On the edge of the vast, windy Essex wheatfields, Grattan Puxon picks his way among some charred scraps of metal by the side of a remote country road north of Chelmsford. It looks as if someone's burnt some rubbish on the verge. But this - a few bits of melted aluminium - is all that remains of a traveller's caravan, set alight by unknown arsonists after bailiffs, backed by police in riot gear, evicted travelling families from a paddock nearby. They had bought the ground, moved their caravans onto it three years ago, and called it Meadowlands. But their four planning applications to live here had all been rejected.
A former leading member of the Gypsy Council and now secretary of the Roma Federation, Puxon lives only a few miles away in Colchester. He climbs the huge earth bank thrown up around the site by bulldozers to keep the travellers out. Of the 15 families and some 28 caravans that were here two weeks ago, there is now no trace. The paddock is just bare earth. "How do I feel, looking at this? I feel like I'm at the scene of a massacre," says Puxon, 65. "This is the travellers' own land - and they've been thrown off it and it's been ploughed up. I've never seen anything like this in 40 years as an activist. This is ethnic cleansing."
The eviction on the morning of 26 January made a lengthy item on the regional TV news, with footage of blazing barricades, 100 police with riot shields, tearful women, and rocks being thrown at the 40 bailiffs hired by Chelmsford Borough Council as the travellers tried to keep their homes. It was the latest in a series of increasingly ugly confrontations between travellers and local councils trying to evict them from "illegal" sites. This, campaigners say, has racked up tension between the two sides to new heights of acrimony.
Earlier last month, behind a banner that read "Stop ethnic cleansing", travellers held off police and bailiffs sent in to evict them from Bulkington Fields, a large site north of Coventry. This week, others at an encampment at Paynes Lane near Harlow, Essex, are bracing themselves for almost certain eviction from a site they say has been used by travellers for nearly 20 years. At Woodside, another site in Bedfordshire, legal wrangles grind on after an attempted eviction in November 2002. Hemmed in by planning laws, constantly served with injunctions, and repeatedly moved on from roadsides under the Tories' 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (brought in mainly to crack down on raves and New Agers), Gypsies and travellers say the traditional life they have led in Britain since at least the 16th century is in its death throes. But Harry Smith thinks it's worse than that. "It's finished now - we've had it," he says, sitting by the stove in the little wooden cabin he's put up on his pitch at Paynes Lane. "It makes me feel horrible, because I'm a travelling man and I love to travel - but I can't any more. Society doesn't want to let you do that."
From an old Gypsy family, Smith can't read or write - but at 63 he's as bright as a button and still bursting with energy. He works as a gardener, and his plot here, where he's planted trees and flowers, is as neat as a pin. His green linnet Joey chirps from an ornate cage hanging by the door. And Smith gives a glimpse of a gentler rural past, when Gypsies were accepted as part of the landscape. "Years ago, you went where your living was; you'd pull onto a nice piece of ground, stay in a village for a fortnight, find a bit of work. And if you left the place tidy you could go back the next year - and that was my life. But I can't live it no more - they won't let me."
Now, he goes on the road just twice a year, to the Gypsy horse fairs at Appleby in Cumbria, and Horsmonden in Kent (the council there is trying to close that down too, despite its 400-year history). "I were born in a proper Gypsy caravan - my old man had horse-drawn vans," he says. "In summer he'd put straw and blankets under the wagons, and us kids would sleep there, outside, under the vans. And I'm proud to say that." But those idyllic days are over. Today a notice to quit from Epping Forest District Council, backed by the High Court, expires. It could mean bailiffs. Smith faces eviction from this cosy cabin and the plot he bought, which has been his home for 14 years.
Sitting at the wheel of a muddy Transit on a site outside Colchester, Patrick Purcell knows all about the brutal realities of being a traveller in the 21st century. He and his family were among those evicted from Meadowlands. "There was a big uproar on the site," he says. "They were going to break open the door of my van with a crowbar if my wife didn't open it. The kids were inside. So we had to leave; there was no other choice."
Purcell, his wife Ann and their children Nan, 6, Ileene, 5, and Paddy, 18 months, watched as their caravan - a £16,000 German-built Lord Munster, which travellers regard as the Rolls-Royce of vans - was towed off the site by a contractor's lorry. "They smashed the back and the floor towing it out," claims Purcell. "We left it on the road because I didn't have a vehicle to tow it. When we came back the next day it was burnt out. I don't know who did it. But just the chassis was left."
Purcell, 29, says he'd put his life savings into the caravan. "It was almost brand-new. But now my home's been burnt down, all my kids' stuff, all our belongings." He and his family are now crammed into a friend's caravan on this site outside Colchester. It doesn't have planning permission either.
