A former mining community has been labelled a village of hate and forced a persecuted woman to raffle her home. But are reports of a campaign of threats, intimidation and violence really all they seem? Nick Morrison reports.

BY any measure, it has been an horrendous ordeal. Within a week of moving in, the first brick came through the window. Over the next three years, there have been many more, including 23 bricks and bottles over one 28-day period.

But that has by no means been all. Rubbish has been dumped in the garden; dogs lifted over the wall to defecate; graffiti sprayed on the door; fireworks pushed through the letterbox; verbal abuse; threats to petrol bomb the house. In all, Mercedes de Dunewic has logged 180 crimes against her home over the last three years.

No wonder she's is desperate to leave. So desperate, that she has announced she is raffling her house: £1,000 tickets for a chance to win a property valued at £150,000.

Little wonder, too, that other residents of the former mining community of West Cornforth in County Durham are distressed. The oddity is, however, that on the whole their unease does not focus on the alleged perpetrators of this anti-social behaviour, but on Miss de Dunewic herself.

Far from being the victim, they say, she may have contributed to her troubles herself, and by airing them publicly for her own purposes, and exaggerating them, she has seen West Cornforth - known as "Doggie" - dubbed a village of hate. Her allegations have split the village, but the split is Miss de Dunewic against the rest.

For some, the heart of the issue is the arrival of an incomer, and a well-spoken Southern one at that, in a close-knit former pit village. Certainly, Miss de Dunewic can have had little idea what was in store when she moved to County Durham three years ago.

The 50-year-old mother-of-two was living in Bournemouth with her husband when she decided to move north. Her father had just died, and wanting to make a new start she stuck a pin in a map. It landed between West Cornforth, Trimdon and Fishburn, a triangle of villages north of Sedgefield. She drove up one Saturday and that day put in an offer on a house in West Cornforth's Market Square.

A freelance journalist, she says she planned to write a book about how to change your life. The brick in the first week was the start of an ordeal at the hands of the village's youths which made her think that maybe she should change the subject of her work.

"I was really shocked. I never called the police, I thought maybe it was a one-off," she says. "The kids used to come to my door, I don't know if they had a fascination with the accent, but things turned bad when they were sitting on the wall throwing beer cans.

"I thought if I didn't say something I was going to get this every night of my life, so I went out and said I didn't want them throwing cans around and they said 'Eff off'. I was shaking. It was very intimidating, being spoken to like that."

From here, the deterioration was swift. As well as the missiles, doors have been kicked in, handles broken off, dog faeces and pornographic magazines put through the letterbox. "Die Bitch" was sprayed across her door, and she was sent a note made from cut-out newspaper headlines reading "Get the f*ck out ov doggy or ur house will get petrol bombed".

She says she was calling the police out three or four times a day, but initially received little help. She now has CCTV installed, her windows reinforced and has spent £49,000 on repairs. For the last ten months she has slept downstairs with a fire extinguisher by the door. For the last year, she has only gone out when accompanied by a friend.

"I don't know where it is going to end, the stress is unbearable," she says. "You can't go out and defend yourself against these people, they're dreadful. Everyone knows who they are but nobody says anything. There are some kind, decent people here, and there are some good youths in the village who do good work. It isn't a village of hate, but it is a village of fear."

She believes part of the problem is that she is an incomer. Although she wanted to play a part in village life - offering to put on films for the elderly and fund a youth club - her overtures were rejected.

She says her husband left three times because of the stress, eventually moving out to live in Neville's Cross, Durham. One of her two sons came to visit, but stayed only a few days, while the other has never been.

Miss de Dunewic says she can't move out because she can't sell a house with 180 crimes logged against it. Ironically, her announcement that she was going to raffle her home came after a period of relative quiet: she saysthere have been no incidents in recent weeks. Given this, some may see the raffle and the resulting publicity as provocative.

Acting inspector Kelvin Vincent of Durham Police acknowledges that Miss de Dunewic has been the victim of a number of incidents but denies that West Cornforth has a particular problem with anti-social behaviour. He says action has been taken against a number of individuals, but disputes the figure of 180 crimes logged against the house.

The house also suffers from being on a corner used as a traditional meeting place. Groups of youths may not have been targeting Miss de Dunewic as much as gathering in their usual spot.

The last incident at the house is illuminating. Police received a report on August 1 of youths throwing hot cups of coffee at each other outside Miss de Dunewic's house. After viewing four hours of video footage, police identified one youth throwing an object to a passer-by identified as the boy's mother, who caught it. There was no sign of any coffee.

Linden Parkins is not alone among the villagers in believing that claims of a sustained campaign of abuse have been exaggerated. The owner of a coffee shop, she organised a public meeting in response to the publicity over the raffle.

"She has had problems, nobody is denying that, but it is hard to believe it's been as bad as she says, and if it was that bad would you still live here? Wouldn't you draw a line under it and move out?"

She says villagers are suspicious that Miss de Dunewic has tried to paint the village to be worse than it is to get material and publicity for a book she is said to be writing.

Mrs Parkins, 35, who has lived in the village all her life, says when Miss de Dunewic moved to West Cornforth, she initially befriended the village youths, but then turned against them. The youths, in turn, retaliated.

Karen Lynn, project manager at Cornforth House, a community and resource centre, has worked with the village's young people for eight years. While she acknowledges there have been problems with anti-social behaviour, she says the village's youths have been unfairly painted as troublemakers.

"Anti-social behaviour must be a horrendous thing to cope with, but there has been a lot of work done this year and the number of incidences has dropped dramatically," she says.

"I won't say there has not been a small minority who caused problems, but it is a shame all the good stuff the young people do in the village seems to have gone out of the window."

She says she did try to take Miss de Dunewic up on the offer to show films and fund a youth club, but the films had been sent back and the youth club needed more work than just a coat of paint. She says some villagers have been antagonised by derogatory comments posted on a website they believe is being run by Miss de Dunewic.

"I've had young people in tears about what has been written. I just advise them not to read it," she adds.

Miss de Dunewic is familiar with the website allegations, but claims she is not responsible. She acknowledges she is writing a book about coping with anti-social behaviour, but even if some of the villagers' claims are true , there is no doubting the effect of her ordeal.

"I may seem strong, but behind closed doors there are a lot of tears," Miss de Dunewic says. "I do wish I had never come here. I know it will come across badly, but I wish I had never seen the place.

"It has taken its toll but I don't hate them, I feel very sorry for them."

Back in the coffee shop, Mrs Parkins says the village doesn't deserve the reputation it has acquired. But although villagers may be suspicious of Miss de Dunewic's claims, they don't dislike a woman few of them have met. "Nobody hates her," she says. "We're just angry at what she's been saying and what she's done to the village."