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At Dale Farm, they are ready for the bailiffs

Activists are on site, the UN is on side, and there's a protest planned for Saturday – these travellers won't go without a fight

As I'm marched past the crude scaffold barricade into the UK's biggest travellers' site, one thing is abundantly clear: it's the morning after the night before, and hangovers are peaking. Friday had been party time: the United Nations, contrary to a UK High Court judgment, had thrown its weight behind the view that 86 families, some 300 people, should not be evicted from their homes in Dale Farm, Essex. The euphoria carried over to a press conference where the travellers' representatives spoke of their distress and the destabilising impact any eviction would have on the elderly and the children.

Yesterday brought more negative headlines and, with travellers fearing they are once again under the cosh from the media, I am not welcome.

"Things are a little tense today," says Jake Fulton, a 24-year-old activist chaperoning me around the site. "A lot of people are unhappy with some of the newspaper articles and yesterday was emotionally draining." As if to illustrate the point a photographer is promptly and unceremoniously turfed off the site for trying to take a photo of activists.

Jake, a member of Dale Farm Solidarity, who has been visiting for a year but has lived on the site permanently for a week, tells me no families and no activists want to be interviewed. "You'll only write what your readers want to hear," says Steve, who is in his 60s. He moved to Dale Farm after he was evicted from a site in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, in 2007. "We have showed them photos that this place was a scrapheap before we moved here; they don't print them. They say it is greenbelt land and say people used to walk their dogs here and play in the grass, but there was no grass: it was all oil and cars."

Steve's comments sum up the heart of the travellers' problem; while the controversies of the dispute are complex and well known, each side has become embroiled in a skirmish of counter-allegations, which are countered as they are published. The travellers brought the land legitimately but then put homes on some 50 patches without planning permission. Basildon Council, whose view is backed by a majority of local residents, says the travellers have breached planning regulations and that, for years, it has provided the community with alternative accommodation. The travellers counter that moving site will change their way of life and mean the end their community.

The cost of eviction alone will be £18m, Steve says, money that "would be better spent on hospitals and schools."

Inevitably, the focus is on micro issues: the travellers being noisy neighbours who wreck the environment, and house prices. The travellers ask why the media largely chose to ignore the fact that a local resident brandished a gun at them earlier this week.

But away from all this, another conversation has started. Buried behind media headlines there is now a debate about the nature of travelling communities – and how to deal with what some perceive as a problem, and others as a right.

There is a growing feeling that the site has focused the minds and energies of residents, activists, councils, and, for the first time, government at national and international level.

A demonstration planned for Saturday, when protesters will meet at Wickford station and head to Dale Farm, in Crays Hill, is billed as the biggest ever for the travelling community.

Jake, who recently graduated from a London university after studying politics and sociology, says: "This is the first time a travelling community has invited activists to live with them. Travellers have a hierarchical and clan structure, and we have been talking to everyone. We are building a movement here from scratch – there are a number of activists here from all walks of life. It covers a number of issues: the rights of travellers, migrants, children. I don't want to overstress it, but it is an interesting dynamic."

The UN's statements have taken the debate to another level, but, regardless, the immediate future of the site and imminent eviction will grab headlines.

"Police say there will be about 2,000 activists and they are usually right about these things" he says. No one wants to guess at what will happen when the bailiffs and police arrive. "I honestly don't know. People have been here for 10 years and there are a lot of feelings and emotions."

By the time we finish our talk, some of the residents have warmed to my presence. I am shepherded to Jean Sheridan, a mother of four children, a four-year-old, and triplets aged two.

"I honestly have no idea what will happen, we'll be on the road again," she says, as the lively triplets run around her. Most of the community will struggle to move their families as they don't have enough cars, she tells me. As we speak, Jake tells me two of the community's women are due to give birth next week and one, who gave birth two days ago, is in hospital. "The midwife refused to come to the camp," he says.

The practical problems of daily living take precedence over the amorphous, brooding threat of impending eviction. For most of the people living there, ideological debates and media punditry are relatively meaningless.

The future looks bleak, potentially ugly, and even as the hangovers fade, the residents of Dale Farm and their growing army of campaigners face the prospect of one long headache.