London dating

Forget soulless websites, excruciating blind dates and your mum's collection of eligible singles. In 2011 smart Londoners are finding love in warm and witty new ways.

Image by David Downton

When did people first start to really worry about whether they would ever meet Mr or Miss Right? Was it when we moved out of villages and into cities and encountered the tyranny of choice (and the misery of loneliness in a crowd)?

Was it when education and earning power began to make women pickier than they’d been before? Was it 1985’s fabled (and flawed) US study which concluded that never-previously married, university-educated women over 40 had a 2.6 per cent chance of tying the knot and were therefore, according to Newsweek, ‘more likely to be killed by a terrorist’?

Perhaps it was Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, who embodied a generation’s angst because she hadn’t met her future husband through the time-honoured routes of university or work, and was therefore in a flat thirtysomething spin. Or was it the demise of the matchmaker and the invention of the biological clock?

One thing’s for sure. Serial monogamy being what it is, no-one, of any age, is likely to escape dating in one form or another as the 21st-century progresses. And yet, at the dawn of a new decade, it feels like we’ve come full circle. True, we’ll never go back to the unimaginably limited dating pool our grandparents put up with, when future spouses came from a social circle limited by class and geography. Nor do teenagers have to wait by the phone for potential boyfriends to ring (and I’m talking pre-anwering machine).

But in the Teens I predict Londoners will fall out of love with the sleek, competitive and materialistic world of the digital hook-up in favour of ‘slow dating’ – the kind that happens when you take the trouble to meet real people, in the real world, and get to know them a little before taking them home.

London’s singletons are in a uniquely privileged postion. Taken overall, one in three Brits is single; in London it is one in two. Put another way, London contains some 1.55 million people (more than the population of Estonia) aged between 20 and 40 who are unattached. And we’re not just talking any singletons; groomed, ambitious, hard-working and aspirational, London’s men and women meet as independent equals in search of romance – 94 per cent of us want a long-term relationship. And many of them have realised that sitting at home in front of a computer screen is the last way in the world to find love.

Says Davina, a lawyer: ‘There is a pleasing haphazardness to meeting people in London. Some couples do still get together at work, but far more run into each other through their wider social circles. I’ve been a member of the Adam Street Club for a few years; I go to a lot of their events and hang out there in the week, so it’s no surprise that my last two boyfriends have been connected to the club.’

In a city of 8 million, you’d think, perhaps, that the net would be the perfect, indeed perhaps the only, way to find your Significant Other. It was 1995 when some bright spark realised that t’interweb could have been tailormade for connecting singletons, and  was born. Our dating worries were over – or so we thought.

Slowly, the social shame attached to the ‘dating agency’, be it the old-fashioned or newfangled variety, began to evaporate. Then the website diffused it entirely, creating a fresh model in which member profiles were written by a ‘friend’. Instead of membership looking like a mark of neediness, it became a proto-confirmation of popularity. We signed up in droves. ‘When I was last single, in the 1990s, web dating was something other people did,’ comments Anouchka Grose, a psychoanalyst who wrote about the complications of love in her last book, No More Silly Love Songs. ‘When I came back to the scene two years ago, everything was different. Everyone told me to go online. I had to learn a bunch of tricks about how to present myself. But, after a few meetings, and some shocking situations, I realised web romance was out of the question. You know nothing about them, have no place in their life, no shared values. You look at their profiles, see what books they like, and start to build a fantasy out of who this person might be. Of course they never live up to it.’ 

Because so many people signed up, this fantasy could feed on itself: if one date was more Richard Madeley than Richard Gere, it was on to the next. Charlie Gibson, a fashion designer, admits that ‘It soon became a numbers game. You kept organising more and more dates in the pursuit of perfection. Even if you found someone you liked, it was hard not to keep logging on – then you’d spot a hot blonde who was a professional chef, and think “One more time.” And after a while I realised that most of the women that contacted me online were searching for loosely legitimised sex.’

Last year, a website even sprang up to meet the needs of the ‘dating addicted’. Firestarters ( ) makes a point of discouraging ‘multiple dating’, arguing that keeping several partners on the go at once because you’re scared to commit to one ‘can damage your health’. Meanwhile ‘relationship expert’ Lorraine Adams, the woman responsible for bringing speed-dating to the UK in 2000, now runs a company called Coffee and Company according to the time-honoured principles of an old-fashioned introduction agency.

The dream of web dating has started to splinter. It’s fine for making niche connections – if you’re looking for a fat person, or a rich person, no problem. And if you want fast sex, go right ahead. But real-life, normal relationships for Londoners with busy, interesting social lives who don’t buy the spin? Tricky.

‘While the web lets you be as selective and weird as you want, it has a big downside,’ says futurist Dr Graeme Codrington. ‘The issue of trust. You’d connect to someone who’d say “I’m a big stud”, then you’d meet them, and think “What am I doing?”. The internet as a whole is saturated with advertorials, marketing gimmicks and the like.’

The disillusionment with web dating is part of a wider trend away from cheap thrills and towards more authentic experience. Mary Higgs, London dating expert and founder of, believes that ‘Since the economic crisis hit, we’ve noticed a desire to return to a more traditional, secure way of life. We’re no longer happy to rely on a profile picture (probably fake, certainly misleading). We want to meet people organically, maybe because they’re friends of friends, or simply because we are out and about.’

