I did a lot of my growing up on Greenham Common. A place William Cobbett (farmer, journalist, champion of the rural poor) described in 1830 as ‘a villainous tract of rascally heath’; and Victor Bonham-Carter (farmer, author, publisher) as ‘a mighty wilderness … threaded by a single dust road’, seventy years later. Greenham was my wild playground. I knew it before the fences went up. I saw the nuclear bunkers being built and was there when 96 cruise missiles (+ 4 ‘spares’) were flown in by supersized Galaxy Starlifter planes. The haunting wail of the siren ‘test’ was part of school life – as was the pointlessness of the 4-minute warning, where we lived. School holidays were spent on horseback (often without a saddle) racing American soldiers in jeeps around the perimeter fence. There were guns. And all the while, the edifying force, gentleness and persistence of the Peace Women.
Our wild places are also people places and it is hard to think that certain spots do not absorb human history, strong passions and lives and exhale it. A spirit of place, perhaps? Greenham Common exudes this in a shimmering haze, through every pore and each pop of a gorze pod. Every woodlark rising will be singing a song listened and attended to by people connected to extraordinary moments in time, in this place. A woodlark’s allelu-lu-luia becomes a hymn for this common ground, an individual weight of meaning we might all recognise and claim.
Last weekend, in celebration of the Common being returned to its wildlife and people twenty years ago, a stirring community theatrical event was staged on the remaining runway of this former RAF and USAAF Airbase. Involving music, drama, dance, mass choirs, live painting, banner processions and re-enactors, it was a fitting, moving and emotional tribute to our Common – and what it meant for the eyes of the world to be turned upon it. The central character ‘Peggy’s’ narrative was my story too: and poet Steve Wallis’ muse in last year’s telling of Greenham’s story. For me, too, ‘Peggy’ is also the spirit of this paper’s first female journalist, aptly named Peggy Cruse. Peggy lived in my downland village and would have witnessed its closing off to the public when secret, earnest practices for D-Day took place up the big hill, shortly before Eisenhower delivered his famous speech, from Greenham below. Peggy was all of us. Greenham Common, its sunset-gravels, alder gulleys, heath & view of the downs, part of my narrative landscape. And Peggy’s story was shot through with birds and birdsong, too. This is where I come in spring to hear nightingales – and in summer, nightjars. A bird that, for me, pulsed out sultry lullabies on warm, crackling, heathland evenings and once upon a time, made the sound of a Geiger counter.