The never-ending saga of the illegal Dale Farm traveller site in Crays Hill near Billericay is weeks away from a critical milestone.

In the new year, the Govern-ment is expected to rule over whether hundreds of travellers still living at the unauthorised camp will face eviction or be allowed to stay.

Love it or hate it, and whatever the outcome, Dale Farm will certainly go down in the history of south Essex.

It has spawned the longest running campaign to save an unauthorised traveller site and has captured international interest from the USA to Europe and South African and been raised with the United Nations.

However, it wasn't always so notorious.

The first of these pictures shows the land as open fields in the 1970s before what is now Europe's biggest site was built.

Just five years ago Dale Farm was an undiscovered semi-rural cottage by a scrapyard at the end of Oak Lane which had a legal traveller site, which was relatively unknown outside the village.

Crays Hill, like other plotlands areas, has always attracted gipsies because of its abundance of small tracts of land, even before the new town was built.

Basildon councillor John Dornan (Laindon Park), who lives in Oak Avenue, Crays Hill, remembers Oak Lane as a tiny track leading to a small scrapyard.

He said: "I used to go down there in the 1960s as a teenager to pick up bits and pieces for cars with my father."

English gipsy Joe Jones, who now campaigns for Dale Farm, said he and other travellers had stopped in Oak Lane during the 1970s and 1980s.

It wasn't until the 1980s that the Saunders family were the first to snap up land at Oak Lane and try to secure planning permission for a permanent site.

William Saunders, better known as Bluey, won permission for himself and other family members after a lengthy legal tussle with Basildon Council from 1987.

More relatives and other families arrived until 20 pitches had permission and were occupied by English travelling families.

In the early 1990s, the site grew to 37 plots when the council allowed permission for 17 more with no consultation with nearby residents.

But it still co-existed in relative harmony with the village.

Residents blame the influx of Irish travellers which followed in 2002 for a huge rise in conflict with the settled community.

Land tussles even culminated in the fatal shooting of Billy Williams in October 2002. Oak Lane traveller Paul Saunders was later cleared of murder.

The mass influx of Irish travellers saw off the bulk of the English who gradually sold up as they are said not to mix.

However, there must have been connections as the first Irish travellers, Eileen Flynn, Linda Nora Sheridan and John Flynn, arrived in 1998, buying plots on the legal site.

By 2000 and 2001 more Flynns and Sheridans had arrived followed by Gammells and McInerneys.

Attention then turned to land further up Oak Lane around the Dale Farm cottage in 2001.

Oak Road resident Len Gridley said: "The site was allowed to get too big by the council, but when it was just the English there, it didn't seem to have too much impact. In 2001 the Irish started coming and there was a real change in behaviour. Threats, intimidation, you name it."

Len watched them develop the site on the former scrapyard at the bottom of his garden.

"It started in October 2001. They would do most of the work over the weekend, especially on holidays, so the council was closed and it was built by the time they reopened," he said.

By 2002, most of the legal site was under Irish ownership with the illegal Dale Farm site well-established.

Before this, Ray Bocking had been living in the Dale Farm cottage and running a scrapyard there since the 1970s.

He even had a contract to collect abandoned cars for the council.

However, when the same authority rejected his bid for permission to continue his business in 1996 and cancelled the contract, he warned the land would be sold to travellers.

A planning application for a 20-pitch site came in 2001, but was refused by the council.

Mr Bocking sold the site to a John Sheridan from the legal site in March 2002 for £120,000. The land was divided into illegally-developed plots and sold to relatives.

Published for the first time, these pictures show Dale Farm before the development covered in hundreds of car bodies.

Its occupants argue the site should be classed brownfield land because of its industrial past.

Dale Farm spokesman Richard Sheridan said: "We had to clear so many cars, plus old tyres and oil from the land. It has drastically been improved on how it was.

"How could you call it green belt? Most people chipped in every penny they had to buy the land and didn't know planning permission was needed if they owned it."

The site was quickly expanded from eight plots in 2001 to more than 30 by the time the first public inquiry was held in 2003 as more relatives arrived.

It was in May the same year that Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott turned down the appeal, but gave travellers two years to find alternative homes.

Instead, the camp grew to 52 plots, swelled by evictions from other sites, and 86 families are said to double up on most pitches.

Residents argue a site of this size cannot co-exist by the village and the legal site should be the maximum boundary.

They claim the sheer number of newcomers has affected the village and sewage from poorly constructed cess pits is seeping into local ditches.

But with illegally-camped travellers at the smaller Hovefields and Cranfield Park Avenue sites in Wickford winning four to five-year stays of execution last month, there is every chance the travellers will remain at Crays Hill for some time to come.