It’s hard to imagine that an area of heathland near Newbury once played an important role in the Cold War. The former RAF base at Greenham Common was controversially used by the United States Air Force as a storage site for cruise missiles. Those days are gone now and Greenham has a much more peaceful existence. We spent an afternoon walking from the Nature Discovery Centre at Thatcham, along the Kennet and Avon Canal to Greenham Common and then back to the start via Bowdown Woods.
When the kids were younger we’d often pop into the Nature Discovery Centre. There’s a great playground, handy cafe and a lakeside walk that’s perfect for little legs. As they’ve got older we’ve visited less. Tempting a 13 year old with the promise of feeding ducks just doesn’t work. Neither it seems does the suggestion of a 6 mile walk. Ignoring her assertion that she’d wait for us in the car we lured her out with a picnic.
The slight downside to our picnic suggestion was that the ducks assumed it was for them. As soon as we chose a bench waterfowl arrived from all corners of the lake expecting lunch. I read recently that feeding ducks bread is bad for them so happily kept my baguette to myself. Besides, there was a constant stream of small children walkng past with loaves of bread no doubt destined for the lake!
Heading away from the lake area we crossed the railway line and joined a rather muddy path alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal. During summer the canal is alive with pleasure boaters and barges but on a grey January day it was pretty gloomy. The water level was high, and at the first lock it reached almost to the top of the lock gates. I kept looking for a flash of kingfisher to brighten up the walk and although I’ve seen them near here before they were obviously tucked up warm somewhere else.
After a mile or so we crossed the canal and followed a farm track up to Greenham Common. I was a youngster in the early 1980s but vividly remember news reports about the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp. Women came from across the country and abroad to protest at the storage of American cruise missiles on the base. Whilst there was a hardcore of women constantly living in camps around the base many thousands would turn up to protests. In December 1983 50,000 women linked arms and formed a human chain around the fence perimeter. The missiles finally left Greenham in 1991 but the camp remained open until 2000, with women protesting against the Trident programme.
Today Greenham Common is slowly reverting back to nature. Now managed by BBOWT, the local wildlife trust, the Commons were reopened for public use in 2000. The large expanse of heathland supports nightjars, nightingales, dog walkers and small children learning to cycle without stabilisers. BBOWT are also creating wetland habitats although sometimes it was hard to work out the difference between ponds and big puddles!
Aside from a couple of obvious landmarks there is little to show for the many years the base was in operation. The old concrete from the runways was broken up (and re-used in the equally controversial Newbury bypass), disused buildings demolished and fuel contamination cleaned up. You cannot disguise the location of the runway though; at more than 3000 metres it was once the longest military runway in Europe. Following the long flat path along the Common you can almost imagine the roar of a plane taxiing along the runway.
Apart from the American fire hydrants the only other legacy we saw on our walk was the Greenham Common Control Tower. Whilst I can understand the desire to return the area to heathland it’s good to remember the historical significance of the Common too. Fortunately, the building has been listed and I believe there are plans to turn it into a visitor centre.
More recently, the old cruise missile silos at Greenham Common were used as a location for the Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. Don’t get too excited though as they’re fenced off and privately owned so it’s not possible to visit the actual site.
From Greenham Common we returned to Thatcham via Bowdown Woods. This involved a minor map reading mishap, as the walk leaflet I was following (albeit backwards) showed multiple routes through the woods whilst my OS map indicated that we should stay on one broad track. I have no inbuilt sense of navigation so although I can read a map I easily get thrown off course if it doesn’t agree with what I’m seeing on the ground. The other half was confident of the route, and we did end up in the right place eventually, even if I wasn’t convinced we’d gone the right way.
I’d hoped to to see a starling murmuration on our return to the Thatcham reedbeds. The sightings boards outside the Discovery Centre indicated flocks of 5000 birds but we were out of luck. Instead we contented ourselves with more ducks. I smiled inwardly as I saw a toddler heading towards them with yet another loaf of bread. I’d love to know how many loaves they eat each week!
- Greenham Common, Bowdown Woods and Thatcham form part of the West Berkshire Living Landscape. Further details about all three reserves can be found on the BBOWT website. I planned our walk route independently but the 6 mile route is detailed in a leaflet which can be purchased at the Nature Discovery Centre for the bargain price of 10p.