Demonised by the media, travellers lead a lonely life on the margins of society

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Nora Slattery makes an unlikely hate figure. Family photographs adorn the neatly papered walls and freshly dusted mantelpiece of her living room. Her best china, inherited from her mother and depicting scenes of a bucolic past, is prominently displayed.

But Miss Slattery, 53, is feeling persecuted. She and her community have been labelled "animals" by a neighbour, a view repeated in The Sun newspaper, which this week began a campaign to have the traveller site they live in at Crays Hill, Essex, closed.

Miss Slattery is in poor health. She is suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure and a heart murmur. The highlight of her week comes on Sundays, when she attends mass at the local Catholic church. Outside her pre-fabricated home is a statue of the Virgin Mary. It is a common sight on this encampment, where 40 Irish traveller families are facing eviction in May.

The fury heaped on Crays Hill and the 600 people that live there came after advice this week by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, that travellers or Gypsies should be treated with the same cultural sensitivity by local authorities as other ethnic groups when making planning decisions. Those in the settled communities alongside Crays Hill and its neighbouring site at Hovefields have been expressing their anger. They say they lived happily alongside an established Romany Gypsy site there until three years ago, when dozens of families began to arrive from the Republic of Ireland and set up illegal permanent homes on land they had bought from a local farmer.Even though part of the site had been used illegally as a breaker's yard, with piles of old cars abandoned there and the ground contaminated with spilt oil, it was officially designated as green belt.

It is claimed that their presence is driving down house prices in an area where large detached properties can sell for in excess of £1m. There is talk of violence and intimidation, of a middle-England paradise lost.

But there is another side to this story, one of a culture that has run out of space and which is no longer tolerated by those around it.

It is estimated that there are 4,500 caravans with nowhere to go. An extra 300 camps are required to accommodate them, according to Pat Niner of the University of Birmingham, who has advised the Government on the issue. Many of the communities do not want to continue travelling all year round, she believes. They are also increasingly marginalised - "the most socially excluded group in the population", she called them.

It is a claim backed up by recent findings. According to Ofsted, traveller children are the most at risk of being failed by the education system. Recent research for the Department of Health found that traveller men and women were up to five times more likely to suffer health problems.

On average, traveller women die 11.9 years younger than settled women, mainly because of the appallingly high maternal death rate. For men it is 9.9 years. It is estimated that 70 per cent of council-provided sites are on marginal land and half are next to motorways. Only 4 per cent are equipped with a children's play area. Nearly half contravene fire and safety regulations.

"We need someone out there to do something for us, if they have a heart. They should come here and see for themselves how we live " said Miss Slattery.

Her two young nieces, Kathleen and Nora Gore, who live in neighbouring caravans, said: "We like it here. It is very friendly. But what the papers are saying is wrong. We are not animals, we have compassion. Where else is there for us to go? They are making us out to be rubbish and we are not."

Crays Hill is a rough-and-ready place but those that live there are proud of what they have achieved. And there is a remarkable community spirit. Miss Slattery said: "There are no paedophiles here. There are no kidnappers. A little four-year-old girl can wander the length of this place and everyone will be looking out for her."

Mary Sheridan, 53, was preparing to move from her caravan into a pre-fabricated homebought for her by her six sons. She is suffering from severe depression and a kidney condition. "Why are they treating us like dirt?" she asked. Like most of the adults on the site, Mrs Sheridan cannot read or write and wants her grandchildren to have something better. It is a recurrent theme.

Miss Slattery's brother, Michael, 58, described the humiliation of having to sign his name with a large X. He has been working since he was 12, having arrived in England from Co Limerick in the back of his parents' horse-drawn carriage in 1959. He was eventually taught to write his name by his seven-year-old son.

But the desire to provide an education for the children has been one of the key areas of conflict with the settled community. At the local primary school, which once had a waiting list of hopeful pupils, many classrooms are empty. The last "local" child withdrew in November of last year, and now it is only the children of the traveller families that attend.

For the visitor, asking directions to the site draws warnings and raised eyebrows. Locals believe those going there are at risk. Some of the fear stems from a fatal shooting at the site two years ago.

Len Gridley, 45, whose home backs on to the site, said he was prepared to buy land in Sedgefield and Hull, the constituencies of Tony Blair and Mr Prescott. "If the Government don't keep their promise and close down the site at the bottom of my garden then I will buy those pieces of land and sell them to travellers," he said this week.

Mr Scott rejects claims the travellers are being discriminated against because of cultural differences.

He said: "These people are paying no income tax, no national insurance, no rates or water bills. They are getting all their money from the DHSS but they are driving around in huge expensive cars and their children go to school in taxis."

Refuse collectors at Hovefields are refusing to pick up the rubbish because they have been fired at by children with air guns.

A former local councillor, Harry Scott, who has been a resident of Crays Hill for 25 years, has been at the front of the opposition to the site. He insisted there is nothing racist about the campaign; he merely wants the travellers to obey the local planning rules.

He said he thought The Sun newspaper has gone about its campaign in a "crash, bang, wallop fashion" but he is also grateful for its support.

Mr Scott said: "It is marvellous. It is the most influential newspaper in the country. We need a hard-hitting paper like this. Welcome to the real world and thanks for trying to help us."

Neither side believes the May deadline will end the dispute. At the end of a week of bitter headlines, they appear further apart than ever.