Blakes has been London’s favourite place for a discreet tryst for 30 years. Its founder Anouska Hempel believes the Teens will see a return to sexy discretion. ‘Blakes has always been a place of intrigue and excitement, partly because the atmosphere is cosy and you are never exposed. The last decade was a sleazy, blowzy, show-off-your-purple-knickers time. Now people are rediscovering the allure of things which are a little bit hidden, a little bit secretive. You see it in fashion. You see it in the vogue for beautiful stationery, for billet-doux.

‘I love London for dating,’ continues Hempel. ‘In this city you can go past a door 100 times, and then on the 101st time it happens to be open and you glimpse the garden inside. The city is full of romantic possibility, even more so as people rediscover the seductive power of a little restraint.’

So discrimination is all and the watchword is quality over quantity, but, this being 2011, Web 2.0 is bound to be involved. So while mechanised digital dating may be over, websites that make personal introductions a little bit easier are not. ‘We’re increasingly tuning in to online advice and information which comes from our peers, so we know we can believe it,’ says Dr Codrington.

The most awe-inspiring exemplar of such social networking websites is, of course, Facebook, which, when you think about it, takes that ideal ‘friend of a friend’ introduction, and puts it online. ‘Facebook is a very powerful dating tool,’ avers Sunday Times journalist Serena Kutchinsky. ‘If you’re single, you’re going to be using it a lot. I tried web-dating, but had so little invested in the meetings I often didn’t bother to show up. On Facebook you’re more engaged, and there are lots of extra layers of flirtation like poking, or commenting on someone’s status.’

But an even simpler way to use Facebook is to check it to find offline events where you can simply – wait for it – meet people, without narrowing yourself to singles-specific events. In that way your social network naturally expands. For anyone who grew up in a time when clubs, hobbies, and extracurricular activities were a bit, well, uncool, especially if taken up with a view to meeting the opposite sex, the intense fashionability of such activities (be they craft workshops in Marylebone or lectures in Bloomsbury) is nothing less than comical.

Yet, as our grandparents knew, there is no better way to check out potential sexual partners than in a relaxed, non-sexual environment. Purpose-built site Meetup has had international success connecting users who are passionate about the same things: 3,164 members, for example, have signed up to the London French Meetup, for French speakers wanting to meet anyone interested in French culture; there are 2,695 interested in photography.

Newer, local versions have also been created. Doris Time and The Social Butterfly were both set up by single London women who were unimpressed with the paucity of ways to meet new people, but expressly wanted to avoid being in a singles club per se. Both have found a coincidentally large proportion of members hooking up. The Social Butterfly events cover everything from evenings at the Design Museum to afternoons volunteering. Pollyanne Hooley, who set up Doris Time, started by focusing on sports fixtures and cultural events.

‘The remit has grown because members want new things, like book clubs. To start with everyone was the friend of a friend; but if somebody hears about it and is interested, they can come to one as a trial, and if someone chooses to recommend them they’re also welcome.’

Our ever-growing penchant for members clubs helps too. Just like dating microsites, these have their specialities: the Ivy Club (celebrities who hate the idea of being seen); Bourdon House (you shop at Dunhill); One Alfred Place (you’re an upwardly mobile professional who likes the idea of a shared office space); The Hub at King’s Cross (similar, but you work in the arts and don’t mind sharing a fridge). A new club to look out for is Danger of Death, off Brick Lane. With special rates for locals, and a licence until three, their raison d’etre is bringing people together.

Another way to expand your social horizons is to seek out events which bring the brilliant brand of madness typified by New York club The Box to London. The Box, which is due to open a London branch later this year, calls itself a ‘theatre of varieties’, encourages the wearing of black tie, and revels in a style of retro decadence.

Of course there’s nothing like indulging in a spot of dress-up for banishing nascent shyness and dismantling social barriers. At Pinky’s, a ten-week long pop-up bar launched at the end of January at Bumpkin Notting Hill, the theme is 1920s. Think waiters in white tie shaking Side Cars, cabaret acts and evenings of silent cinema. ‘There’ll also be a fabulous area full of dressing up clothes: fur hats, stoles, vintage clothing,’ purrs the organiser, Pinky Laing.

Or try Love Brunch at Supperclub. The event, whose fans include Sienna Miller and Matthew Williamson, begins at noon with a lazy meal served on the beds; by four o’clock everyone is dancing. Creator Tom Carr explains: ‘Because it’s on Saturday afternoon it feels quite decadent, it has a special energy. We’ve never advertised, so everyone knows someone else who’s been, and everyone is like-minded. It attracts remarkably good-looking people; by 5pm everyone is very approachable.’ Of course, meeting someone is only the start. ‘Coming up with original dating ideas is getting harder and harder,’ says Higgs. ‘A great date these days is not about the flamboyant gesture, it’s about the details.’

Says Grose: ‘It’s no longer about snazzy, flash your cash places; you want to do something with a bit of style.’ So, take her cycling across Kensington Park at sunset, because she adores swans. Take him to a specialist screening of a film he loves, in the St Aubin Cinema on Redchurch Street, or to a Moët film night at One Aldwych.

The naked city may seem an inhospitable environment in which to find love. But it turns out more people from London want to get married than anywhere else in the UK. As psychologist Cecilia d’Felice puts it, ‘The party years are over. In harder times we want to invest more wisely in our romantic future. It is fun to spread ourselves thinly, but now we want to nurture supportive partnerships – which scientific research strongly suggests make us healthier and mentally stronger.’

Partnerships based on respect, sincerity and shared interests? Now there’s a novel idea.


Original article published in The London Magazine, in January, 2013

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