So how did it become a fenced off military site and how are people uniting to claim it back today?
From mountain-tops to town centres you’re never far from a common. There are over seven thousand from Newcastle’s Town Moor to Epping Forest. But what is a common? They originally date back to a time before the Norman Conquest when along with the strips of land allocated to grow crops, villagers were granted rights to use ‘common’ land to graze livestock, collect firewood, fish and dig peat for fuel. These rights often made the difference between starvation and survival.
Like wasteland we still find in our towns and cities today, the area often designated as commons was normally further out of the village and on thin soils too poor to be cultivated for crops. Poet John Clare described them as ‘left free in the rude rags of nature’ and they still retain this sense of uncultivated wilderness today.
A militarised landscape
Even before becoming a controversial base for nuclear weapons, Greenham Common in Berkshire had long been used in times of war and conflict. It was the site of a battle during the English Civil War in 1643 and just over a hundred years later 6000 troops camped here before fighting in the Battle of Culloden. Fast forward to the nineteenth century and a firing range was built during the Napoleonic Wars with France. Little trace was left on the landscape however until the Second World War when the land was requisitioned by the government. They identified the long, flat plateau (which runs east-west into the prevailing wind) as an ideal site to build a runway for the RAF and US Air Force.
During the Cold War the US Air Force returned to Greenham. They expanded the base and extended the runway. In 1981 six massive bunkers were built to house 96 cruise missiles and their mobile launchers. A nine-mile perimeter fence was put up to block off the area. What was once common land had become a militarised site.
Give peace a chance
From 1981 until 2000 thousands of women camped out at Greenham Common in a non-violent act of protest against the threat of nuclear war. Many were mothers who felt compelled to act for their children and future generations. Can you imagine what it was like here then? Spending harsh winters camped out in sleeping bags, no lavatories, no washing facilities, no shops. A year later they hatched a plan to totally surround the base with protesters. 35,000 supporters turned up linking arms and pinning objects like baby clothes, bottles, photos and teddy bears to the fence. It became the biggest women’s demonstration in history.
If you look around today you can still see some of the womens’ artwork on the perimeter fence. But this is no longer a site of protest. The cruise missiles finally left Greenham in 1991 and though the women’s actions might not have stopped them it did change the nature of protest. Whether it’s mobilising against local fracking or joining the Occupy movement, people are less afraid to take a stand.
Power to the people
In 2000 the perimeter fence was finally removed. An act was passed to restore rights of public access and today the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust are working to restore the common back to heathland. Heather and gorse now flower where bombers once took off. The runway has been broken up and used to build a local school. Areas contaminated by aviation fuel are being cleaned up. Thanks to people power and the resilience of nature – the common is once again a place for everyone to enjoy.