"There's eight of us sharing the one van. The kids are sleeping on the floor, and my friend can't hack it no more. There's no privacy. So we've got to leave. I don't know what's going to happen," he says. "How do I feel? I feel really bad. How would you feel if everything you'd worked for had gone? I can show you my bank book - there's nothing in it. Just £18 or £19. That's all that's left."
Puxon is in sombre mood as we drive away. He's helping Purcell and his wife lodge a claim against Chelmsford Borough Council for £19,000 to cover the cost of the caravan and its contents. "These people," says Puxon, "they're now internal refugees."
Chelmsford Borough Council replies that no travellers were hurt during the eviction, and insists it was carried out purely on planning grounds, after they had failed to comply with two enforcement notices and an injunction ordering them to leave an "unlawful" site that was zoned for agricultural use only. The only appeal that was lodged had been withdrawn before it could be heard. Travellers were given ample time to move out, they say, and were offered help to move their vans to other sites, as well as advice and help on housing. The council claims that few took these offers up. Four bailiffs were injured during the operation, which cost £150,000 - and they insist no caravans were destroyed by council staff, bailiffs or contractors.
There are some 300,000 Romany Gypsies and Irish travellers in Britain, though most are now settled in houses. Around 100,000 are said to still live a more or less nomadic life. As tabloid headlines scream of a looming "Gypsy crisis" when 10 more countries and 70 million people join the EU in May, eastern European Roma arriving in Britain face an uncertain welcome. Their distant relatives here have faced discrimination for centuries. The first Gypsies are believed to have arrived in England in the early 16th century. Almost immediately there was trouble. "In 1554 a law was passed saying that if you were a Gypsy you could be hanged," says Puxon.
It's a moot point whether things have improved much since. Travellers and Gypsies seem doomed rarely, if ever, to get on with their neighbours in what they call the "settled community". Travellers' favoured occupations - landscaping and laying block-paving driveways - mean lots of trucks and vans on village roads. Travellers and Gypsies love dogs, which means plenty of barking and animals running loose. Their vast extended families mean constant visitors and more traffic. And even their most ardent supporters would have to concede that travellers and Gypsies can leave stupendous amounts of rubbish. This, probably more than anything else, causes apoplexy among the residents of Britain's increasingly suburbanised countryside.
"One day a lady down the lane there was shouting: 'Gypsy scum! Gypsy scum!'" says Mary Delaney, one of the travellers at Paynes Lane. "When we came they had petitions everywhere. They didn't want us to be registered with the doctors, or have our kids in nursery school. They said they wouldn't be able to cope."
Residents deny this, and say their objections are simply that the travellers have flouted the law. "There were no petitions raised against the Gypsies whatsoever," insists resident Lawrie Berry. "But they've covered a five-acre field, which is in the green belt and the Lee Valley Regional Park, with thousands of tons of hardcore, despite a High Court injunction. The road onto the site is private land. We tried to prevent them using it- and the police threatened to arrest us. I couldn't build 50 flats on that field without planning permission. Travellers must abide by the same rules as everyone else if they want to be accepted."
Many of the current problems stem from the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. This abolished the Caravan Sites Act - in force since 1968 - which had imposed a duty on local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies and travellers (there are still some 400 council sites in the UK, but almost all are permanently full).
After the 1994 Act, travellers were encouraged to buy their own land and provide their own sites. But if they choose plots in remote locations to avoid conflict with neighbours, council planners routinely refuse permission for development in open countryside. And if they choose plots in or beside villages - which planners might approve - local residents routinely oppose them. A 1997 study found that 90 per cent of initial planning applications from travellers and Gypsies were refused.
"The system seems completely stacked against them," says lawyer Chris Johnson, of the Birmingham-based Community Law Partnership, which specialises in representing travellers. "The [planning] criteria are usually far too rigid. It remains an enormous and often impossible struggle for travellers to set up their own sites."
Yesterday, the Traveller Law Reform Coalition petitioned the Government to impose a moratorium on forced evictions of travellers. In a report published two weeks ago, the Institute for Public Policy Research recommended that travellers' sites should be classed as housing, and that local authorities should once again be compelled to make provision for sites. Meanwhile, a Government review of planning guidelines and site provision for Gypsies and travellers is due to report to ministers in summer.
These promising moves will probably all come too late for Harry Smith. As night falls around his cabin at Paynes Lane, he puts another log in the stove. "This is a real old Gypsy stove - came out of my Grandad's caravan," he grins. But the immediate future doesn't look so cosy. Following a planning enquiry, he and the others on the site have had their appeal rejected by the First Secretary of State. In planning terms, they don't have a leg to stand on. "We own this land - and they want to push us off it, and I think it's wrong," says Harry. "I've been here 14 years, paid my council tax and everything. But you know what, guvnor? Me, I love to travel. If I could move to a nice bit of ground, I'd go on the road tomorrow. But you can't do that no more."