On the longest day of the year, I got lost looking for weapons of mass destruction.
I was on my way to join the protest at Burghfield in Berkshire, where the nuclear warheads for Trident are being refurbished and upgraded.
Burghfield is not far from the M4’s Junction 11 and should have been easy to find. But as we got close, we found our route blocked by ‘road closed’ signs. There are no road signs directing you to the Atomic Weapons Establishment, the map I’d printed proved completely useless, and the lanes twist and turn so much that I quickly lost all sense of direction.
We nosed up one lane and down another. The verges were thick with cow parsley, ash trees met overhead, swallows swooped above us and I saw a red kite circling over a field corner.
At one point, a rabbit pricked up its ears in front of us, then lolloped up the road. As we followed it along a narrowing track I felt that, like Alice and her white rabbit, we had passed through a portal into a strange and disorienting other world.
Was there really, somewhere in this peaceful backwater, a 225-acre high-tech factory, bristling with tall fences and all the paraphernalia of the military-industrial complex? Were scientists working on nuclear warheads, each one eight times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, right here right now? Or were I and the rest of the protesters suffering a collective delusion? It was hard to say which seemed less likely.
Eventually we came across police vans and formations of policemen blocking turnings. And by following one van, we found our way to the gate where protesters were maintaining a blockade, now in its third week. Locked together, they were stopping construction traffic to disrupt the work to give the warheads even greater destructive power.
A women’s group was holding the blockade today and our mixed group was sent to be a visible presence at a different gate, on a road with more passing traffic. So under the bemused regard of a large posse of police we unfurled our banners and tried to engage the interest of passers-by in the preparations for mass murder going on in their midst. As workers left the site, we offered them leaflets, which they all refused, some politely explaining that they had been told not to take them. “We’re not allowed to think for ourselves,” one man said.
That evening, back home, I went for a walk. It wasn’t a wild walk along country lanes like those I’d driven along in the morning – I walked in a straight line along a busy ‘A’ road.
This is the direct route between a large village and the nearest town, yet it didn’t look as if people walk along it much. The pavement was narrow and in places blocked by great swathes of tall umbellifers, nettles and giant hogweed so I was forced to step into the road. In one place a broken drain cover made a pothole big enough and deep enough to swallow your leg right up to the thigh. So I was surprised when I looked up from navigating these obstacles to see three boys walking towards me out of the dusk.
They were young, perhaps 11 or 12, and as I got closer I saw they were sweating and panting. They stopped to talk and I could feel heat radiating from them. They told me how they’d just been exploring a derelict factory and fled when they’d heard creaking and seen bodies lying on the floor. Perhaps the bodies were homeless people who sleep in the factory, I suggested. “If they are, they’re very brave,” said one boy admiringly. And then, after giving me directions in case I wanted to explore the factory for myself, they trudged on along the road, with at least a mile to go to the nearest house.
For the second time that day I wondered if I was dreaming, if the wild boys were a manifestation of my imagination and the midsummer night.
But when a few minutes later I came to an abandoned tennis club with its gate swinging open, I decided to honour their spirit and walked in.
Tall trees surrounding the overgrown courts somehow concentrated the darkness, but though it was after 10 o’clock, there was still enough light for birds to be singing. The clubhouse was trashed – every window and fixture smashed. A rusty roller gave a steampunk touch. I stood and listened to the deep, sweet, mournful calls of blackbirds and thrushes and savoured the frisson that comes from contemplating the destruction of civilisation.
And I thought back to the weapons of mass destruction even now being built in West Berkshire.
If they go off, whether by accident or purpose, every tennis club and factory will be like this; every home and pub; every school, hospital and shopping centre a ruin. But with no birds to sing from the burned tree stumps and no brave boys to explore the wreckage.