Residents of Dale Farm and the activists who have been living among them for months finally left the site in a symbolic walkout yesterday, ending the decade-long legal battle over Britain's largest illegal traveller site.

After a day of battles with police and bailiffs, residents said they wanted to leave with dignity. "We wanted to tell our children and grandchildren that we tried, that we fought to the last and finally that we walked out of there with our heads held high," said Kathleen McCarthy, who has lived at Dale Farm in Crays Hill, Essex, throughout the 10-year fight with Basildon Council.

Earlier in the day bailiffs began tearing down the tower at the main gate, which had become a symbol of the residents' resistance. Many travellers - a traditionally nomadic group similar to, but ethnically distinct from, Gypsy or Roma people, and relatively common across Britain - said they did not know where they would go to next, most saying they would be back "by the side of the road" and in carparks and fields.

It emerged yesterday that the community faces losing ownership of the land as the council tries to recoup some of the costs of repeated delays caused by the legal challenges. When the High Court in London ruled the clearances could go ahead it also decided the cost of a delay, caused by nearly a month of legal wrangling, should be met by travellers. "We will be pursuing the costs so at least some public money can be recovered, and we would say that includes land," said Tony Ball, leader of Basildon Council.

The travellers own the land on which the site is built but did not have planning permission for around half of it. The evictions related to all but five of the 54 plots on the illegal section. Ball admitted that the travellers are free to return to the land even now they have been evicted, but they are still prevented from using it as a dwelling. He said: "We will remove all of the hard-standing and make it so that caravans cannot be brought back on to it but it is, of course, their right to re-enter their land, should they wish. They will have to use it for a purpose which matches its status as greenbelt land, though. Otherwise, the eviction notices will apply again."

Asked if the council had the resources to get into a game of cat and mouse, should residents attempt to resettle the site, he reiterated his intention to recoup a portion of the costs incurred by the council. Estimates of the total cost of the evictions vary, with Basildon Council putting the figure at £18 million ($36 million) and the travellers claiming it will be £40 million.

In September, the travellers offered to sell the land to the council and leave in return for £6 million. But Ball turned down the offer, saying it would be "unacceptable to enter any agreement where the travellers effectively profited from breaking the law". In what appeared to be a change of heart, Ball said yesterday: "There will be more legal traveller pitches in Basildon." But he admitted there were no specific plans in place.

As travellers celebrated a last-minute reprieve on September 19, Ball admitted there were not enough legal pitches in the area to house all of those facing eviction and said the council had "absolutely no plans to provide any more".

"We will keep moving them on until they find a proper site", he said when asked if the 200 travellers living illegally at Dale Farm could stay on the roadside.

'They have to sleep somewhere'

Michelle Fox has lived at Dale Farm for 10 years. She has four children and was holding her youngest as the bailiffs arrived.

"I was travelling before I came here," Fox, 38, said. "And I will be on the road again after they kick me out. I will be homeless. The council says they offered me a home, but it was just a hostel.

"How can they think it is right to force a woman with four children to live in a hostel? I have been evicted many times before, I have been moved on from car parks and fields but it has never been like this. We have never had riot police burst in before. I haven't seen this kind of force."

Burning barricades were erected and police clashed with protesters. A caravan burned to the ground and masked protesters threw missiles at riot officers. Caught in the middle is a community with no idea where it is to go. A protester had a sign that said: "No judge's ruling or law can make this eviction just."

Dale Farm is separated roughly in half, with one section of 54 plots that were deemed illegal.

Cornelius Sheridan, who has terminal cancer, lives on one of five plots being spared from eviction.

But that doesn't mean he has been spared the anguish. He was taken out of his home and the power to the site - which runs his defibrillator - was cut. Two days earlier he was in hospital after a severe asthma attack; he came back because he was afraid of what would happen to his plot.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell, said: "Let us remember that this eviction does not solve the problem but moves it somewhere else. These families are going to have to sleep somewhere tonight."