It was one of the biggest stories on the patch. Hundreds of Irish travellers had doubled the size of a green-belt caravan site without planning permission, making it Europe’s biggest illegally built site.
The ‘Sheridan Clan’said they needed Dale Farm at Crays Hill to settle after laws made their itinerant lifestyle impossible. Basildon Council wanted them off.
While they argued that they were simple, nomadic folk, villagers speculated about their flash vehicles and bundles of cash, and told of anti-social behaviour.
In February 2005, rumours spread that the ‘clan’had bought more land at Billericay. The travellers denied owning it, but title deed checks revealed the new owners’ surnames, which matched theirs. The land was registered to a Wolverhampton address.
I got a phone number and called and asked for the owners by name. ‘They’re not here,’said a woman, but she gave me a mobile number. The man who answered denied owning the land, but it was enough for a splash.
A few weeks later a new traveller spokesman, Richard Sheridan, emerged. By chance I later noticed that his mobile number matched that of the man I had earlier called about the land.
Searches of electoral rolls on the internet brought up pages of the Sheridan travellers’ names for about 40 neighbouring homes on one estate. Travelling to Wolverhampton, I checked archived electoral rolls and discovered that the Sheridans had been housed by the council since the Eighties.
I checked deeds for Dale Farm: some of the travellers had used the same addresses to register land. It was proof that many of the Sheridans were not homeless – they had chosen to build illegally.
Villagers believed that it was a cynical ploy for profit, as the value of cheap green belt soars if it gets planning permission.
I had also spotted Sheridan names in newspaper reports about another big site, called Smithy Fen, in Cambridgeshire.
Looking through the planning files at South Cambridgeshire Council offices, I made a note of anything that could tie these people to Crays Hill. I also searched the Planning Inspector’s website, which threw up more sites in Essex, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire.
Over many months I built up enough documentary evidence to tie up a number of people at Dale Farm as owning other land or being involved in similar legal battles elsewhere.
The final piece of the jigsaw was Rathkeale, a country town in Ireland, where a funeral took place after a fatal caravan fire at Dale Farm in 2005. I checked planning applications and title deeds and the Sheridan clan names came up linked to several homes in the town, worth around 250,000 euros.
The Wolverhampton revelations were published and, later, a three-part exposÃ© about the other sites and Rathkeale.
It led to questions in Parliament by the local MP, investigations by the Benefits Agency and Legal Service Commission – which was funding the travellers’ legal battle – and Wolverhampton and Basildon councils.
A few weeks after we went to press, the Government rejected the travellers’ latest appeal for permission. The travellers are still involved in legal challenges.