AS A TALE of simple country folk, the saga unfolding in a Somerset village says a lot about the values and attitudes that run below the tranquil surface of rural England today.

In the hamlet of Muchelney, feelings are running high. A row between the villagers, the local authority and a gypsy family has erupted into violence and raised questions about the nature of a rural community that believes it has the right to pick and choose neighbours.

Eileen Pike is a gypsy, a plumpish, volatile woman easily moved to tears. Her family has picked fruit on west Somerset farms for generations. Her husband, Peter, is a Gorgio, or non- Romany - a quiet, unemployed man with an exhausted face.

In the eight years since the Pikes left their gypsy camp at Tintinhull, near Yeovil - to give their five children, all under 15, a more settled life - their presence on three council estates, amid vociferous allegations of vandalism, theft and juvenile mayhem, has culminated in neighbours' petitions demanding that they leave. Stoodham estate, at South Petherton, an enclave of neat gardens and polished cars, has been no exception. Locals regarded the Pikes' scrubby lawn and lorry as an affront to the community's standards.

'It's a big family so the community of Stoodham had a petition to have the housing authority move them,' says David Stapleton, director of community services for South Somerset District Council. 'There were threats of violence, that they would take matters into their own hands. I suspect, because they're of Romany origin, that perhaps attention is more fixed on them than any other family with similar problems.

'We searched high and low to find a property in the middle of nowhere where they wouldn't be perceived as a nuisance. The next best thing was to try to put them in a small rural community where they would have more space and feel more at home.'

Officials, working secretly, finally chose a council house, one of an estate of four pebble-dash houses, in Muchelney, seven miles away; and then Muchelney found out and all hell broke loose. Led by the parish chairman, Richard England, a farmer, a deputation visited the Pikes and advised them to stay away.

When, a couple of weeks later, the Pikes turned up to look at their new home they found their way blocked by muckspreaders parked across the gate. Later, at dead of night, intruders let themselves in through the back door of the three-bedroom house, removed the ballcock from the cistern and flooded the place. The Pikes, who allege that they were physically threatened in Muchelney, have now decided against moving to the village.

'Three weeks before we were to move, this car come up to the house,' Mrs Pike says, in her sparsely furnished sitting-room at South Petherton. 'There were four men in the car and three got out and advised us not to move down there.

'Then, two weeks after, me and my husband and two boys went to Muchelney in his lorry with the keys from the council to look at the place. Suddenly my husband's run back up the road and said, 'I'm not going in there. Look, woman, they don't want us. They've put dung spreaders right in front of my house]'

'The next-door neighbour come running out and said, 'It's nothing to do with me. If I was you I'd ring for the police'. Then two blokes came running up. The big chap said, 'I'll make damn sure you don't come over here. You come round here and I'll beat your head in'. They was calling us gypsies and shouted they was going to do things with the house, which we thought was just threatening until we heard later someone had turned the taps on and brought the ceilings in and ruined the carpets.'

Silence has overtaken Muchelney since the routing of the Pikes, its inhabitants stunned by a banner headline in the Western Gazette: 'Gypsy family faces racist blockade'. An air of furtive guilt hangs over the little cottages with their rose gardens and distant prospect of Muchelney Abbey. A tranquil corner of rural England, prosperous, kindly to its own kind, was tinged suddenly with the kind of madness reminiscent that I saw in the Louisiana Ku Klux Klan belt 20 years ago.

Mr England, who once chattered to me cheerfully about his plans to turn his 300 wetland acres to green tourism, refused to come to the door of his handsome stone farmhouse to discuss his role in the affair. His neighbour, John Leach, grandson of the St Ives potter Bernard Leach, was equally taciturn. 'I've got absolutely nothing to say to the media,' he said. 'I don't hold with it, but it's all been blown up out of proportion and it doesn't help gypsies or the parish or anyone else who might have been responsible.'

A woman yanking bindweed out of a garden nearby railed against hippies and dole scroungers. 'A bullet in the head is what they need,' she said. 'If I were dying of cancer I'd buy a shotgun and take out six of them.'

