AT the outset of the 1980s the possibility of nuclear annihilation, for many, seemed a real possibility with the west and the Soviet Union locked in a global arms race.

When US president Ronald Reagan agreed with prime minister Margaret Thatcher to base cruise missiles at a military airbase in the south of England, one young mother in Carmarthenshire decided she had to act.

“I would have nightmares and I found it invading my thoughts a lot, I had young children and if Swansea was targeted the flash would blind my children, if they were outside playing, and the radiation would reach us,” is Ann Pettitt’s simple explanation of her motivation to organise what would become one of the world’s most high-profile anti-nuclear protests.

With two friends, Ann set about organising a ‘peace march’ at her kitchen table in Llanpumsaint - to walk 120 miles from Cardiff to the Greenham Common base at Newbury in Berkshire.

“It would take about 10 days and we wanted something that was doable, not too difficult,” recalls Ann of the practicalities of a protest that was intended to capture the media’s attention, and the public’s consciousness, to highlight the threat posed by the latest escalation in the arms race.

On August 27, 1981, about 40 people – mostly women – set off from Cardiff to walk to the airbase where they wanted to speak with the commander and debate the decision to host the US missiles.

The marchers at the Greenham Common airbaseA flyer with the route of the march

It was hoped that the march, which attracted some attention from the Welsh media, would make headline news in the UK.

“Nobody took any notice,” said Ann: “The idea was to grab the headlines but it was completely ignored. When we got there some women chained themselves to the gates but that was ignored as well. We had to sort of stick around and that turned into the peace camp that carried on for years.”

The march could have quickly been forgotten but now, 40 years on, the name Greenham Common remains synonymous with the anti-nuclear movement - due to the peace camp that grew from the original march and which did eventually set the news agenda.

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Ann believes it was in part responsible for creating the pressure that led to nuclear treaties between the US and the Soviets, with the US missiles removed from the UK in 1991, and while the airbase closed in 1993, the camp remained until the year 2000.

“It was one of the factors that contributed to the atmosphere that put pressure on the leaders of the west to reduce nuclear arms,” said Ann.

The marchers at the Greenham Common airbaseThe marchers crossing the Severn Bridge

“There were also a number of women many hundreds, thousands, in the end who took part or were touched by it, influenced by it and changed their lives.

“They did things they hadn’t done before, it encouraged us to do things we thought we couldn’t do.”

When Ann began organising the march, in the name of the Women for Life on Earth group, some doubted even that could be done: “I was given the name of a woman from Bristol who was involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) who would be glad to help. I said we would need to walk about 10 miles a day, on average, and she said ‘women can’t do that’.”

One of those who joined the march was Sue Lent, from Cardiff, with her son Chris, who was just a year old: “I was just going to go for the first leg, to Newport, and people were asking me how far I was going to go.

“I wore flip flops. I thought I should wear something more sensible. I had some sandals but they just rubbed my feet.”

After the march arrived in Newport, Sue, who had left her job as a social worker to have Chris as maternity leave was more limited at the time, decided she and her baby would complete the full march and husband John drove her home to pack a bag for them to rejoin the march the following morning.

The marchers at the Greenham Common airbaseSue Lent with her son Chris - they both completed the march from Cardiff to Greenham Common

Sue, who is a Labour councillor in Cardiff, had been involved in political campaigns including CND, which she remembers as having “a bit of a revival”.

“There was a real fear around the potential for an accidental nuclear explosion or even an accident with the weapons being transported and also that we had no control over these missiles being here.”

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She remembers the marchers receiving mixed reactions as they made their way from Cardiff and over the Severn Bridge and across the south of England.

“There was a bit of hostility in Newbury but also a lot of support but sometimes, as we were marching, people would make throwaway comments, such as ‘why don’t you get a job?’ which was an odd one.

“People would also talk about the nuclear deterrent, I think that was the generation who had been through the war and thought we needed nuclear weapons to keep us safe.

“We had a lot of support from church groups and as we were going through some places it was a big event and people would line the streets to see us. I think we had the best reception in a village called Box (in Gloucestershire) or Marlborough.

“But when we arrived in Hungerford I remember there was no one around and the vicar came out to see us and said ‘I’m Hungerford CND’.”

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Sue didn’t remain at the camp following the completion of the march but did regularly return to offer support while Ann also wasn’t able to commit to remaining longer term at the base.

But Sue recalls Ann’s speech at Hyde Park in London, following a march from Greenham Common to a CND rally, which finally ignited the campaign: “Ann spoke and told people about the peace camp and it made a huge difference, gradually the numbers increased.”

The marchers at the Greenham Common airbaseA banner that was carried on the original march

In December 1982 an ‘embrace the base’ protest was held in which 30,000, mostly women, linked arms to surround the giant camp’s perimeter and it put the issue on the global news agenda.

Next week, to mark the 40th anniversary, campaigners will recreate the walk from Cardiff to Newbury and Sue will join them – though she says she intends to stick to her intention to only complete the first leg to Newport on this occasion.

She thinks the issue which inspired her to join the original walk is still relevant with Britain and the other remaining nuclear powers showing indifference, and even hostility, to efforts through the United Nations to try to achieve disarmament.

“We’ve got to keep on campaigning. I don’t think there is enough going on with CND and we need to do more, and that includes me,” said Sue.

For Ann nuclear weapons remain a threat - and she feels there is still, as there was in 1981, “astonishing ignorance” of their threat - but she feels the climate crisis is now the biggest danger facing humanity: “I think global warming is the catastrophe that is being ignored by our government now.”

Sue and Ann will be taking part in an online event on Thursday, August 26 at 6.30pm organised by National Museum Wales and the Women’s Archive Wales to mark the 40th anniversary of the march.

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