit was when the bailiffs came. They had a big rubbish truck that we called the muncher. They used to throw people's possessions in it and everyone would run about in a rush to try to stop them taking everything.

I found my old spelling book from school this week from when I was about seven or eight and it's got all sorts of words in it like Greenham Common and Salisbury Plain.

Nowadays I go to Aldermaston women's peace camp once a month and the camp at Faslane. There's a lot still going on. In the rules of war, you're not supposed to indiscriminately kill millions of civilians but you can't not do that with nuclear weapons.

You've also got the problem of storage of radioactive materials that will never go away. Nuclear sites will have to be guarded for millions of years.

Jane Powell, 42

I was 23 when I first saw Greenham on the television and in the newspapers. My sister went first. When I finished my degree, I followed. I thought it was a stunning thing to do, to go and just refuse to leave.

When I got there, I discovered a busy, dynamic, noisy place with an awful lot of women.

My sister lived at yellow gate, but after 24 hours there I sensed that it would be better if I was at a different one, so I moved to emerald gate, which was opposite the silos.

Each gate had its own individual identity. Yellow gate was outside the main gate of the camp and attracted those women who wanted to be at the centre of things. Blue gate was a much younger gate, full of humour and quite punky. Green gate was very separatist, international and mystic. And most gates had one woman who could sing or play the guitar.

The media were farcical about Greenham. The tabloids caricatured us as a bunch of dykes in boots and denim dungarees, while the Guardian painted us as white, middle-class, woolly-minded liberals. Both of them missed the mark by miles. It was a dynamic, eclectic mix of women from across the world, of all ages from 14 onwards, with wildly different experiences, who came to the camp for completely different reasons.

It was liberating and politicising to be in that environment, and to realise that the world wasn't really how it had been taught to you. We were deeply unpopular; it was very threatening, a women-only camp. You saw how society treated the people it didn't care about and that was very politicising.

Women have become involved in a whole range of issues because of the experience at Greenham. They've carried on campaigning against GM food and staging anti-capitalist protests. I think nuclear weapons have become a bit of an embarrassment. The only people they are valuable to now are terrorists.

No one goes back to the people who developed nuclear weapons to say, isn't this a bit sick? And how much is it costing? Young people must wonder how we let them get away with it.

I've just launched a helpline for suicidal young men, and now I'm taking time off to look after my one-year-old daughter.

Lynette Edwell, 61 I've lived in Newbury for years and was part of a local network that helped the women living on Greenham Common. In 1981, a group of men and women marched from Wales to Greenham and I joined the little group that came out to meet them.

They stayed in the Baptist Hall and asked for a public debate in the House of Commons on cruise missiles. People ignored them so they decided to stay until a debate took place. First they were chained to the fence. People supported them and gave them tents and cover.

They soon put a sign up on the road, "Hoot if you support us!" and sometimes lorry drivers would stop to have a look. A hostess from the camp came out to greet them and every time she'd say: "No drink, no dope but you're very welcome."

One day I was approached by a woman from the camp who asked if they could use my home. I wanted to help and liked the women so I said yes. People used to stay the night and I'd cook for everyone. Sometimes, I could find 10 to 20 people sleeping in my living room. At the time I was living with my husband and three children. I was a journalist for a horticulture publication.

I took up complaining about the evictions because people were getting hurt. Once someone was carried across the fire in a sleeping bag and almost put in the muncher. I said someone is going to get killed. I still can't face the community policemen who stood there and watched women being treated like that.

Every month, we joined in the cruisewatch, to protest when the convoy carrying the missiles came out of the camp. The convoy included 36 vans of police. Some of us would stand out in the open carrying placards and shouting while others used to leap out of the hedges.

My job was to coat the convoy with paint but we never threw paint at people. I did throw bad eggs that I got from the wildlife hospital. Even minor things stopped the convoy. Once somebody put a little potato in the exhaust pipe and they had to stop and fix it.

Now I have no respect for any institution and I'm not afraid of anybody. And you wouldn't believe how the site looks today. It's been redeveloped and it's welcome to Greenham Common, come tea dancing!

Juley Howard, 36

I had read in the Daily Mail how disgusting the women on Greenham Common were; how they'd pin their sanitary towels to the fence. I was 16 years old and had an image of the women as a bunch of wretches. But after a chance visit to Greenham with my local peace group, I thought it was a wonderful place and that we could overthrow the military.

