Above a mêlée of resistance fighters and craft, green grassy hangers loom over the rebel airfield on D’Qar. Star Wars: The Force Awakens chose a strange and beguiling corner of Berkshire for the resistance base, a site itself steeped in resistance and conflict.
The story of RAF Greenham Common began during the Second World War on a patch of common land just southeast of the town of Newbury, on the banks of the River Kennet below the chalk of the North Wessex Downs. Used by the United States Army Air Forces during the war, it was subsequently mothballed.
The story might have ended there, but for Cold War tensions that led the United States to move its Strategic Air Command further west, behind the protective screen of RAF fighter forces. Greenham was transformed, and throughout the 1950s and early 60s the roar of jet bombers split the air for miles around. In the early 1980s it became host to ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs), igniting a decade of protest that placed Greenham at the heart of the battle over nuclear arms.
The GLCM ‘Alert and Maintenance Area’ (GAMA) hangars filmed for The Force Awakens once contained those missiles. Their massive banks and triple blast-proof doors, designed to withstand a nuclear attack on the base, housed 96 missiles: 16 in each of the 6 hangars. In times of tension, the launchers could disperse from the base to launch sites in the surrounding countryside. Each missile carried a W84 warhead with a maximum yield of 150 kilotons, ten times that of the ‘Little Boy’ warhead that destroyed Hiroshima. 96 little warheads, each less than a metre long, but with the combined power of a thousand Hiroshimas. A thousand Hiroshimas, in six hangars on the edge of neat, genteel Newbury.
It was these structures that were at the heart of the impassioned protests of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camps. There’s a pleasing circularity there: in life, as in fiction, the hangers were a focal point of protest against armies and ideologies wielding weapons of terrifying power. They just switched sides: from resisted to resistance.
The camps and legacy of the women of Greenham Common have been extensively and brilliantly investigated by archaeologists. Their work opened my eyes to the potential and value of contemporary archaeology. If you’re wondering what such a survey can tell us, and why it’s valuable, the 2009 British Archaeology article is a great place to start.
I never saw the camps, or the missiles – the last were withdrawn in 1991; I was still a child. But long before I came to live nearby, I knew the name: Greenham is home to an important Mesolithic hunter-gatherer site, one of many along the Kennet Valley.
Later, I spent three years living in Newbury. Like the airbase, my relationship with the town was problematic. It’s a lovely place to live, shop and enjoy. Lazy pub gardens on the tidy canal, upmarket shops and not a paving slab out of place. But I didn’t quite fit the mould. Habitually emerging mud-stained from a decrepit van or grease-stained from beneath an ancient Land Rover, I felt like a grubby Hi-Visibility fly in the ointment of a world of London commutes and country retreats.
But Greenham, I loved. I still do.
It’s a wildlife haven now: lovely lowland heath in which the public can wander freely. Gravel paths circumnavigate the colossal runway. Much of the concrete from that runway found new life as hardcore beneath the Newbury Bypass: from one controversial routeway to another.
On a visit just after Christmas, children meandered in unsteady arcs on new bikes, and packs of dogs raced gleefully around cold wind-frothed pools. The place buzzed with life. Bright splashes of gorse added colour.
But the traces of its past are all around: concrete shelters and twisted tentacles of circuitry lurk among the brambles, as if the departing airmen stripped what was sensitive and left the rest, conscious of the passing of an era. Plates affixed to twisted steel cabinets tell of contract numbers, dates and maintenance schedules. American fire hydrants stand incongruously by gravel ponds. Leave the main track and a buoyant avenue of young birch opens out onto Building 280, all breeze blocks and corrugated iron. The buildings could almost be agricultural, but for the faded flaking warnings tattooed onto their cold, heavy façades.
Behind Building 280 is a favourite of mine: the naked ferrous skeleton of a ‘fire plane’, perpetually marooned in its shallow lagoon for fire crews’ drills. It’s a reminder of exactly what was at stake here. An accident in 1958, in which a parked bomber was set alight by an exploding fuel tank jettisoned by another plane, took 16 hours and a million gallons of water to contain, and cost the lives of two airmen.
The GAMA site remains fenced from the runway area, defiant warning signs still in evidence. 25 years after the final removal of an arsenal that, at its peak, contained the potential to obliterate entire nations, the looming hangars are the backdrop to a child’s first forays without stabilisers, and the polite chatter of dog walkers lamenting the state of their muddy, panting companions.
There’s something inspiring about that.