Greenham & The Kennet


Link to GPX File of the Route

This ride visits the Commons and woodlands that border the higher ground around the valleys of two tributaries of the Thames; the Pangbourne and Kennet Rivers. These Commons have been the staging ground of battles, riots and demonstrations for 400 years.

Starting from Theale, it heads up to the Pang Valley which it follows on the south side before descending to meet the river at the pretty village of Bucklebury. It then heads south to Bucklebury Common. Descending again, you cross the River Kennet at Thatcham and head up towards Greenham Common, infamously used as a nuclear guest-house by US air base during the cold war. You then return to the Kennet via Newbury Racecourse, and follow its towpath for 12 miles back towards Theale.

Highlights are:

  • The sites of the 1980’s anti-nuclear protests at Greenham Common, now renewed and green again but not hiding the old bomb proof bunkers and control tower.

  • Newbury Racecourse. A name I was only familiar with from the sports reports!

  • The long & pleasant stretch of towpath, built as part of the canalisation of the Kennet in the 1700’s. Your inner geek might enjoy a single view taking on three generations of transport history; a Georgian canal, a Victorian railway and a Roman road routed next to each other.

  • The ancient Commons generally, Bucklebury and Crookham as well as Greenham; and which were the site of Civil War battles and ‘Swing Riots’.

  • The usual bolognese of local trivia. 

If you are interested, you can find a lot of general information on what has shaped this landscape from pre-history to the present day, elsewhere on this blog. Check this page: Link  Other Stuff 

Route Tips

If your app provides notes on the road surfaces etc. keep in mind that they are automatically generated and only as good as the underlying mapping. The road surfaces on this trip are OK and there are two ‘off road’ stretches. The 2 mile track across Greenham common is well-maintained gravel. The quality of the Kennet towpath surface varies. It is part of NCR4 and I haven’t had any trouble, but it can be muddy after rain and there are stretches where I am grateful for my tough touring tyres. If you don’t fancy this, I suggest that you head east from Greenham through Brimpton and Aldermaston en route to Theale. 

Zooming Out

To generalise, the chalk bedrock in this area is covered with a layer of clay, gravels and sand, some of which would have been deposited when rising seas inundated the Thames Valley. The ‘Commons’ sit on caps of gravel (which are readily apparent at Greenham) and the whole is dissected by the rivers. The Pang is a chalk stream and clear enough to support watercress beds in places.

The area, and especially the river valleys which provided fertile soils as well as transport, has been settled for a long time, but doesn’t have the same extensive legacy of very early occupation as the more open country to to west.

Before the Romans appeared, this was part of the territory of the Atrebates, whose major settlement in the area was at Silchester. This became Calleva after the Romans turned up and left their own footprints in this area. In the early medieval period, Berkshire as a whole shuffled between the overlordship of King Alfred’s Wessex and Mercia; but it is hard to imagine that this had much impact on the lives of toiling local farmers. Later, judging by entries in the Domesday Book, it seems that the area had become quite prosperous but, as elsewhere, the settlements and activity diminished with the Black Death.

Thanks largely to its transport links and fertile valleys, it grew in importance as the centuries passed. In the Civil War, the King was based in Oxford and Parliament in London, so the Newbury area was pivotal. Hence the battles, both to the West around Donnington and on the Commons to the East which are on this tour. For more detail, check the waypoint notes. The Kennet and its valley grew in importance as the major route to the West Country, being usefully south of the Thames, flat, and with water for the animals. In time this advantage diminished. The Great Western Railway bought the canal to snuff out the competition and then ran it down, and more recently the Bath Road was sidelined by the new M4.

On the blog you will also find posts on the rich and complicated human and topographical history of the area as a whole, ranging from the early occupation, the changing agricultural landscape, the geomorphology of the Thames Valley, the buildings and anything else that moves me. Link

A. Theale 

Theale has always been a handy location. Originally it was the junction of the Kennet Valley and another route used by the Romans for a road linking the Goring Gap  to Silchester along the Pang Valley. As you would expect they dropped the odd fag packet and set of keys to be picked up by archaeologists later. By the 1700’s it was on the Stagecoach route from London to Bath and Bristol, which foreshadowed what is now the A4 road. This made it popular with highwaymen including Dick Turpin. Legend has it that he had a bolt hole in the Old Lamb Inn on Church Street, which you pass on the way out of the town. 

This whole area was keenly fought over in the Civil War, because with the King based in Oxford and Parliament in London, it was a convenient spot for a tussle. I
n 1644,  it got an honourable mention from Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the dashing Cavalier leading the Royal Army. After coming 2nd in a first round of fighting at Newbury, he planned a further set-to with Cromwell’s troops at Theale, saying that ‘although the Roundheads are marching into Reading, we will make calves of them before they come into Veale’. Wot a wit! When you turn off Church Road, you pass Dead Man's Lane which was the depository of the corpses after the affray. 

Prince Rupert : The Dashing Cavalier

B. Bradfield

There was a monastery here once. The monks were a feisty lot, taking on William the Conqueror on his journey north after the Battle of Hastings. Pluck wasn’t enough though, they lost. William was not gruntled and dissolved the the monastery.

Now, Bradfield is home to a really posh school. So posh that it has its own 1000 seat Greek Style theatre where, every so often, the poor students have to perform a play entirely in Ancient Greek! Shown in the pic, it’s in a chalk pit on your right just after the crossroads in the Village. 

D. The Pang Valley & Bucklebury 

This pretty chalk stream, pictured in the header of this post, joins the Thames at Pangbourne. It’s inhabitants, and in particular the Voles, were supposedly the inspiration for Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and Ratty.

