Country life in the 21st century is not, it would seem, all cowshed clinches with saucy stable boys – in fact it is quite the opposite. When your livelihood depends upon shovelling horse manure, early mornings and wellington boots, and your weekly trip to the village shop counts as a social life then it’s no great surprise that meeting that special someone is difficult. In fact things have got so bad for the rural singleton that the BBC has made a series on the subject, When Love Comes to Town. The programme, starting tonight, (6.15pm, BBC1), shunts eight bachelors 700 miles from rural Devon to the remote Scottish Highlands to meet eight single women all looking for love.
In the picturesque highland village of Gairloch there is a severe shortage of eligible men. “The reason we can’t find a man here is simply because there aren’t any – unless you go for a tourist who happens to be passing by,” moans Ailidh, a 31-year-old mum who has been single for two years. Eccentric local-radio DJ Suzanne, 51, didn’t encounter a single man until four years after the death of her husband – and things are just as bleak for the frustrated men of Chumleigh in Devon. John, a 41-year-old estate manager, describes the pool of potential village love interest as either “15 years too old, or 15 stone; there are some real horrors out there.”
John, who is the bona fide heartthrob of the series, describes the beaches and moors of his native Devon as some of the most romantic locations in the world, “but there is no one for me to share it with”.
If only life was more adept at imitating art. The inhabitants of Ambridge don’t have these problems, segueing from one tryst to the next. No sooner was Adam back from Africa than he fell in love with the only (other) gay in the village, and even when tragedy strikes there is usually a hunky vet on hand to help soothe the pain – as Shula discovered to her advantage. Similarly the windswept moors of the Brontës’ Yorkshire were a teeming honey pot of potential suitors, from the dashing Mr Rochester in his country pile to the brooding Heathcliff on his gusty hilltop.
Back in the harsh light of January 2007, the problem of the rural singleton has been addressed by a number of internet dating sites, such as Love Horse (lovehorse.co.uk) founded by the aptly named, Ben Lovegrove. He blames the hard-working country way of life for the rural love drought. “Rural occupations,” he explains, “tend to make heavy demands on people’s time. It often means being up at all hours in all weathers – and it’s difficult to find a partner who is prepared to tolerate that.”
The aim of Love Horse is to unite the lonely singles of the rural community in their love of all things outdoorsy, whether that be horse riding, farming, walking or fishing. “It would be wonderful, for example,” says Lovegrove, “for a horse owner to find someone who was happy to go down and muck out the horses at 6am on a cold winter’s morning.”
Love Horse is not a forum for toothless, randy old farmers. Hannah Smith, 21, lives in a one-pub village in north Lincolnshire, and joined because, she says, the young farmers are only interested in “getting their leg over”. “A lot of girls my age want a boyfriend, not just a one-night stand, but the farmers our age just aren’t interested,” complains Hannah. ” When it’s harvest they don’t want a girl ringing up every five minutes pestering them.”
When I asked Hannah whether she would consider widening her search to the city, she was adamant that only a country boy would do. “If I had to choose between an office worker and a farmer I’d pick the farmer every time because I love hunting and shooting,” she says, “and if they were against it then it could cause a lot of tension.”
Perhaps Hannah should meet the isolated farmers of County Clare in Ireland where there are 20 bachelors to every woman, and suicide rates are among the highest in Europe. Local matchmaker Willie Davy has spent 40 years contemplating the plight of the bachelor farmer, and he puts the problem down to the insufficient crop of local women who have become “terribly picky” and “independent”. “The men tend to stay and take over the family businesses, whereas the daughters move out to Dublin or London to get jobs of their own – which is completely different to 40 or 50 years ago.”
In an effort to redress the balance, Willie’s hometown of Lisdoonvarna in Western Ireland has been host to the biggest singles event in Europe for the past 150 years, attracting thousands of women from all over the world. “The Irish woman,” says Willie, “has lost the value of a little house of her own,” whereas an increasing number of young brides from Thailand and the Philippines, claims Willie, put a high value on a man with a nice roof over his head. In his experience, Thai and Filipino women of 25 are often quite content with a man in his late fifties or sixties. He admits “it wouldn’t be love initially”, but believes “they would grow into it”. Willie says, “It’s like putting the clock back 50 years for the Irish men.”
Meanwhile deep in the Scottish highlands, the participants in When Love Comes to Town are being paired off on the advice of cackling village matchmakers Frances and Heather. Mike swoons over Rachel on a bicycle made for two; floppy-haired Neil falls for Ailidh during a deserted beach picnic – but Ailidh has her sights set on the strapping John. John, however, has been picked for a date by “crazy” Suzanne, who flits manically around her tiny cottage in pink trainers, spewing double entendres and force feeding him raspberry pavlova. At 6ft 6ins John can’t move without toppling entire families of ornamental china dolls and candelabras in his wake, and as we watch him scamper for freedom down Suzanne’s garden path it seems doubtful that much love has come to Gairloch – but perhaps we’re missing the point.
“You’ve got to speculate to accumulate,” John tells me. He knew that love would be unlikely to blossom with the lovely ladies of Gairloch within five minutes of stepping off the coach. But the important thing was taking the chance, having fun and meeting new people – and the same applies to online dating, according to Ben Lovegrove. “The people who find it most difficult are the ones that hold back,” says Lovegrove, “Internet dating is a bit like being at a party: the more you participate, the more people will congregate around you.”
Last year Love Horse announced the engagement of two of its members. Louise Wright, 29, and Martin Baines, 33, bonded online over their love of dogs, horses and country walks. “If you’ve got a broadband connection,” says Lovegrove, “it doesn’t matter whether you live in London or the Orkney Isles – you no longer have to limit your search to the nearest village.”
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