It’s extraordinary I’ve never been to Greenham Common before. It’s slightly more than a ten minute drive from where my aunt lived, and given its fame, its recent return to its original heathland habitats, and the utterly glorious beech woods on its lower slopes, it would seem a logical destination amongst the hill forts, river walks, downland and gardens which we visited together. But then, its fame is contentious whichever way you look at it, either the civilisation-ending Cruise missiles kept there until 1991, or the unruly women protesting against them. Of course, that contention is at the very root of its fame and, accordingly, the area where the missiles were kept – GAMA (Ground-launched cruise missile Alert and Maintenance Area) – is now a scheduled ancient monument, including the fencing with its multiple patchings-up following the women’s multiple mass trespasses.
It’s going to be impossible in a short blog to say everything that could be said about Greenham Common, when so much has been written about it, but it’s important to get some facts down before talking about how I experienced the place. Actually two commons – Greenham and Crookham – Greenham is close to the populations of Newbury and Thatcham and, these days, is very well used by families, runners, walkers, dog-walkers. It’s owned by West Berkshire Council and managed by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust. Two areas remain inaccessible to the public: the GAMA, which is a car pound and a film location (most famously in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens), and the old USAF living quarters, now a business park.
Greenham’s airstrip was once the longest in Europe, and an important site for the USAF since World War II (Eisenhower made his famous ‘Eyes of the world’ D-Day speech here); in fact, the commons have been used by the military since the Civil War. When the air strip was dug up in the early 90s, it was used to build the nearby Newbury by-pass, itself another site of protest, tragically unsuccessful, which has likewise passed into the popular imagination and national culture. Curiously, the main protests at Newbury focussed on another piece of common land: Snelsmore Common, which remains common land, including the bypass itself.
Not so at Greenham, as the rights of common extinguished for the air base have only been restored at the Crookham end. Not that you’d know, aside from the fenced-in GAMA and business park – the air strip has left an incredible, spacious stretch of heathland which takes well over an hour to walk end-to-end, dotted with heathers, gorse and, on my visit, an abundance of autumn lady’s-tresses orchids. However, here and there have been left reminders of its recent past.
The control tower is there, now a community café, and you’ll come across the occasional US fire hydrant, remains of pumping stations, drainage culverts, reservoirs, and a stretch of tarmac has been left right at its very centre. A main car park is by the main road entrance to the base, and the gates have been left intact here.
But what has this to do with an investigation into commons? Is Greenham’s status as common land a mere detail? Not at all. For starters, the women’s case in defence of their acts of trespass won because their living on the common gave them rights of trespass – so they weren’t in fact trespassing at all. In fact, the court case against them did more than vindicate them; by examining by-laws governing the common, the judge found the USAF to have constructed structures – though I don’t know which ones – illegally.
Second, it will be interesting to research more into the existing status of the airfield as land which is neither common land nor Access Land but is treated by local people as such; surely, if it has not been reregistered before then, after twenty years’ an application will then be possible under town green legislation.
Third, it is one of the most powerful examples of a common used for counter-cultural and protest movements, joining the Chartists and Kennington Common and Brandon Hill in Bristol, the Diggers at St. George’s Hill in Weybridge and Little Heath in Cobham, raves at Castlemorton and Clapham Common, and the temporary autonomous zones created historically by fairs such as at Stourbridge in Cambridge. Growing up in the 80s, the very idea of a common is for me deeply inflected with the Greenham Common women’s actions and community; a common permits alternative means of living, thinking, and addressing the status quo, and its mythical association with ideas of personal freedom are deeply inflected with this.
Last, and in connection with this, Greenham’s recent history suggests to those not aware of this that the idea of common land is heavily freighted with the structures and mechanisms of power at the most fundamental level, a point of friction between competing needs and ideologies.
Greenham is a place too fascinating to latch onto just one aspect in one visit. Rather, I put to one side my focus on common land and just let myself interact with the site. It’s also much too large to get to know in a day, although I did a basic circuit encompassing most of it. Moreover, it’s a much too complex place to get one’s head around in one visit. For example, there are the considerations of the restoration of the heathland, which in places is still so recent that the site looks more like the kind of sculpted landscape one associates with a zoo, rendering the site as neither post-industrial, nor naturalised, but some strange simulation. That’s not to criticise the important and extensive efforts required to bring such a landscape about, but to probe the experience of Greenham common, it’s unavoidable.
Similarly, the change of use from nuclear to fossil fuel – both the GAMA as a car pound and the old airstrip as bypass material – suggests that the peril of a civilisation-ending crisis is part of our heritage and safely in the past, when the climate crisis is not simply just that, but actually in progress largely because of the activities and mechanisms of the culture of which the car is one of the most potent symbols.
My photography helped me think these contradictions through; I find making photos an excellent way of combining them, allowing an interplay without forcing a point. By focussing on details – the orchids, the tears in the fences, especially the many abandoned attempts – I was able to encounter these different elements at a basic, comprehensible level and begin to work with them. One reason the autumn lady’s tresses orchids, which I’d never seen before, and other wildflowers besides them, have flourished is due to the intense mowing of the grass around the air strip, which mimicked a level of grazing rarely seen these days on heathland. In fact, another orchid has also made its home here, the only site in the UK where it’s found, and so, ecologically, it becomes possible to see the existence of the air base not as an anomaly, nor as a deviation, but another trajectory which has acted on the land, becoming another layer in the record.
I found the fence around the GAMA fascinating. The shapes in the wire, the residual warning signs, the graffiti, made for interesting images, especially as the brambles and other vegetation interacted with them. I also found it moving, thinking of the determination and bravery of the Greenham women, taking on the might of a global superpower in its most brazen symbolic form.
It’s fascinating that the fences have been left unrestored, part of a unified ancient monument which allows an interplay between the women and the USAF which has, it feels, yet to be resolved. This ongoing present of the site found in the fences completely evades the commodification of Greenham as a heritage site which inevitably exudes from signage and repurposed features such as the control tower.
The control tower was another interesting feature. Although closed on the day of my visit, the windows reflect the site onto which they look if you stand in the right place, the glass distorting the heathland and surrounding views into abstract forms. There’s something curiously banal about a control tower. It is, of course, essential for safety, and the brutal functionalism of most control towers reflects that they are too important to need to consider issues of aesthetics; safety not just of the aircraft but of the surrounding land. And yet by making possible the safe passage of nuclear bombers, a much greater risk to everyone was promoted. That one can now see the restored heathland in the control tower might suggest that we are now in a safer, more enlightened age, and yet the distortions suggest this view to be illusory. Things are not quite what they seem, and the heath is rendered uncanny, a mood with which heathland is already culturally inflected.
If, as I think is expedient, this project focusses on commons in the South West, Greenham will fall outside its boundaries. This is most likely a good thing, as it could quite easily form the basis for a PhD project in its own right. However, as a place to think, a place of fascination and wonder, it’s somewhere I want to return to, to deepen my understanding not just of Greenham but of the project more widely.