You cross the river at Bucklebury whose inhabitants together with those of Thatcham, our next stop, enthusiastically joined in the ‘Swing Riots’ in the 1830’s, aimed at smashing the machines that were replacing the labourers at a time when, after the Napoleonic Wars, food imports had resumed and prices were falling. This was no jolly; participants could be deported or even hung. Efforts to catch the prime mover, Captain Swing, failed. He didn’t exist. 

The Swing Riots

About two miles south of the Pang stream, you pass through Upper Bucklebury. This was the site of the First Battle of Newbury, the result of which was a narrow win for Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads. 

The story goes that in conference before the Battle, the Earl of Manchester who was one of their Generals, whined that  "The King need not care how oft he fights... If we fight 100 times and beat him 99 he will be King still, but if he beats us but once, or the last time, we shall be hanged, we shall lose our estates, and our posterities be undone". 

Olly’ wasn’t impressed by this defeatism, sacked the Earl and began to create what became known as the ‘Model Army’ and which won him the Civil War. 

The First Battle of Newbury 1643

E. Thatcham 

The Guinness Book of Records says that Thatcham is the oldest inhabited settlement in England. Apparently, just after the last Ice age, hunter-gatherers occupied a site a bit to the West of the route. Family Fayre included elk, beaver, wolf and pine marten! 

The original Bedrock! 

Stone Age Man Arrives in Thatcham

F.  Greenham & Crookham Commons

When you arrive at the entrance to Greenham Common, the land to your east is Crookham Common, which was the site of a major prisoner of war camp in WW2. There isn’t much left to see beyond a derelict Nissan Hut and some junk. If you are nonetheless interested, where you turn right here to go onto Greenham Common, turn left instead of right here and go about 500 yards down Crookham Common Road, then  take a path on your left next to a bust stop. The site is about 200 yards along the path. 

There are two sides to the story of the Common itself.

This is an edited down version of the congratulatory summary on a Greenham Common memories site. 

 ‘RAF Greenham Common was an RAF and US Air Force airfield that operated through World War Two and the Cold War. The Americans used it as a base for huge B-47 bombers and later Cruise Missiles. Despite protests and controversy, the mission was achieved and the Cold War was won. Greenham Common closed in September 1992 but the base lives on in our memories as a victory for freedom and a validation of a strong defence posture’.

Greenham Air Base : As Was

Those ‘protesters’ had a different view. It started in 1981 when a group of Welsh women marched from Cardiff to protest against the the presence of nuclear weapons, which made the base a potential target. 

Bunkers for Nuclear Missiles

They set up a permanent camp next to the base. This was Common land and it was argued that this legitimized their presence. Notwithstanding strenuous efforts were made to evict them. In the face of this and the sacrifices involved, the protesters endurance and courage was impressive.  

There were many injuries, arrests and a death. Full disclosure: I am not neutral on this. My mother-in-law was one of those arrested and imprisoned. The numbers grew until, in December 1983, 50,000 people formed a chain around the base. The protests caused huge embarrassment for the Government not least because the efforts to suppress them were often illegal. 

The Protests

The 'camp' itself consisted of nine smaller camps: 

Yellow Gate was first. 

Green Gate was 'women only' and nearest to the silo. 

Turquoise Gate.

Blue Gate with a rather hippy vibe.

Pedestrian Gate

Indigo Gate. 

Violet Gate where the religiously motivated gathered.

Red Gate for the artists.

Orange Gate. 

Some women stayed 'full time'. Others came and went. 

The protests continued until the end of the Cold War and the removal of the missiles in 1991 although the last protesters didn’t leave until the fences were taken down in 2000. The Common is now a ‘Common’ once again and a pleasant place for a wander. The site of the original encampment is a Peace Garden. 

G. Newbury Racecourse

Wikipedia helpfully tells us that Newbury Racecourse is a Racecourse. Who would have guessed? There are a number of races throughout the year, of varying types and distances. It has actually been a Racecourse since 1905, courtesy of some opportunistic lobbying of King Edward VII.   If you want to visit sometime, note that they like a bit of swank among the punters, saying ‘it is crucial that you dress as formally as you can’.  That means, Rapha or not, your bike Lycra won’t cut the ice. 

H . The Kennet & Avon Canal 

This section is properly known as the Kennet Navigation and opened in 1723 as a rationalisation of the  River Kennet to make it navigable. (The genuine canal runs west of Newbury). It wasn’t heavily used after the Great Western Railway opened later in the 1800’s. Together with the Bath Road, you can see three generations of transport in one spot.  

Brunel's original plan was that the railway should be 'broad gauge' track, a practical but pricier alternative to the 'narrow' gauge used elsewhere. As usual in this penny-pinching country, the cheap option was preferred. Now, you can see the old broad gauge tracks used to prop up some signs at Aldermaston Station. The Railway Company later bought the canal company and let it rot, to remove the competition. 

About a mile after joining the Canal, you pass the Thatcham Reed Beds and Thatcham Nature Discovery Centre. If you really want to see a Cetti’s warbler, drop in, and take a bucket of patience with you. In fact, this whole section is apparently a twitcher’s paradise. This doesn’t lend itself to description in a blog aimed at mobile phone users so if you want some detail, or are thrilled by the engineering involved in designing banks to be friendly to voles, the Wikipedia entry is a decent starting place with lots of links and references. 

Kennet & Avon Canal near Theale

There are several cafes and pubs on the way down the Canal. One is run by the Canals & Rivers Trust, at Aldermaston Wharf just east of the lift-bridge carrying the A340.


Popular posts from this blog

Start Here : Explanations

Mapping Apps Review

The Suburban Semi