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Tuesday, 5 November, 2002, 14:07 GMT
Gypsy eviction begins amid protests
The Bailiffs move in at Woodside

The endgame in a five-year legal battle over an experimental Gypsy settlement has begun after bailiffs moved on to the site to force its closure.

At 8am on Monday morning seven-year-old Bridget Ward left for school not knowing where her home would be that night.

As she left the Woodside caravan park near the Bedfordshire village of Hatch, a team of bailiffs moved on to the experimental Gypsy settlement to begin the eviction of her parents and the other remaining families living on the site.

Evictions like these have happened before and will happen again. What has made Woodside such a national issue among travelling communities is that it was actually owned by the 27 families who first moved there five years ago.

Nevertheless, the High Court agreed with the local authority that the site was illegal under planning rules and the bailiffs moved in on schedule this week.

The lead family in the campaign for the site, the Codonas, are allowed to stay pending a last-minute appeal to the High Court. The other remaining family, the Wards, did not have the same legal defence.

Bonfires: Fences torn down and burnt
But to all intents and purposes time ran out for Woodside when all the other families departed, concluding they would be forced off.

Six months ago there were tended rose bushes on plot 25, one of the prettiest at Woodside. This week, a digger tore them out as it brought down fences that had divided the family plots.

As the bailiffs organised to remove the Gypsies, Marie Ward, Bridget's mother, sat resignedly smoking a cigarette. Her husband, Thomas, began packing up house plants on to a trailer.

"I used to think that travelling was a good thing," she said. "But Woodside made me think differently, especially as I realised how well the children were doing in the school."

"What's going to happen now we're getting get kicked off? The kids will end up coming out of the school because we won't know where we are headed.

"We'll end up parking at a supermarket or something. Is that more acceptable to people than where we are now?"

Last stand

As the digger continued its demolition, the bailiffs and protesters faced up over the small fence protecting a plot.

Thomas Ward, a Woodside Gypsy squares up to a bailiff
Stand-off: Tussles between bailiffs and family
Gratton Puxon of the Roma Federation made one last appeal.

Bryan Lecoche of Constant and Co, a firm that specialises in clearing traveller sites, reminded them their argument was not with him, but the law.

And so, 20 or so protesters crammed into the remaining caravans and awaited the burly men in waterproofs.

Within minutes the scene had descended into chaos as bailiffs manhandled Thomas Ward to the ground as he resisted removal.

At the same time, two boys scrambled underneath a caravan to prevent bailiffs lowering it, screaming "We're not coming out, we're not coming out, we're not going, we're not going."

One well-meaning student from Cambridge apparently acting as a human rights observer looked on petrified.

Bedfordshire Police officers broke up the scrum and Inspector John Maries stepped in to mediate.

Deal struck

Eventually a deal was struck.

The council would not be moving the Ward family today because it accepted they did not have anywhere to go.
The first caravan moved from Woodside
Evicted: First caravan off the site

Instead, they would be allowed to move temporarily to one of the few plots to be debated in the High Court. The caravan already removed would not be allowed to return.

In the meantime the council would continue "regularising" the rest of the site in preparation of final clearance.

"This is the first time that I have seen a private caravan site destroyed in this way," said Gratton Puxon.

"Local people have to think about what is being done in their name.

"This has to change. We need a national campaign to get people like these equal protection under the law."

Council satisfied

Mark Hustwitt, the spokesman for the council at the eviction, said it was satisfied the enforcement had finally begun, in accordance with the High Court ruling.

Marie and Sharon Ward with a card from a local school
Card: School sends best wishes
The Ward family would be given "some time" to find another site, he said, but it would be up to them to fine one.

While the council may assist, he stressed it did not have a duty to do so.

So pending a last minute stay of eviction by the High Court, Woodside will soon be fields.

As for Bridget Ward, she returned from school, having said her good byes.

Classmates and teachers had given her a big pink homemade card wishing her well.

"Bye bye Bridget, Sorry you're leaving," it said. "Good luck in your new home."

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