The roadblock had been built hastily from scaffolding, pieces of chipboard and barbed wire, erected to keep the bailiffs out of the Irish Traveller settlement at Dale Farm, in Essex. Behind the crude barricade, adorned with signs imploring, “Don’t criminalise the Traveller culture”, two men occupied an improvised observation tower. As tension heightened ahead of this week’s High Court decision and media thronged outside in the drizzle, one Traveller shouted down: “We’re winning, and we’re everywhere.” The roadblock may have been rigged up to prevent eviction, but it doubled as a monument to the division between Traveller communities and the residents in the towns and villages where they lead parallel lives.

The stand-off at Dale Farm has been simmering away for 10 years, ever since a group of Travellers bought a run-down scrapyard and began inhabiting it in ever greater numbers. They continued to build on it – making it the largest illegal Traveller site in Europe – despite their planning applications being consistently turned down by Basildon Council, which, equally, failed to take any decisive action over the expanding settlement. Now, however, the authority has resolved, at great expense, to evict the 400-plus residents of Dale Farm. The Travellers now feel they have been backed into a corner and have no option but to resist.

“It comes down to people’s prejudices – we’ve got no rights and the government treats us like dogs who live by the side of the road,” says Traveller Mary McCarthy in a thick Irish brogue. “We’re taking a stand – it’s more about getting rights for Travellers than anything else.

“Nobody understands the lifestyle because people have never chatted to us before. But we’re settled in these communities. We’re all about our families and our friends and we like to live together so we can look after each other.”

Non-Traveller Len Gridley’s house backs on to Dale Farm, and he has been one of the most vocal agitators against the use of the land. He paints a less utopian picture of the Traveller lifestyle. “I’ve had run-ins with them for the past 10 years – they’re behaviour is not acceptable in normal society,” he says. “They throw rubbish over my fence – I get their sewage coming on to my property. I get abused, they throw things at me. When you complain, you get death threats. They’re not nice people. It’s not about being racist against Travellers – these people have abused the system and they’ve abused it in force and by weight of numbers. One or two families might have been OK, but not 86 of them.”

The Travellers last week won an injunction to delay eviction but Tony Ball, leader of Basildon Council, expects the High Court to side with the authority, ruling that the settlement is illegal. “One thing I am sure about is that once this operation starts it will be brought to a conclusion,” Ball has insisted previously. “There will be significant activity if the injunction is lifted. We need to get the site cleared. Everyone agrees there has to be resolution to this.”

Whether the Travellers stay put, are evicted or resettled in smaller groups, there remains an intractable conflict between the Travellers and the residents who object to their presence. According to Reverend Paul Trathen, who has worked as a mediator between Basildon Council and the Travellers, it is a tension rooted in misunderstanding and ancient prejudice.

“The origins of the lifestyle are lost in the mists of time and it’s certainly a different way of life, but they might ask us why we live the way we do,” Trathen says. “Their lifestyle is to roam freely at certain points of the year – the summer travelling is the most important – and to live simply within extended family networks and spend a lot of time outside.”

Trathen believes Travellers – along with Romany Gypsies, who are distinct but not without some overlap – are the last minority group whose vilification remains permissable.

“People still talk about Travellers and Gypsies the way they talked about black people in the US before the civil rights movement or in Britain in the Sixties and Seventies,” he says. “It seems you can still say disproportionately nasty things about Travellers and Gypsies that you can’t say about other minority groups. If it’s just a case of governments clearing them out and deciding they’re the bad guys without really dealing with anything, I think that’s a sad outcome. It’s a kind of last stand for these people.”

Joseph Jones is the co-chair of the Gypsy Council. While he has been settled on a patch of land for 10 years, he still travels regularly, having made it through Europe, as far as Israel. According to Jones, the greatest failures can be attributed to councils which do not comply with stipulations that areas must be made available for Travellers and Gypsies.

“In the UK, there are 5000 families that need a home and, according to the government’s own figures, it would take just one square mile of land to provide that,” Jones says. “The failure has always been at a local government level. People say Travellers are anti-social, but local councils use us as cannon fodder to cover up their own failures.

“We try very hard to integrate, but what we won’t do is assimilate – we don’t want to be like everyone else. We want to live in our tin cans and we want to live as a family unit.

“We’ve been made unpopular and we’ve been demonised. But as a group of people, we’re non-confrontational in normal circumstances. We’ve never rioted, we’ve always taken it on the chin. But all the things people say about us – it goes back to 1543, when the Church tried to demonise us. For 500 years, everyone has been trying to change us, but we won’t change for anyone.”

Clearly, though, some part of the calculus that determines how councils deal with nomadic people must change. Otherwise, it is only a matter of time before the barricades and barbed wire of Dale Farm spring up elsewhere.