The story of Greenham Common

Newbury Branch meeting Wednesday 14th February 2018

Speaker: Penny Stokes

Greenham Common conjures up memories of peace women and cruise missiles, but its history is much longer than the last half-century – and much livelier.

       Greenham and Crookham Commons are the last survivors of a belt of common land which once ran along Berkshire’s southern border. They escaped enclosure because the heath was exceptionally infertile.

       An uncultivated expanse of land inevitably has always attracted the military. From at least the seventeenth century soldiers have mustered and camped regularly on the common, incidentally providing free entertainment to the local people, amongst whom their “field days” were perennially popular.

In addition to these Redcoat displays of horsemanship, drill and weaponry, there were bareknuckle prizefights, steeplechasing and “pedestrian feats” which drew vast local crowds seeking entertainment. The élite came for foxhunting, and the ordinary commons dwellers enjoyed the time-honoured pursuit of poaching.

       In the late nineteenth century one of the commons’ landowners, Albert Richard Tull, created Britain’s first inland golf course, which eventually merged with its rival, created in 1923 by the other landowner, Lloyd Baxendale.

       Just before WWII Newbury corporation acquired the two manors comprising Greenham and Crookham commons, but within a year or two the land had been requisitioned for the Royal Air Force, and the first airfield was built. RAF Greenham Common played a key role in the North Africa campaign, the airborne D-Day landings, and several subsequent WWII operations. US airmen became a familiar sight around Newbury again in the 1950s, when they returned with B-47 nuclear bombers. These were based at Greenham for the first decade of the Cold War, and an entirely new airfield was built for them.

       The commons were bought from Newbury corporation by the MoD in 1960, but the base was vacated by the military in 1964. Recreational activities flowed in to use the unoccupied space: car testing, model aircraft competitions, gliding championships, various record attempts and the series of air tattoos which ran from 1973 to 1983. These ended with the arrival of cruise missiles and the peace camps.

       With the end of the Cold War and the INF treaty of 1987 the military occupation of the base was gradually wound down. Local businessman Sir Peter Michael came up with a plan to restore both the ownership of the land to local people, and – as far as possible – its ecological condition back to heathland. His vision persisted despite obstruction by the MoD and a radiation scare in 1996, when it was claimed the common had been contaminated. Two independent surveys proved this fear to be unfounded.

       In 1997 the MoD sold its entire 700-acre holding to the newly-formed Greenham Trust for £7 million. The open airfield was sold on to West Berkshire Council for £1, and the built-up area of the base (some 10 per cent) redeveloped as a business park. The revenue from this is distributed by Greenham Trust to charities and the public good in west Berkshire and north Hampshire. In its first 20 years the trust has distributed £40 million in this way.

       The airfield has been painstakingly cleared of the pollution caused by half a century of military aviation, and it now resembles the natural heathland of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is managed by BBOWT, under the oversight of Natural England, and is protected by its own Act of Parliament.

Additional information