With a final song, peace women leave Greenham

Nineteen years to the day after they arrived at the Berkshire air base, demonstrators gather under tarpaulin for one last time
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The Independent Online

It ended much as it had begun - a small group of women huddled under a tarpaulin singing songs for peace while proudly brandishing a set of bolt cutters.

It ended much as it had begun - a small group of women huddled under a tarpaulin singing songs for peace while proudly brandishing a set of bolt cutters.

The protesters of Greenham Common yesterday packed their bags and towed away their last caravan 19 years to the day when 36 women arrived at the American air base in Berkshire to demand the removal of nuclear cruise missiles.

Each of the "peace women" had walked for 10 days from their homes in South Wales to set up, on 5 September, 1981, what eventually became one of the focal points for the Cold War disarmament movement.

Images were flashed across the world of the 30,000 women who then surrounded the 1,200-acre base in December 1982 and from then fought a running battle with the authorities by repeatedly breaking into the site, chaining themselves to fences and blocking the missile convoys as they left to go on their manoeuvres.

Such was the groundswell of popular opposition caused by the Greenham women and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament that the 501st Tactical Missile Squadron of the United States Air Force flew its 96 cruise missiles back to America exactly 10 years after the Berkshire demonstrations began.

The celebrations yesterday were dominated by nostalgia rather than the roar of fear and anger of September 1981.

The peace songs became a rendition of the greatest hits of the daily performances held outside the 10ft barbed wire fences in the mid-Eighties, while the bolt cutters - "the sacred instruments of our work" - had been brought along to be auctioned to protest veterans and members of the media. The proceeds will be used to fund a memorial on the site.

For Sarah Hipperson, the sprightly and iron-willed 72-year-old former nurse who joined the protests in 1983 and was one of the three last women to remain on the site, it was a day of quiet satisfaction. Sitting in the caravan which had been her home for the past three years outside the old main gates to the base - now a business park - she said: "It would be a sad day in many ways but for the fact that we achieved what we set out to do - Greenham is the only nuclear base in Europe converted to peaceful use.

"We can look back and feel quietly satisfied at something which started from the instincts of a small group of women and became a symbol and gathering point for world peace."

A few quiet tears were shed as, shortly before 3pm, the peace camp caravan was gently hoisted into the air by a crane then driven away - ironically into the base from which its inhabitants were barred for so long.

The caravan, along with three intact missile silos and the base control tower, are earmarked for use in a museum of Greenham's history. The site and its surrounding heathland were restored to local council ownership three years ago and are now home to civilian enterprises ranging from a tandoori restaurant to a paint ball war games company.

Many of those gathered under the tarpaulin in driving rain yesterday mused about how such a global movement had sprung from a 10-day march across the country by a group of women worried about what the future would be like for their children.

According to peace camp legend, the resolve of the protesters was set when the commander of USAF Greenham Common emerged on the first night of the women's arrival and told the shivering gathering of his contempt for their presence. He supposedly said: "As far as I am concerned, you can stay here as long as you want."

Sue Lent, who at 29 set out for Berkshire from Cardiff with her one-year-old son in 1981 said: "We didn't know what we were going to do when we got there but the camp crystallised on our arrival.

"I only intended to go for two days but just got overtaken by the strength of feeling. We realised that if we were going to get the authorities to listen then we had to stay put and make a lot of noise."

Among the tales circulating outside the caravan yesterday was that of "Black Cardigan Day" in December 1983, when hundreds of women tore down five miles of base fencing in a surprise dawn raid.

"We told women's groups around the country - all by word of mouth - about the plan, and asked them to bring a black cardigan for the day. 'Black cardigan' meant a pair of bolt cutters," said Mrs Hipperson.

"A few years ago I met an American serviceman who was on the base and he told me that on that day all the troops were evacuated to bunkers because they thought some savage hoard was coming."

Another protester pointed at potholes in the road saying they were dug by the women as primitive traps to halt massive missile carriers as they tried to leave the base on manoeuvres.

Planning permission has already been obtained by Mrs Hipperson and a fellow caravan dweller, Jean Hutchinson, 67, for a commemorative sculpture of standing stones set amid metalwork depicting fire and water. It is due to be erected next year.

Money raised in the auction of the bolt cutters will be donated to meet its £100,000 cost.

But yesterday other peace camp veterans, finding the militant spirit of Greenham difficult to lay to rest, advocated instead a "living memorial" of continued campaigning against what they consider the resurgent threat of American militarism.

Di McDonald, one of the original Greenham protesters, is now involved in the campaign to prevent Menwith Hill Signals Intelligence Centre near Harrogate, Yorkshire being used for the missile defence network planned by the White House.

Ms McDonald said: "Quite frankly, monuments are for dead people. Greenham is finished but there is lots more work to be done and we need to get on with it."

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