I started Good Friday with an early morning training ride. A hard overnight frost had preserved the sculpted snow drifts for another day. Ice was an ever present hazard, especially on the ascents and descents where thaw from the saturated land had frozen overnight. But, it is worth forsaking a warm bed for the cold dawn when, for miles, the roads are yours alone.
Climbing the iced ascent through Brington, just off the A14, I reached RAF Molesworth. During the World War II it was home to the “Hell’s Angels” 303rd Bomber Group, part of the USAF Eight Air Force. Today the only things in the air were snow-rumped bullfinches; back then the thrumming drone of B-17 bombers would have been a familiar sound.
When the war ended many of the region’s airbases were demobilised. Their runways were restored to farmland, but their memory still lingers in the many USAF and RAF memorials scattered across the region. But not all disappeared: some, like Molesworth, were retained for Cold War service.
I’ve ridden past the base many times and, other than being wary of left-hand drives unused to narrow English roads, I’ve never given it much thought. That is, until today.
As I approached the main gates, I noticed a small sign among the bare winter trees. It read simply “Peace Garden. Dedicated to a world without war” and caught my interest.
The patch of land that I now know to be the Peace Garden is sandwiched between the base’s high, razor wire topped perimeter fence and the Old Weston road. Beneath the garden’s leafless trees, broken concrete walls sit among lingering patches of late snow. No snowdrops or daffodils grow between the trunks or ruins to lift the site’s despondent atmosphere. Stood in the cold east wind, it was easy to imagine a world where Soviet armies had rolled across the Rhine and not stopped at the Channel. All it needed was a T-80 main battle tank standing sentinel while a burning A-10 illuminated the uniform sky to complete the scene. Intentionally or not, this morning the garden felt like it had passed through war, but I was still no wiser about its history.
Back home I did a bit of research and learned the origins of the Peace Garden date back to the Cold War, and not surprisingly the peace and nuclear disarmament movement. In 1980 the USAF and MOD designated Molesworth to house nuclear tipped ground launched cruise missiles. It would become the second UK cruise missile site after Greenham Common. In the early 80’s the World War II runways were removed, to be replaced by missle bunkers, and the site was modernised, ready for the US Air force’s 303rd Tactical Missile Wing (originally designated the 550th, but renamed to the 303rd in honour of the wartime Hell’s Angels).
Just as at Greenham Common, the base became a focus for peace and anti-nuclear protest. A camp grew up alongside the base which became known as the Rainbow Village. The camp had strong Christian support, and in 1984 a Peace Chapel was built using rubble from the old runways as well as personal artefacts donated by the protesters. It was later consecrated by the Bishop of Huntingdon. However, on February 5th 1985 a large police and military operation, involving over 1000 personnel, was launched to evict the protesters and secure the base perimeter. The operation succeeded and although protests continued and the fence was, on several occasions, breached, the camp’s heyday was over. As for the chapel, that fell within the new boundary fence. It was demolished the following April, apparently on the same day that the USAF was bombing Tripoli as a reprisal to a Libyan terror attack in Berlin. In 1987 the USSR and USA signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the following year nuclear cruise missiles left Molesworth.
So as well as a good, if chilly, training ride this morning I discovered an important part of my local social and military history, but it is one which seems to be largely forgotten. Amidst the many memorials to those who gave their lives fighting Nazism, the Peace Garden stands as a solitary tribute to those who stood against their government and demanded a future where a MAD world no longer stared into a nuclear abyss.