Oxford

Upper Heyford nuclear protesters gather 30 years on

Peace camp at RAF Upper Heyford in 1982/3
Image caption The camp was on the edge of the RAF base where US military planes and missiles were stationed

Campaigners who set up an anti-nuclear camp at the height of the Cold War are returning to the frontline of their protests.

In spring 1982, as tensions between the West and the USSR rose, 12 activists set a peace camp at RAF Upper Heyford in the north Oxfordshire countryside.

Those involved have been reflecting on their camp and the impact the peace movement ahead of a 30th anniversary reunion.

In his late 20s and studying for a PhD at Oxford University at the time, Mark Levene, described how the global political situation became of the early 1980s became "so overwhelmingly important" he became a full-time peace campaigner with the Campaign Against the Oxfordshire Missiles (Atom)

'Imminent apocalypse'

With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the reaction of the Reagan administration in the US, the Cold War seemed on the verge of becoming "hot", he said.

Mr Levene said: "In early 1980s we were all very fearful it was going to go nuclear.

"It's difficult to recall the mindset of imminent apocalypse - that's how it felt."

Along with Greenham Common in Berkshire, the RAF base at Upper Heyford where US nuclear missiles were housed, was the focus of protests.

Image caption The protest culminated with a mass march on the base in 1983

Kim Bewdley was a pseudonym used by one of the protesters.

Still using the name, he recalls his 18 months in the camp as the "best of times and worst of times, exhausting but exhilarating, inspiring and disappointing".

The ramshackle caravans and tents spread along on a bridleway beside the base.

On one side of the wire was the Quick Response Area of the base where one plane was kept in permanent readiness to launch a nuclear strike.

Mr Bewdley said: "It was a beautiful site with elderflower blossom in the spring. You could see and hear the planes, depending on which way the wind was blowing.

"There was always people coming and going - we were constantly organising events, marches and blockades."

Food was brought by supporters and fresh water had to be fetched from standpipes in the village.

The core group of students was joined by others including a Yorkshire miner and a single mother, and had a resident goat - Romona Frabbles.

They even managed to vote in the 1983 general election by proving that mail had been delivered to the camp - they claim the goat also received a polling card.

In the days before social media and the internet, communication was via walkie-talkies and protesters had to queue at the telephone kiosk in the village.

From an initial 12 campaigners, the protest grew and culminated in May and June of 1983 when 4,000 people converged as part of a campaign to prevent the expansion of the base.

During the Upper Heyford Peace Blockade 752 people were arrested.

Supporter Annie Tunnicliffe, who lived in Oxford, called the group "a really good bunch". She was among those who provided the protesters with food or a bath when they needed respite.

'Becoming besieged'

She said: "It really was terrifying. We were the ground zero target - the American bunkers in England would be the first to be targeted in a nuclear war."

Not everyone supported the semi-permanent village on their doorstep.

Although Kim Bewdley recalls playing pool with US servicemen in a local pub in the early days of the protests, tensions grew with local people, many of whom had jobs in the base.

"There was a sense of becoming besieged and somewhat isolated although we had supporters in the village," he said.

"But the world was heading a crazy direction. That general mood of people saying 'we don't want to go on like this' helped create the climate for disarmament happen. It wasn't all wasted time."

Image caption The camp was made up of tents and donated caravans

Just how much the camps helped end the Cold War is a topic of discussion among historians, politicians and campaigners.

Ms Tunnicliffe said: "It did make a difference. It raised the profile of what was going on on our doorstep. We played our part. When that many people show that kind of energy, it has to do some good."

Now a history lecturer at Southampton University, Mr Levene teaches the Cold War period to students.

"It was very different to the social media protests of today. That's what makes it difficult for young people to understand how it was done - but it was done.

"It's become mythic that we changed the course of history - I don't think we did. The person who did was Mikhail Gorbachev.

"But this grass-roots movement which covered all aspects of society, from trade unionists to middle class mums, was a cultural shift. It has had an effect on other campaigns since - climate camps an alike, they are part of a radical dissenting tradition which remains terribly relevant to British society."

As for Upper Heyford itself, the old base is now a business park but many of the Cold War era command buildings are still standing.

All the veterans agree their reunion at the base on Monday, for some the first time they will have set foot inside the perimeter, will be "quite a profound moment".

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