Greenham is given back to the people

Greenham Common's perimeter fence came down yesterday. But the wire-cutters were not in the hands of the women whose 20-year protest at the nuclear site has assured its place in the history books.

The symbolic act, 10 years after the cruise missiles left and a few weeks after the last protesters packed up to go home, was carried out by West Berkshire Council with a ceremonial pair of bolt-croppers.

Liberated at last from its 10ft-high wire prison, the 1,200-acre heathland will be a conservation and wildlife area, owned by the council and open to the public. Buildings inside the former base have been let to businesses, and the watchtower, once the look-out post to monitor the comings and goings of nuclear bombers, is to become a visitors centre. But its place as a symbol of the Cold War will be commemorated with a life-size sculpture of a cruise missile and a monument crafted from the dismantled runway.

Greenham and the neighbouring Crookham Common were requisitioned for use as an airbase in 1941, and used as a glider base during the 1944 D-day landings.

In 1968, the base was occupied by the United States Air Force and remained little noticed until 1980 when the momentous decision to allow the Americans to store 96 cruise missiles there was taken.

The nuclear threat so terrified two women, Ann Pettitt and Karmen Thomas, that they marched with a handful of supporters from their homes in Cardiff to Greenham Common and chained themselves to the fence in protest. It was the start of a world-renowned demonstration led and supported by ordinary women, which spanned nearly 20 years. And it was the beginning of the Peace Camp which, in 1982, witnessed 30,000 women holding hands to encircle the base.

In 1991, the missiles were removed. But the women stayed - this time to ensure that the land was handed back to the people. It was bought in 1997 for £7m by the Greenham Common Trust on behalf of West Berkshire council. The Trust will now pass it on to the council for just £1.

In May last year, commoners and residents of the parishes of Greenham and Crookham restated their rights to access the land by carrying out an ancient Beating of the Bounds ceremony.

Yesterday, council leader Dr Royce Longton said: "The reopening of the commons to the public is a great achievement, symbolic of our commitment to preserving the best of our countryside for generations to come."

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