openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp changed the world – and my life

I recently heard a woman on the radio say she’d have rather lost a limb than not have lived at the camp. God, yes

Jane Powell
8 November 2021, 12.01am
Police arrest women peace protesters at Greenham Common, Berkshire, December 1982
Homer Sykes / Alamy Stock Photo

My first memory of Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was a woman at Reading Station on a boiling hot, busy day. Short hair and dungarees, a bulging rucksack matted with mud and badges, cigarette in one hand, her legs swinging over the platform. I envied her sang-froid as other occupants of the platform tutted and steered clear. The year would have been 1983 or 1984 and, at the time, her unconcern for how a young woman should be was powerful. It seemed revolutionary: no hairspray, no clumpy shoes, no lashings of makeup.

A year or so later, I myself arrived at camp – a ragged, mud-baked, desolate site in Newbury, Berkshire, strewn with muddy blankets and plastic, broken bits of furniture and a desultory welcome. It was a women-only space, established in 1981 in protest of the cruise missiles that were then sited at Greenham Common, ready to be deployed as first-strike nuclear weapons. From the site, the weapons would be deployed around the UK, supposedly in secret so that these giant convoys would not be targets for the Soviets.

The camp itself was made up of nine smaller base camps, situated at each of its nine gates. Numbers at each of the camps varied day to day, week to week. At the Yellow and Green Gates there would typically be around 20 or 30 women, with slightly lower numbers at the Orange and Blue Gates, and down to three, four, five or so at Emerald and Violet Gates. Other smaller bases, such as the Turquoise Gate, came and went. I remember one Christmas, when the total population of the camp sank to about ten women. But then, occasionally, on days such as the notorious ‘Embrace the Base’ event in 1983 – when 30,000 women held hands in a human chain around the perimeter of the nuclear base – there would be thousands. But that wasn’t the day-to-day reality of living there.

There were ‘camp issues’ from the off and the evening of my arrival was dominated by a visceral debate about the safety and sanity of one particular woman. She was hearing voices, stripping naked, spreading menstrual blood over herself, and sleeping alone on the other side of the road across from the camp, shouting and vulnerable. What were we going to do, if anything? Discussion raged around mental health, the validity of hearing voices, what rights this woman had, how the camp was portrayed, what our responsibilities were.

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This was a discussion had at pretty much every one of the camp’s nine gates at some point over the years, with different women and circumstances. It set the bar for the kinds of discussions held at camp. I stayed there for a year, and after that returned to spend every weekend, bank holiday, holiday, court day there that I possibly could, until the camp itself fragmented and disbanded in 2000.

Women sit around a fire, in a clearing. Cooking utensils surround them and there is a pram filled with food
At Greenham Camp, where women lived for 80 years, food was stored in prams to make a quick getaway if the police arrived
Sally and Richard Greenhill / Alamy Stock Photo

For the most part, the recent 40th-anniversary coverage of Greenham Common Women’s peace camp bore no resemblance to my own time there. Media coverage never has. Those pictures preserved in aspic of women dancing on the silos or the huge ‘Embrace the Base’ action, those were two nanoseconds taken from what, 19 years? The reality is that there weren’t hundreds of women there every day, holding hands and singing. This wasn’t an Enid Blyton adventure filled with naïve, entitled, middle-class women with too much time on their hands discussing the bomb.

But the ‘The Greenham Effect’, which aired on BBC Radio 4 last month, was a more thoughtful analysis, and came closer to matching my memories of the camp. There was an interview with a young woman, who ended by saying she’d rather lose a limb than have missed living at Greenham. God, yes.

No men at night

Yes, Greenham did change things, and thereafter missiles had to be put in the sea, and finally the fence came down. But its influence on me was indelible, life-changing, revolutionary.