My family were rightwing and when I went to live at Greenham, my father told all his friends that I was staying with some Christian women, in a "nice" part of the camp.

It's true that I became very good friends with a woman who was a vicar's wife, but my parents were horrified and appalled. I left home when I was 16 and lived at Greenham for four years. I studied for my A-levels at evening classes in a local tech. No one in my family had done A-levels or gone to university and there was no way I was not going to finish my studies.

At times I felt quite cross with my family, that they didn't understand what was happening in the world. They never visited me. I was quite staggered when I first got there. I'd never been to a military base before. There was a mass of activity, people lighting bonfires, police dogs running around, army Land Rovers and lots of police. It was very hectic and we were followed by soldiers who tailed people all the time.

Once some of the women rushed at the fence and pulled down 10 sections with their bare hands. Soldiers and police were running around and we just pulled it down in front of them. There was a great sense of camaraderie.

The worst thing that happened to me was when somebody stole my tent and chucked it into a pond that had frozen. I was devastated. All the text books that I'd saved up and bought were muddy and wet.

I almost always had my own tent but after one eviction, I slept under a piece of plastic tied to two trees, for a year and a half. It was really cold but I loved living outside. I used to do ridiculous things to wind up the bailiffs like put net curtains up in my tent to make it look as homely as possible. I'd sleep with eight blankets on top of me and lie on mounds of bracken. It was hard living there but it was satisfying that the US military couldn't stop a bunch of scruffy women doing what we liked.

Nicola Norton

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Happy memories of Greenham Common | Letters
Letters: Having joined CND and taken part in several anti-nuclear marches in the late 70s, Greenham was the next step for me and an important part of my political education

Letters

24, Mar, 2017 @6:20 PM

Article image
Mothers of the Revolution review – emotional return to Greenham Common
With stirring testimony on offer from the organisers of the groundbreaking women’s peace camp, this doc doesn’t need its superfluous dramatic recreations

Leslie Felperin

13, Oct, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
The legacy of Greenham Common has outlived Margaret Thatcher
On the day of the Iron Lady's funeral, David Cameron recalled her stand against the peace camp in the 1980s. What he didn't mention was that many Tory women found it inspiring, says Beatrix Campbell

Beatrix Campbell

17, Apr, 2013 @5:10 PM

Article image
How the ​Greenham Common protest changed lives: ‘We danced on top of the nuclear silos’
The 1980s peace camp against US cruise missiles was a demonstration of joyous female power that echoes through to the women’s marches of today. Activists recall those heady, scary, inspiring days

Suzanne Moore, Homa Khaleeli, Moya Sarner, Leah Harper, Justin McCurry

20, Mar, 2017 @6:20 PM

Article image
‘We owe them a huge amount’: march to honour Greenham Common women
Hundreds will march 130 miles to mark 40th anniversary of peace camp created to protest against US nuclear weapons

Alexandra Topping

22, Aug, 2021 @11:15 AM

Common reflections
Finn Mackay, student, 22
Unfortunately I was born too late to see Greenham in its heyday. I lived in Scotland and we didn't have a TV, so I would have known nothing about it if it hadn't been for the two women who lived down the road who went and came back with amazing stories about the place. They gave me bits of the fence that they had snipped and tapes of women's peace songs.

30, Dec, 1999 @12:31 AM

Letters: Greenham Common's spirit lives on
Letters: It is important to get the history of the anti-nuclear movement during the cold war years straight.

22, Mar, 2006 @12:01 AM

Greenham Common remembered, 25 years on
A bit of the original perimeter fence at Greenham Common forms part of an exhibition at the Guardian Visitor Centre in London marking the 25th anniversary of the largest women's demonstration in modern history.

Helen Carter

06, Sep, 2006 @11:02 AM

Fanfare to the Common woman
In 1981, a handful of women marched from Cardiff to Greenham to begin the biggest, best-known peace camp in the world. Most left when the Cruise missiles went in 1991; the few who remained will tomorrow throw a party to bid their farewells.

30, Dec, 1999 @12:31 AM

Article image
Greenham Common at 40: We came to fight war, and stayed for the feminism
In 1982, Julie Bindel joined 30,000 women ‘embracing the base’ in protest over nuclear arms. Here she recounts the pivotal role the protest played in their lives

Julie Bindel

29, Aug, 2021 @7:30 AM