Evicted Essex travellers warn of fire fight

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Media captionThe inhabitants of Dale Farm are preparing for a fight to stay on the Essex site and be with their families

Travellers and Gypsies at Europe's largest traveller site have been ordered to leave after 10 years of legal wrangling, but as they prepare to say goodbye to Dale Farm in Essex they warn things could get ugly.

"We can't just vanish off the face of the earth, we're human, we just want what everybody else wants, a quiet peaceful life."

Mary Anne McCarthy is an Irish Traveller and has lived on Dale Farm since 2002, along with her seven children, 20 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Her immaculate chalet is next to the homes of two of her daughters, with another opposite. They use the local schools, hospitals and Catholic church.

Mary Anne grew up on a horse-drawn caravan and is desperate not to leave the site.

"I have now what I never had in my life, that's to press a button and I have electric light, water and toilets and the best part of it was the children going to school and seeing they could learn to read and write.

"I can read now, the children learned (sic) me to read and write. Not good, but I can read a newspaper."

On the other side of the fence, literally, is Len Gridley. His home in the village of Crays Hill backs onto the camp. Len believes his house has lost £300,000 in value because of the site.

"The rubbish you have to put up with coming over (the fence), bottles and cans come over on a regular basis.

"That's why I had to put all this fencing up, to stop them coming in, but how far do you go? It ends up like living in a prison."

Image caption Campaigner Len Gridley says he has received countless death threats from travellers

Len is the most outspoken campaigner against the site, spending tens of thousands of pounds of his own money in the fight to have the travellers removed.

He is determined the land should be returned to green belt, but Len acknowledges he is seen as the enemy by those living in the camp.

"I've had death threats on national television and in the lane, but I won't let them intimidate me. I stand my ground I haven't done anything wrong, it's them that have broken the law not me.

"They see me as the enemy because I'm standing up to them. You've broken the law, you've devalued my property. I will fight you through the courts."

But Mary Anne denies any one in the camp would issue death threats, as "they're God fearing folks". She says "you're dead" is just a turn of phrase.

But her best friend Mimi Sheridan is aware of some potential threats to Len.

"They won't let him get away with it. He will get a slap...but they won't seriously hurt him," she laughs.

With the eviction looming, Len is the only one willing to put their head above the parapet wall and talk openly.

Image caption Len Gridley has hired helicopters four times to monitor the site from the air - costing £500 a time

"My sister married an English traveller we'd known all our lives. (He was) brought up in a caravan and they now live in a house with all their children.

"That's how life is now you've got to change."

Travellers and Gypsies began to set up pitches illegally on the green belt land at Dale Farm, which they own, in 2001 - although a smaller part of the site was formerly a scrap heap (so technically 'Brown field').

More than 400 travellers currently live on unauthorised land.

A bitter campaign that has gone all the way to the House of Lords ended at the start of July, when Basildon Council gave people living on 51 unauthorised pitches until the end of August to leave.

Either the travellers move out peacefully, or an army of bailiffs and police will move in. Almost £10m has been set aside by various authorities to fund the eviction.

Although the possible figure could rise as high as 18 million.

"See those scaffolding towers with barbed wire? That's part of the barricade," says Len Gridley, pointing over his garden fence into the camp.

The travellers have been preparing for a fight since 2005. "We're fighting for our homes," says one man, as he adds gas cylinders to a barricade.

He demonstrates how the cylinders can be be lit so a large flame flies out. "The first man that comes in is going to die," the man warns.

And Mimi also has a warning: "Basildon will go up in fire before we go."

Image caption Travellers and Romany people from across Europe have protested against the planned evictions

While the August deadline looms life continues in the camp. Campaigners are on site giving the travellers legal advice on their rights.

Mary Anne continues to go to church and host parties, like the one for one of her granddaughter's First Holy Communion.

"We're facing a massive eviction, my heart is breaking, but nobody knows," she says laughing, at a girls' night she is hosting at her chalet.

"That's one thing about me, I have a good sense of humour and without that, I'd be dead."

The women joke they are "really excited" about the eviction.

But Mary Anne admits: "When the time comes we'll be crying but we'll be ready."

The Big Gypsy Eviction is on BBC One Thursday 21 July, 2235 BST.

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