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 You are in: Special Report: 1999: 11: 99: Greenham Common
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Wednesday, 10 November, 1999, 17:44 GMT
The women's peace camp

The year was 1981, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government was into its third year of rule, prisoners in the Maze were staging hunger strikes, and Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer.

Groups like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had memberships of several thousands.

Mass protest marches and demonstrations were not uncommon - and neither long distance walks, carried out by campaigners anxious to draw attention, Jarrow-style, to their cause.

In August of that year, one such walk involved 36 people - mostly women - and set out from Cardiff with the aim of reaching the American airbase at Greenham Common, 120 miles on.

tents The women slept and sheltered in tents and 'benders'
The group, called Women for Life on Earth, wanted to protest against the announcement that cruise missiles were to be stored at the base.

It was by no means the only group to have campaigned against the bombs, 96 of which were eventually to be stored at the site.

The Welsh walkers, however, captured the interest of the media by chaining themselves to the perimeter fence, demanding an open debate with the government on nuclear armament.

People who went on to join what became the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp recall that the station commander decided to leave the protesters exactly where they were, in the hope that they would get fed up and skulk off.

They didn't, and more than 18 years down the line - and a decade since the Cold War ended and the Americans packed up their missiles and went home - there is still a peace camp at what was once the country's most controversial military establishment.

Events at the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp were at their most fervent in the strife-filled early to mid-eighties.

chain Non violent demonstration was used
In 1982 the camp became women only - and increasing numbers of them were arrested and imprisoned.

In response to a chain letter sent out during the autumn of that year, 30,000 women arrived at Greenham to "embrace the base". The following day, the Daily Mirror newspaper carried a single word as its front page headline: "Peace". The Greenham women had become a huge media issue.

Cold War angst, meanwhile, was manifesting itself in the release of films like Threads - the tale of the aftermath of a nuclear strike on Sheffield.

Media reports of the women's protests, and the authorities' attempts to get rid of them, vied for space with the escalating violence and bitterness of the miners' strike and tabloid unease with the likes of Boy George and Holly Johnson.

The camp itself was really a collection of nine smaller camps - most stationed by a gate of the airbase, and named after the colours of the rainbow.

A hardcore of women lived either full-time or for stretches of time at any one of the gate camps.

The first was Yellow Gate - the one still remaining - which was established the month after Women for Peace on Earth reached the airbase.

cutting fence Cutting down the perimeter fence
The rest followed throughout 1983. Green Gate, was nearest to the silos, and being furthest from the road was considered to be safest for children - it was also the only entirely exclusive women-only camp, the others accepting male visitors during the day.

Turquoise Gate was the next along towards Newbury, followed by Blue Gate - also known as the new age gate.

Then came the Pedestrian Gate, followed by Indigo Gate, Violet Gate (the religious gate), Red Gate (the artists gate) and Orange Gate (the musicians gate).

The camp was run entirely without men along feminist principles and had a strong feminist following.

The women would stage "actions" or acts of protest, which ranged from laying down in front of lorries and threading paper peace doves and baby clothes into the perimeter fence, to cutting through the fence with bolt croppers, exercising what they stated was their right to walk on common land.

(The law lords later found that they were right - the site was on common land, and they could not be stopped from walking on it, although damaging the fence in order to get in was still a criminal offence.)

Confrontations between sometimes hundreds of women, the local authorities, police and the military were often heated and heavy-handed.

arrest Over the years, hundreds of women were arrested
A large section of the local community was greatly opposed to having the peace camp on its doorstep, and the local council - at the time, Newbury District Council - tried on an almost daily basis to evict the women from the site.

It arranged for bailiffs with a dedicated dustcart to tour the peace camp and dispose of tents and possessions. After the first eviction, rocks were dumped across the site of Yellow Gate camp by council workers, saying it was scheduled for landscaping.

The women responded by painting the rocks and setting up "benders" - polythene shelters to sleep in.

On top of the women who lived there, visiting peace protesters came, sometimes by the coach load, to spend a day or a weekend at Greenham Common.

Counter protest also occurred, in the form of a group called Women For Defence, led by Lady Olga Maitland. This group's position was that the UK needed a nuclear defence in order to protect itself.

NDC revoked byelaws which said the common was common land, making themselves private landlords of the sites.

This action was later ruled unlawful by law lords, which resulted in many cases of unfair arrest and imprisonment going before the courts.

A lone mobile home, parked at the entrance to the New Greenham Park industrial site - is all that remains of the peace camp now. Three women occupy it on ad-hoc rotation, remaining in protest at nuclear weapons and their development worldwide.

They have announced that they will leave the site in 2000, and have recently won planning permission to construct a memorial to the activities of the peace camp.

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End of an era

See also:
06 Sep 99 |  Wales
Peace women to end their protest
04 Nov 99 |  Wales
Peace campaigners win memorial battle

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