Focus: 'Gypsies are going to get killed. If they did this to Asians, there'd be riots all over England'

Time is running out for the travellers at the camp that has become the target of a tabloid get-'em-out campaign. Julia Stuart reports
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The Independent Online

Barbara O'Brien recently received a text message informing her that the wife of a friend had died. As the 27-year-old can't read, she didn't bother getting in touch straightaway. "How stupid do you think I felt?" she asks.

Barbara O'Brien recently received a text message informing her that the wife of a friend had died. As the 27-year-old can't read, she didn't bother getting in touch straightaway. "How stupid do you think I felt?" she asks.

Barbara is pregnant and wants her unborn child to go to the local village school, Crays Hill Primary, near Billericay in Essex. Having spent most of her life on the road, she wants to give the child the education she never had. It is a sentiment echoed among parents throughout her community of Irish travellers, one of the largest illegal camps in the UK. The nomadic life has lost its attraction.

But on 13 May Barbara and most of the community will have to move on. Two years ago an eviction order was granted by John Prescott on 60 families - the vast majority - at the site. The deadline is nearly upon them, yet none has plans to leave. The locals, some of whom have been plagued with problems since they arrived, can't wait to see the back of them. Trouble is brewing.

It comes at a time when animosity against travellers has never been more rabid. Last week, The Sun newspaper launched a campaign to stop what it called a "gypsy invasion" after Mr Prescott urged councils to find more land to build official sites for travellers, to encourage them not to set up illegal camps. The red-top told its readers that the Deputy Prime Minister had ordered local councils "to go soft" on travellers' camps and to "turn a blind eye to the shocking problems they create". To give Mr Prescott a "taste of his own medicine", the paper set up its own gypsy camps outside two of his homes, complete with caravans and a tip fashioned out of an old sofa and scrap metal.

The Daily Mail joined in with a front-page photograph of a pile of rubbish, complete with scavenging dog, taken at a travellers' camp in Wickford, Essex. The headline read: "Thanks, Mr Prescott".

The Crays Hill site was set up five years ago, with permission for just 12 caravans. But over the years it has attracted Irish travellers in their hundreds. As more and more of their children started attending the primary school, the locals started withdrawing theirs, claiming they weren't getting enough attention. Last November, the roll had fallen from 200 to 51, with every pupil bar one a traveller.

Most traveller families at the camp have several caravans, one static chalet, several saloon cars and a washing-line. The majority of plots are tidy, apart from one that has become a communal tip for old sofas, gas bottles, tyres and Christmas trees. A number, perhaps in a nod to the taste of the county in which they find themselves, have elaborate iron gates. A small brick building houses washing machines, showers and a toilet.

While word of Mr Prescott "going soft" hasn't reached them, the fury of The Sun has. "Some gypsies are going to get killed over this," warns one resident. "There is such a thing as live and let live. If they did this to Asian people, there'd be riots all over England. Just because we are travelling people and gypsies, they can say what they like."

James Sheridan, 32, came to the site four years ago from Grays in Essex, and buys and sells furniture for a living. He is sitting on a leather sofa in the chalet belonging to his mother, Jean, careful not to dirty the wood laminate floor with his feet. "If we are forced to move on, we will block London like they did during the fuel protest if we have to," he says in a thick Irish accent. "We don't want to be dragged out like dogs. I was born in England and reared in England. I'm not a foreigner. All we want is to be left here."

Travellers staying put is the last thing most aggrieved locals want to see. Many of them refuse to give their names for fear of reprisals. There is talk of land being seized, windows being broken, bikes stolen and nappies found on drives. "They have ruined my life," says one woman almost in tears. "It's frightening living here. Every day I'm worried that something is going to happen. It's the first thing I think about when I wake up. People who say they deserve somewhere to live don't have them living next to them."

Gary Delfalco, 58, a cab driver who lives in Oak Road, the narrow country lane the travellers use to access the site, says: "Every other day somebody seems to hurl something out of their cars as they go past. If you are driving up the lane you are the one who has to give way."

Like many, he is concerned about the falling value of his home. "I dread to think how much it has gone down in value. It would be out of the question to sell now."

One drinker in the Shepherd and Dog, which has banned travellers, says his property has gone down in value from £450,000 to £150,000 because of the illegal camp. "I'm pretty peed off," he says. "They should buy a house like everybody else and go to work." A businessman who works locally simply says: "They are horrible, horrible people."

Despite the locals' fears of "having a brick put through their window" if they publicly criticise travellers, only 87 incidents have been reported to the police in just under a year, fewer than on a similarly sized housing estate. Glenn Caton, a superintendent for Basildon Police, says: "It's not a high number. The big issue for us is the public reassurance aspect."

Local people had hoped it would be all over by 13 May. However, the occupiers of 15 of the 60 illegal plots are appealing. Crays Hill is going to stay in the headlines.