Casual racism taints the language of locals in Muchelney. One of the community's council tenants, a kindly man agitated in his immaculate front garden, explained that he had no prejudice against class, creed or race so long as people maintained decent standards. Then he said: 'Gypsies came by at midnight after all this and shone torches through my bedroom window. I didn't mind because I've got a good dog.'

Similar attitudes, thinly veiled, can be found in many West Country communities, exacerbated by the activities of New Age travellers and the fear that the police cannot control them.

Seven miles away across the Somerset Levels, the villagers of Middlezoy await with fear and loathing the building of a 25-site gypsy transit camp near the village. The community, with its quiet church, pretty cottages and miniature brick suburb, has fought the scheme for six years, losing at a public inquiry and now facing its implementation by the Liberal Democrats, who took control of county hall from the Tories last month. Confidently predicting that the site will be swamped by New Age travellers, John Kirk, landlord of Middlezoy's 17th-century pub, The George, says he will close down rather than serve them.

The normally compassionate farming community, which greets newcomers with flowers, had its siege mentality against itinerant strangers strengthened last year when police telephoned to say a New Age convoy was heading its way.

'They said they hadn't the men spare to help us and we were on our own,' one local said. Light aircraft from a private flying club at Westonzoyland, a derelict wartime fighter base, were scrambled to track the New Age convoy and report its progress to a radio ham in Middlezoy, who then phoned local farmers, warning them to block their gates. When the initiative was made public, at least one prominent villager received death threats.

As in Muchelney, residents of Middlezoy say they have nothing against gypsies as a race. Middlezoy even has its own long-established gypsy camp, a bleak but scrupulously cared-for community of caravans a couple of miles away. Few locals ever go there. Several villagers told me the Romany families were divided by wire fences to stop them fighting each other; and did I know, if you put Irish gypsies next to English gypsies they would be at each other's throats?

'The gypsies on the site are no trouble at all,' says Mr Kirk. 'The previous landlord read them the riot act and said, 'If you come in here and misbehave, you're out', and they've always respected that.'

Thirty years ago, before they became gentrified with house prices beyond the pocket of genuine rural families, villages such as Middlezoy or Muchelney would have absorbed a family like the Pikes.

Humphrey Temperley, a county and district councillor covering Muchelney, says the Pikes are at least partly responsible for their misfortune. The family had been sworn to secrecy about the move, but Mrs Pike had gossiped about it.

Mr Temperley, who farms near Muchelney and employed Mrs Pike's mother as a fruit picker for many years, says council officers faced an agonising dilemma. 'I'd discussed with officials whether we'd consult with the village first and, on balance, we decided we'd talk to the village after they arrived,' he says. 'When word of their move reached the community, the parish chairman and his deputy collected a petition of 89 signatures and took it to the housing office in Somerton. Next day they concluded that the only thing they could do was go and talk to the Pikes at South Petherton. Mr England informed them of the petition. From what I've been told he wasn't abusive. He's not that type of person.

'Of course, council houses are for people with serious housing needs who quite often have serious social problems. I had to use my judgement as to whether any useful purpose would be served by imposing the Pikes on that community by force under police escort.

'I don't think you can operate a system whereby the parish gets to choose who lives in it. Otherwise we'll be back in the 17th century with witch burnings and people being thrown out.

'If we'd had a family who strongly wished to go to that village then we'd have had a problem. As it turns out, they've decided not to go. I don't believe the parish meeting had any knowledge of the vandalism. I think it was done by an enthusiastic lad who thought it would be a good idea. The clear response from the community is that, so long as it's recognised that no one senior or responsible instigated that damage, they'll think about contributing towards the cost of repairs.'

Council officials are still considering what to do with the gypsy family no one wants. One option is to buy them an pounds 80,000 house isolated from other human habitation; another is to put the children into care. Either way it is going to cost the choosy churls of west Somerset dear.

(Photograph omitted)