Greenham Common: A unique reminder of the Cold War opens to the public


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Over the weekend, Greenham Common Control Tower opened to the public as a permanent visitor centre, set up to share the story of Greenham Common.

Greenham and Crookham Commons cover a thousand acres of open, public land in Berkshire. Inhabited in prehistoric times and used for cattle grazing for centuries, the Commons were turned into an airfield in 1942 and used by the RAF and USAAF during the Second World War. The airfield was used a springboard for glider-borne troops landing in France on D-Day. General (later, President) Eisenhower visited the troops at Greenham on the eve of D-Day and made his famous “The Eyes of the world are upon you” speech there.

But, perhaps, Greenham’s most famous period was during the Cold War from 1951 to 1992. The runway was extended to 12,000 feet long in 1980. This was thought to be the longest aircraft runway in Europe at the time. The base was home to many aircraft, most notably the B-47 Stratojets, which were capable of routinely flying 3,000 mile long missions. Around 4,000 American air personnel and their families lived at Greenham at its height. The base was effectively a US town. They drove on the right and had their US groceries flown in from the States by Galaxy transport plane.

Greenham’s Cold War activity culminated in 96 Ground-launched nuclear Cruise missiles being housed in six above-ground shelters on the Common. These warheads contained enough destructive power to wipe out the approximate equivalent of the entire population of England. The location of the Cruise missiles triggered a long and famous series of Peace Camps and protests. Perhaps the most famous of these was the “Embrace the base” protest when 30,000 women held hands around the perimeter fence of the base on December 12th 1982.

On December 8th 1987, President Reagan of the USA and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty which led to the decommissioning of the Cruise missiles and, effectively the end of the Cold War. Greenham Common was handed back to the people of West Berkshire (via its council) by the Ministry of Defence in 1997. The air base buildings (hangers and so forth) were taken on by Greenham Common Trust (now Greenham Trust) which, while providing a major boost to the local economy, has become a highly successful non-profit making concern which ploughs back millions of profits into the community through charities and good causes. There began an intensive clearance of the visible remains of the USAAF base from the Common. Apart from a central section, which was kept as a historic reminder, the runway and taxi-ways were torn up and used to build the Newbury by-pass.

Nowadays the Commons are back to being open heathland, run by the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust. They are completely open to the public and used by the Commoners for grazing cattle. They are a popular venue for ramblers, dog-walkers, cyclists and joggers.

Built in 1951/52, the Control Tower is one of the last remaining buildings from the days of RAF Greenham Common. The Americans left the building when their base closed in 1992. Since then it was left derelict, until West Berkshire Council sold it to Greenham Parish Council in 2014. From that time, there has been an intensive refurbishment programme funded by grants from the Social Investment Business, Greenham Trust, Greenham Parish Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Earlier this year the completely refurbished building was handed over to a non-profit company, Greenham Control Tower Ltd, which consists of volunteer directors from the local community. They have fitted out the centre, which has exhibitions, an observation deck up-top providing a breath-taking panoramic view of the common, community cafe and toilets. It’s all run by volunteers.

The Control Tower reflects all the history of Greenham Common plus its flora and fauna – including the RAF and USAAF military use, history of protest, the Peace Camps and “Embrace the base“.

To mark the opening, this week there is a special series of “Greenham Cold War Experience” performances running, where actors recreate scenes from the Peace Women, the Control Tower and the remaining Decontamination Suite – see snapshots below.

The opening of the Control Tower marks the end of a challenging project to refurbish the building which, in 2014, was in a disturbingly dilapidated state after 22 years of neglect. Credit is due to all those who have tirelessly worked to open the building for the community. Current and former Greenham Parish councillors Tony Forward, Julian Swift-Hook, Jon Gage, Meg Thomas and Sally-Ann Jay deserve particular mention for their super-human efforts in this regard.

The public reaction to the opening has been highly enthusiastic. Over 3,000 visitors enjoyed the new facility over the last weekend. It has been particularly gratifying to see the younger generation enjoying the experience. It is right that the building helps to serve as a reminder of the madness of the Cold War, so that it is never repeated.

The website of Greenham Common Control Tower is here, you can see a BBC report of the opening here, and tickets for this week’s Greenham Cold War Experience are available here.

Greenham Common Control Tower is open on Thursdays and Friday from 9.30am until 12 noon, and on Saturdays and Sundays from 9.30am until 4pm. During its first week of operation from September 8th to 16th there will be extra opening hours which are listed here Entry is free.
Snapshots from Greenham Cold War Experience, which runs until September 16th:

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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3 Comments

  • Laurence Cox 10th Sep '18 - 12:47pm

    @Paul
    Actually the new Cold War runway was 10,000 feet long not 1,200 feet.

  • Thank you for this posting. It brings back memories of when the possession of nuclear weapons was a very live issue.
    Time has moved on. Technology has moved on. The nuclear weapons issue is still with us, but high profile protest is not. It is difficult to picket a submarine armed with nuclear weapons of course.
    The present situation of course illustrates how politics is not really driven by ideology but by the issues of power, authority and control that, as people, we see every day in our lives.

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