At camp the ‘rules’, such as they were, were simply that there were no leaders, no men at night (or even by day at Green Gate), that every woman had a voice and that any woman had a right to be there. There were no phones, no walls, no private spaces. Food was kept in prams so that it could be easily moved and held onto during evictions – of which there were many. No safe spaces. A challenging, liberating, squalid, joyful environment. Your status outside camp, your job (if any), your class, your education, none of these mattered unless you had other qualities. Like a heart. Supporting other women, showing how to listen. Knowing how to treat ant stings, advice on surviving prison and being arrested. Being prepared for the arguments and meetings. Although having a car – and being willing to fetch wood and water – instantly created friends.

If you wanted women to join you in taking an ‘action’ – entering the nuclear base, taking down a fence, going to attend church inside the base etc – it was down to you to persuade them to do so. What your job was, was irrelevant.

Learning curve

At camp you were at the receiving end of prison, the police, the bailiffs, the vigilantes, and by God, the media – what a nightmare crowd they were! You saw the world from the underside. Newbury police threatening arrest for littering unless we took back the rocks that soldiers had been throwing at us all night. Coming back to a camp systematically trashed by locals – filling 32 bin bags of rubbish they left behind. The soldier fresh from Northern Ireland, standing yards from the camp, staring ahead, endlessly swinging a hammer against an iron bar, hour after hour after hour.

And what a learning curve prison was. I met so many women there: the old lady imprisoned for stealing cat food, again; the receptionist jailed for stealing half a ton of sugar from the factory she worked in. (While all the company knew of the deceit, only she and the driver admitted to it.) She was denied painkillers because she was pregnant, and was promised early release only to be told at the door there had been a mix-up.

Mental Health. Sweet, fragile Dee Sainsbury arriving at Emerald Gate fighting too many demons in her head. Throwing all her new possessions over the fence and walking away. On returning to a snow-laden camp at Christmas 1984, I heard of her murder. Becky, dumped by police at the ‘safe haven’ that camp offered, traumatised, arms laced with fresh scars, kicking over a kettle of boiling water, unable to cope.

Around the fires, women aged from 14 to 90 sparking unlikely but unforgettable, illuminating conversations

Hearing about horrific long-standing abuse at children’s homes by those in authority. Women from Northern Ireland talking about The Troubles. Miners’ wives bussing down to camp with tales about Orgreaves that defied belief. Women with tales of their own prison experiences, relating the stories of the other inmates there. Women talking about the violence and abuse they’d endured within the home. Women from around the world bringing their own stories – from South Africa, Italy, Japan, the US, Australia, France, Sweden, Denmark, Holland. Women who came to the UK on the Kindertransport as children. Around the fires, women aged from 14 through to 90 sparking unlikely but unforgettable, illuminating conversations.

Sitting at camp, I remember reading journalist Duncan Campbell’s book, which pulled together reports from the nuclear-planning exercises, where health officials demanded extra barbed wire and fly swatters to contain and occupy the masses, philosophising about the need for small trees to come down to let light in for the stronger trees. (And we were the threat to security?)

Despite the mud, the rain, the evictions, the physical exhaustion of collecting and hauling wood around, of trying to stay dry, there seemed a magic about the place, as every awful event would be matched by something special. A soldier’s mum arriving with wood. One woman, Pat, posting a packet of chocolates to camp. The sudden arrival of visitors bearing gifts. Post. Soldiers calling for us to throw our possessions over to them when the bailiffs came, to stop them from being taken. That comic hole in the fence during the snow, where the trail of coal leading up to and out from the fence spoke volumes. The sudden clearing of rain, the arrival of hot food, blankets or much-needed plastic to sleep under.

And the women

Camp was a maelstrom of differing views and very different women. Some were there to oppose nuclear weapons or the government, some there for the women, or the stories, some simply seeking refuge, some looking for solidarity with other women, some because they’d nowhere else to go. It was a site of ongoing political protest, but it created a space for so much more.

Women from Greenham made common cause and took actions around food mountains, nuclear tests, hospital closures, the miners strike, South Africa. They set off to join other women’s camps in Seneca, New York, and Sicily, as well as visiting Native Americans, supporting the revolution in Nicaragua, and setting up and working in women’s refuges. Yes, some women were irresponsible, selfish, thoughtless and badly behaved. But others were inspirational.

