The Bubblers say they're different from New Age travellers - which still does not endear them to the villagers, says Esther Oxford
The rustle is eerie. Pine trees rub their needles together. More scrambling up the hill - round the apple orchard, over the barbed wire, higher and higher. The camp suddenly emerges: white teepees behind the trees. The home of the Bubblers, or "intellectual campers", as they like to call themselves. Functional and bohemian. Except that nobody appears to be in them.

Worried about seeing something we are not supposed to see, Chris Jones, our photographer, slopes round, calling coo-eeeee, coooo-eeeee. More silence. Where could they be? Working in the fields? Milking cows? Gathering berries for the children? Look around for signs: fresh flowers blossom from a can, so they must be close.

But they are not. The benders, tents and semi-permanent wood buildings are sealed. The "kitchen" (a series of units made from split tree trunks) looks unused. More cooo-eeeee, cooo-eees. Deathly silence. Perhaps they've given up the project? Perhaps they've been swept out by bailiffs?

We are later told that the Tinkers' Bubble community in Norton-sub-Hamdon, Somerset, has not yet been dismantled. They are just out for the day, "probably protesting", says Denise Manning, who lives next door to the settlement. "They often do that," she says. Then, in a scathing tone: "These travellers protest about anything."

But the Bubblers are not travellers. Nor are they New Age hippies. They say they are intellectual pioneers, inspired by the Diggers, a 17th-century band of agrarian "communists" who argued that land should be made available to the poor. There are 10 of them - six adults and four children - and half a dozen "Weekenders" (city people wanting a quick romp in the countryside). Their aim is to become a self-sufficient community: they have animals, grow vegetables and sell apples to buy in the essentials.

Norton's residents don't appreciate the distinction. As far as they are concerned, the Bubblers are vermin who should be stamped out. There used to be deer on that hill, they'll tell you. Tame deer that bred. When the Bubblers arrived 20 months ago, the deer disappeared. In their place are a crowd of grubby-looking paupers, half a dozen tents and teepees, several cars, a campfire, a home-made outdoor "kitchen", a small football pitch and most controversial of all, a shit pit.

This week, though, the Bubblers' plans were scuppered. John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, told them their tents must be taken down in the next six months. He argues that a personal preference to live a different lifestyle does not justify the setting aside of planning objections. The Bubblers are bitter. "We bought the land," they say. "We paid pounds 55,000. We should be able to do what we want with it." They plan to appeal but are worried about the costs: pounds 4,000 for starters, plus a possible pounds 25,000 if they are asked to pay the Department of Environment's costs.

But the villagers are happy. They take pride in the postcard prettiness of their stone cottages, English country gardens and old mill. "I don't see why they should be able to build homes on their land when we are not allowed to," says Mrs Manning, from her doorstep. "Before we know what is happening, everyone will be building bungalows in their front garden." House prices have also suffered since the Bubblers moved in, says Mrs Manning. Buyers are reluctant to purchase a home knowing that "hippies" live in the back yard.

Then there is the litter problem ("sanitary towels have been found up there - scattered by badgers," says Mrs Manning), rumours that one Bubbler galloped through town on his horse, bare-backed and without a hat (illegal), and that terrible noise - tribal drum playing at night. Furthermore, "the number of people sitting in doorways" and selling the Big Issue has increased since the Bubblers came to town. "It is getting as bad as Bath," says Mrs Manning.

But there is some support for the Bubblers. Paddy Ashdown, Liberal Democrat leader, lives in a dainty thatched cottage in Norton. He wrote a letter to South Somerset District Council saying he believes in the principle of live and let live: "This would not be a very free country if we were not able to enjoy a freedom of lifestyle within our private property," he wrote.

Then there is Richard Constable, 63, descendent of the artist John Constable, and his wife, Valerie, 51, who have taken the Bubblers under their wing. Louise, the only woman on the settlement, visits their sprawling stone mansion. "She uses our washing machine in winter and occasionally comes round for a bath," says Mrs Constable, a dealer of Russian art. "We'll sit in the kitchen and chat."

But the rest of the villagers are quick to vent their loathing for these "New Age travellers", these "hippies", "pigs", "triffids". They "lower the tone of the village", "sponge off our tax money", endanger deer, cause traffic congestion on narrow lanes, pose a risk of infernos from cooking fires and threaten the county's pounds 30m tourist trade by intruding on a country park, say the villagers.

The only pub, the Lord Nelson, has gone so far as to ban all Bubblers. "Some of their women were sneaking in the back door, using the pub's loos. If they want to live like pigs, they can, but don't use my facilities," says Mike Hill, the publican.

Attempts by the Constables to bridge the gap between the villagers and the Bubblers failed miserably. "I arranged an afternoon tea party in the garden and invited everybody in the village, including the vicar. The Bubblers themselves arrived and had a thoroughly good time - as did some other young couples in the area. But only two other villagers came. The vicar pretended he hadn't got my message," Mrs Constable says.

"The problem is that a lot of people think that once they have bought a property here, they have made it. They are aggrieved to find the Bubblers arriving on their doorstep. They are frothing at the mouth."

But the Bubblers, says Mrs Constable, are "not just ordinary travellers". They are professionals - there is a green journalist among them, a horticulturist, a gardener. While one or two may be "aggressive" and "angry", the rest are gentle and hate noise. They are responsible, too - the four children have a good attendance rate at the village school. And they are willing to compromise. When neighbours complained that the tents could be seen from their window, the Bubblers dutifully moved their settlement to the top of the hill.

"They have wanted to integrate," says Mrs Constable. "They've invited people from the village up for roast lamb or pheasant on a spit several times." The snootiness of the villagers is, she says, "pure prejudice hidden behind a smokescreen of reason."

It is time to revisit the Bubblers. Eventually, we get to the top of the hill, where two men sit. They watch us with a slight sneer. "Middle- class bastards," says one. "Albert," warns the other under his breath.

But there is no stopping Albert, a "guest" at the camp. "I don't know why you're interested in us," he says. "Look at you -trapped in this eight-hour day, work-hard ethic. What is the point of working hard and paying taxes? You're just caught in the system. You don't have a soul."

"Talk about the Diggers," I say. "What is it that inspires you?" Michael, a leader (and a one-time horticulturalist), replies. "All that has been overplayed," he says in a well-to-do accent. "We own our land. The Diggers didn't." There is another difference - the Diggers worked hard while the Bubblers prefer to play hard. "We spend much of our time sitting round the fire jawing!" says Albert.

"Where are the rest of you?" I ask. "I'm the only one here tonight," admits Michael. "The rest are elsewhere." Some "settlers" had left, he explains, because they found girlfriends "who wouldn't dream of living here". Others (such as himself) had flats or other homes elsewhere. After a while, it becomes clear that the "Lost Community" we'd been searching for that morning was not at a protest, or working the fields. It had simply dispersed.

In the village, the locals already knew that Louise was looking for an escape route - a council house, to be precise. Michael knew, too. "We will miss her," he says sadly. "But it was all too deep for her. She liked the novelty of living in the woods but wasn't cut out to cope with the reality."

Soon there will be just four left of the original 12. The weekenders will probably keep coming, at least until summer ends. But even they are reluctant to muck in and experience nomadic living. They sleep in nylon tents in sleeping bags. Albert claims they do no more than an hour's toil a day. When they need a hot shower, they rush back to London. "Middle- class bastards," says Albert again.