In 1981, a group of women marched from Cardiff to Greenham Common in protest of the storage of American nuclear missiles on UK soil – an action that laid the foundation for the Greenham Common Peace Camp. Marking the occasion, seventeen-year-old Poppy Stowell-Evans joined the 40th-anniversary march. Here, she recounts her journey – literal and spiritual – undertaken over the course of the 100-mile walk.
At about 9am on the 26th of August 2021, I began to frantically pack my backpack with as many snacks as I could carry. I didn’t know what constituted as “too much” food at this point, but I knew I didn’t have enough. As my mum cautiously reminded me not to wear my oversized purple jumper out of fear I’d get too hot whilst walking, the reality of what I had committed to was beginning to set in. Over the next 9 days, I would walk 160km (more than 100 miles) from Cardiff to Greenham with people I didn’t know and had never met before. I would be doing this with the aim of learning as much as I could about women’s history, listening to anyone who was willing to tell me their stories, and talking to anyone who would welcome me into their conversation.
But, most importantly, I planned to do this march in honour of the original Greenham women, children and men who set off in 1981 from Cardiff to march all the way to Greenham Common in protest of the nuclear warheads that were being stored at an American base at Greenham. The legacy of these original Welsh marchers was carried on by tens of thousands of Greenham Women after the initial protest march evolved into what would later become known as the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp (in reference to the protest camp formed around the nuclear holding base). Over time, the camp was declared a ‘women’s only camp’ which acted as a haven and a home for women of all backgrounds, ages, classes and races – united through strictly peaceful protest for almost 20 years, challenging what they considered to be the biggest threat humanity has ever known: nuclear weapons.
Before setting off for the walk, I knew what I was doing felt important. This was because, as a 17-year old, I had never heard of the Greenham women despite the camp only closing in 2000. Unfortunately, this injustice of history is far from infrequent with women’s history regularly erased and undertaught in schools. Before setting off on the 26th of August, I couldn’t understand why this was the case.
I set off from Cardiff apprehensively, scared that I wouldn’t fit in, or would feel awkward, or would be unable to join in with singing as we marched. I had no idea what to expect and before I knew it my mind began to replay every degrading comment I had ever received about being a feminist. Each reminder created a paradox within my head; I wanted to be part of this movement that celebrated women, but had long been conditioned to fear how I would be perceived.
Yet, despite my nerves, my experience can only be described as deeply moving. A feminist pilgrimage of sorts. An experience that I will never be able to forget.
Within the first 50 metres of walking, I felt immersed in the most close-knit, supportive, non-judgemental and accepting community I had ever experienced. The atmosphere was alive with excitement and eager trepidation as each of us quietly considered the amount of road ahead of us. As the metres turned into miles, the exhaustion of my legs was frequently overshadowed by my daydreaming about the original Greenham Women and how they must have felt. Each step I took felt like it added to an ever-growing connection to the ideals of peace and feminism that the Greenham women fought for.
However, luckily, I did not have to rely on my daydreaming to fill in the seemingly forgotten stories of the original women. Each day, I engaged in insightful conversations with the original Greenham women. I heard stories about key actions like Embrace the Base where more than 30,000 women held hands along the 9 mile base fence – their backs to the nuclear base that stood still and menacing behind them. Several women told me this story, still enthusiastic about the empowering nature of this moment, pressing upon me its historical significance. Whilst politically, Embrace the Base gave women the opportunity to literally turn their backs to and reject a product of our greedy patriarchy; it also gave women the opportunity to physically unite. To not be divided by our patriarchal society, to not be forced to embrace the conditioned instinct to compete with and hate one another. Instead, they held hands. Tens of thousands of women stood together, proving the power we had, and do have, when we unite and see each other as equals.
As the days of the walk drew on, a member of the Greenham Women Everywhere team (who all wore the most fabulous purple high-visibility jackets) began to read us extracts from Sue Lent’s diary, an original marcher who is now a Cardiff City Councillor. I loved hearing her words. It truly humanised the experience and allowed me to notice the most beautiful parallels between the present day and 40 years ago. From picking blackberries on the side of the road, to singing at the top of our lungs, to reluctantly walking up a 3 mile hill in Newbury, each similarity made me feel increasingly like a Greenham woman.
But, most significantly, Sue would discuss the different characters of the ‘core’ group of marchers. I found this concept beautifully symbolic throughout my walk because our ‘core’ group included a range of flamboyant, passionate, hilarious and thoughtful individuals. But, despite our differences in temperament, each person in our team made me feel seen and valued.
As I grew closer to my Greenham sisters, my mind was opened. I began to notice oppressive aspects of our society that made me angry. I began to realise I didn’t have to apologise for being angry. My heart was opened to endearing stories of love, activism and trust. I realised I could be angry and still maintain my gentle and kind side, too. My soul was opened to spiritual ideas from reincarnation to deep discussions of the origins of the universe to the importance of forgiveness. Each conversation added to the ever-growing tapestry of who I am and who I wanted to be. Each word exchanged pushed my emotions into intense gratitude for the existence of women; I don’t know if my sisters realised but as we talked, I felt myself beginning to make sense of the world, my experiences, and answer personal conflictions I had never been able to make amends with. Each hug shared pushed me into an embrace of self-acceptance, love and power.
On the final day, as I entered Greenham with a group of bloody incredible women at my side, I sang! I had always had a fear of singing in front of others but I sang “I am a gentle angry woman. And I am singing, singing for our lives” like my life literally depended on it. An overwhelming sense of pride over took my body as I raised my voice louder, allowed myself to cry and smiled from ear to ear. I felt whole. For one of the first times in my seventeen years, I was proud of who I was but, I was even prouder of the women who had paved the way for me to be here.
That’s when I realised.
Women’s history is not forgotten because it is unimportant. Women’s history is forgotten because it is empowering! Learning from different generations of women is life changing. Women’s history is forgotten because, just as Greenham proved, when women unite, we are unbeatable, we are stronger than our oppressors could ever dream.
The Greenham 40th anniversary march reminded me of how proud I am to be Welsh, to be a woman and to be alive in a time where I can continue to fight for what is right. Similarly to the original Greenham women, I was drawn to this march out of fear, searching for something – though I didn’t know what. I left the base feeling full of anger, hope, and love with the new mission of bringing the Greenham spirit home, to celebrate the legacy of female courage and to never apologise for existing authentically again. I can only thank the women who I met, the women who changed my perspective, the women who should be running our world and promise them that I will always bring the message home.
Poppy Stowell-Evans is a sixth form student at Llanwern High School studying Maths, Physics, History, Religious Studies and Welsh Baccalaureate at A-level. She is a passionate feminist and climate activist who campaigns to empower the youth voice and promote accessiable and unifying climate action at all levels of our society.