Hazel Rennie would tackle anything she thought needed doing. Full of fear, a working-class, frail, elderly woman – who talked about how brilliant rationing was, as it meant for the first time her family got regular sugar and meat – she really made me understand compassion and the power of one. She had the courage to hold fast to something even when she was patronised, terrified, isolated. She’d hold a one-woman demonstration outside an embassy if necessary, bring over a refugee she’d barely met from across the world, lobbying governments and politicians on the way. And she wrote wicked poetry.

Women sit on the floor in a forest
Women sit on the floor at Greenham’s ‘Emerald Gate’
Mary Lou Leavitt. All rights reserved

The delegation of active feminists I invited to the camp from Iran and Iraq. They arrived free to celebrate their femininity and assert their rights as women – in other words, dressed to the nines with makeup and nail varnish and beautiful shoes. They gawped with disbelief at our ragged band of dirty, smelly, ill-tailored women, none of whom had passed a mirror for months. And that wasn’t the only cultural chasm.

Self-effacing Jean Kay. Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Someone you’d assume would be a champion knitter and gardener – she probably was. She supported refugees, helped set up Open University, broke into the airbase to attend mass there, and set up Aldermaston Peace Camp with Rebecca and Lorna.

Naomi Griffiths, reserved, a dry wit, nil self-confidence, whose honesty, gentle persistence, patience and care shone like a beacon. Who set up a primary healthcare centre, library and a maternity house in the north of Nicaragua, who supported victims of the Hurricane Mitch, and learned how to build a dry stone wall. Who, with another Jean, the awesome Georgina, and her daughter Becky, liberated the geese from inside the base.

Juley, taking her school exams whilst still at camp – fierce, single-minded, self-sufficient – demanded integrity from herself and those around her. Mischievous Carol James – better known as Klingon Carol or Safety Pins Carol – resplendent in spark plugs and chains, sneaking out in the quiet early hours to cook bacon. Klingon Carol, Safety Pins Carol – who spray painted solidarity messages with Klingons across the base – looked after all camp money and post, and who was utterly dependable. Di Mac who Cruisewatch, a network of people who would follow the cruise missile convoy every time it left Greenham, making sure such excursions could never be secret.

The writer, Jane Powell, at Greenham Camp in the 1980s | Anne Ingold. All rights reserved

Merle and the food-run. Bridget and Zohl landing the issue of nuclear testing in the Pacific. The women from Todmorden, West Yorkshire, who arrived with all that energy and laughter, wood and food, support and love. And those whose persistent actions back home were awesome. Izzy bringing up lesbian rights with a delegation of Syrian military at a Libyan ‘peace conference’ and challenging the Italian delegation over Gaddafi’s claimed right to invade Italy.

If I must have heroes, then these are mine. They changed my life. Women who questioned, women who did stuff; inventive, courageous, determined, compassionate women who did bloody amazing things in the way that suited them, because they thought they ought at least to try.

Firing belief

Greenham tested to the limit your physical, mental and emotional endurance; your patience, your compassion and every belief and prejudice you ever possessed. And then it tested you some more.

There were times when the women numbered around the camp barely made double figures – yet the power of our protest reached across the world, although all we did was occupy the space. It has left me with an unshakable belief in everybody’s ability to change the world, as well as a love of working with others in a shared goal, with shared values, a joy in the excitement of seeing how things can change and sharing that vision with others.

Greenham began with the simple act of saying no to nuclear weapons – but it became so much more to me, and I suspect hundreds of other women. Once you’d been inside prison, seen police beat women up, seen how unsafe our bases were, seen how society treated outsiders, well, it gave you the confidence and authority to challenge anything. Nowadays I guess you call that being radicalised. You bet.

My time at Greenham informs me still, every day. It isn’t some memory parked away for fireside thoughts. I learned just how exciting and rewarding it was to work alongside and with others. It’s addictive – there’s nothing better than being part of a diverse mess of others in a united, scrappy, focused campaign. I learned about compassion, the importance of speaking truth to power, of remembering what it’s like to be a non-person in our civilised society.

I’d rather lose a limb than not have lived at Greenham.

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