Travellers: 'They live in houses and we live in caravans, but so what?'

With the Gypsies as they prepare to leave Prince Charles's Poundbury village, Jonathan Thompson discovers defiance
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The Independent Online

The Hughes family wake up to the sound of a cock crowing outside their caravan. It's Friday morning and, as usual, 16-year-old Joanne makes breakfast while her younger sisters, female cousins and nieces get dressed.

The routine is familiar to the 10 girls who call this caravan home, but the location is not. The Hugheses are enjoying the first week of their summer holidays as uninvited royal guests.

The girls and their extended family, numbering around 40, are Romany Gypsies. Spread out among a handful of modern caravans, they have spent the past six days camped in a field on the outskirts of Poundbury, a village in Dorset which was developed by the Prince of Wales's Duchy of Cornwall in accordance with his vision of a modern British community.

The Gypsies were en route to a fair in Somerset when a two-week-old baby in the group became ill. The caravans stopped here last Saturday while the infant was treated at the hospital in nearby Dorchester. Since then, an unofficial front line has been drawn down Peverell Avenue East between the scrubland where the Gypsies are camped and the row of trimmed lawns and expensive cars opposite.

Their arrival provoked complaints and accusations from Poundbury's residents. Over the week, they have been accused of everything from pushing over bicycles to defecating in public and threatening local children.

The accusations are denied by the Gypsies, who claim to be the victims of racially motivated slurs. "It's been terrible, very embarrassing," says Joanne. "They've been saying that we go to the toilet where we stand, and that we've been having loud parties late at night, but would you be having parties when there's a baby seriously ill in hospital? People need to realise that we're just the same as everyone else. They live in houses and we live in caravans, but so what? Our blood is still the same colour."

While residents complain about petrol-fuelled bonfires, noisy quad bikes and mountains of rubbish, the Gypsies talk of ignorance and racism. "We've been discriminated against a lot," says Joanne. "People have called us 'Gippos' or 'hillbillies', but we're not some kind of travelling hippies. We're Romany Gypsies, and we're proud of that.

"We like keeping ourselves to ourselves but there are eyes over the road watching us - they're watching every move we make."

Mike and Mary Westgarth, whose three-bedroom flat overlooks the site, moved here from London a year ago. Mr Westgarth says he has seen several unpleasant incidents over the past few days, and he is annoyed that the Duchy of Cornwall has not moved the Gypsies on more quickly.

"We were awake for four hours with the noise of those dogs barking last night," says the 61-year-old retired local government official. "This is not what we bought into. If we knew this was going to happen, we wouldn't have come within a million miles of this place. The Duchy should secure the site.

"There have been lots of little incidents: children shouting abuse and pelting cars with stones, a boy exposing himself at a woman walking past, and people defecating outside - we've seen it."

The local residents' group has been co-ordinating resistance via an internet mailing list. A younger member, who wanted to remain anonymous, said it was the second time this year that Gypsies had moved on to the site. "They were here at Easter too, playing trance music until 3am and causing a horrendous din," he complains. "It's disgraceful. I know they've got to go somewhere but I'd rather they went somewhere where they didn't have to go to the toilet right in front of my house."

There are around 300,000 Gypsies and Irish travellers, according to estimates cited by the Commission for Racial Equality. Poundbury is only the latest confrontation, with other battlegrounds in Cottenham in Cambridgeshire and Christchurch in Dorset. Last week Kit Sampson, an 80-year-old from Lowestoft who was appointed MBE for her work providing healthcare to Gypsies and travellers, handed her award back in disgust at what she called the Government's failure to provide adequate sites for Gypsies.

Back in Poundbury, the standoff across Peverell Avenue East ends on Friday afternoon as the baby and her 18-year-old mother return from hospital and the Hughes family pack up to leave. But not all Poundbury's residents are glad to see them go.

"There's nothing wrong with them in my eyes," says Will Hadlow, manager of Poundbury's only pub, the Poet Laureate. "They came in for a drink and they were good as gold. They were dressed very well - better than most of the people round here. As for them defecating in public, when they came in here they used the toilets just like everyone else."