It started with a yearning to move back to London after nearly three decades living in the countryside. Mainly because living in the countryside when you are single is not for the faint-hearted. I now feel I have been away from a city for so long that I’ve grown roots into the earth and that all my city-living friends are having fabulous, interesting, connected lives and I am not. This worries me.
Also, the countryside is a bit of a closed shop — it’s full of couples and it’s a very clubbable place and I am not a very clubbable person. It’s particularly difficult over Christmas as everyone gets invited to wonderful Christmas parties — the ones you see in John Lewis adverts — and I never get invited as I am not coupled up. I got divorced more than a year ago and have gone on plenty of dates in the countryside but I’ve reached the point at which I need to expand my circle. I tried apps but met nobody I really fancied. After all, it’s not easy dating in your 50s. It seems particularly difficult when you are dating in the countryside.
I moved to Oxfordshire and then Buckinghamshire when my eldest son was four — he is now 26. We were living in Camden and then moved with his father to Manhattan but after we broke up I came home, back to where I grew up, and somehow I stayed there. But recently the yearnings to return to the capital were starting to keep me up at night. So I have taken to coming up to town a lot more just to feel part of something bigger and more vibrant. And, primarily, to meet new men.
What I didn’t expect was for my dogs to help me out. A year ago, I went to meet a friend on Hampstead Heath and, because I am soppy and because she had suggested a walk, I took my two dogs. Since my break-up my dogs have taken centre stage mainly because they love me unconditionally and they are always ridiculously happy to see me. It’s very life-affirming to be surrounded by bouncy, dogged affection when things have been difficult.
But nothing prepared me for the difference it makes to your dating life when you have a dog. This metropolitan dog-walking has utterly transformed my dating life. In fact, more than that, it’s given me a fantastic social life. Okay, it’s a bit weird to be called “Mollie’s Mum” when I actually have a name but having a dog and walking in London is an ice-breaker. I now feel part of a community. It’s incredibly weird to think that I actually feel pretty isolated in the countryside when villages are supposed to be friendly, supportive and full of bonhomie. This might be the case if you are partnered up but for the single it’s the antithesis of that. I’ve felt more welcomed by the Shih Tzus of London than the people in any country pub or village hall.
I am very close to my two pooches. I have a seven-year-old border collie called Mollie who is bouncy, bonkers and highly intelligent. I also have a six-year-old Greek rescue dog of indistinct genetic heritage called Aggie. They’ve both seen me through hard times. They have different characters. Mollie takes dislikes to other dogs for no logical reason. Aggie barks at everyone but she’s very soppy and sweet and utterly devoted to me.
So a year ago, I risked bringing them up to London for a long walk with my friend — for the first time ever. We are used to tramping around muddy fields and climbing huge hills and jumping into rivers rather than urban spaces but I thought I’d give it a go.
And thank goodness I did, because this initial walk was a revelation to me. For a start I realised pretty quickly that I stood out like a sore thumb in London — and needed to revamp my dog-walking look immediately. Everyone on Hampstead Heath was looking fabulous — more night out than muddy walk.
Women were all made up sporting trendy bright coats and coiffured hair. Some of them were wearing very clean, posh Dubarry boots or pristine trainers that had obviously never seen a puddle.
Others were actually wearing wedge-heeled boots, which made my mind boggle. Some were in dresses, some in skirts. I, however, was wearing my country gear which consisted of seriously muddy boots, hair messy, no make-up, a filthy raincoat, tattered jeans, ancient dog hair-covered jumper and a large, ugly woolly hat.
When my friend saw me she stared in disbelief. “Everyone is going to know you’re not a Londoner,” she hissed. Then my dogs absolutely disgraced themselves — London dogs just got on with following their “people” or trotting along obediently. My dogs went mad, tearing around like nutters, chasing squirrels, bombing people’s picnics, bounding up to other dogs and stealing tennis balls.
But then something amazing happened. As I was trying to persuade Mollie to stop bounding athletically into the ponds, a very attractive man came up and started talking to me about her.
We chatted about her being a collie and how his dog was part collie and the next thing I knew, we’d exchanged numbers and arranged to go on a dog walk the following week. To put this into context, this is the first time anyone has talked to me (bar people I know) on Hampstead Heath. In that moment, a whole new world and way of being began to glimmer at me attractively. Maybe walking my dogs might be a gateway to a new life whereby I’d meet interesting, informed Londoners and maybe even (whisper it) start to date.
Something amazing happened: a very attractive man came up and started talking to me about Mollie
So the next time I went to walk my dogs in London a week later I knew exactly what to do. I had my hair down loose, curly and romantically windswept. I wore new jeans, some pristine Hunter wellies, a green roll-neck, bright orange Puffa jacket, shades and careful, natural make-up but teamed with a deep red lipstick. I met the Hampstead man. “Wow!” he said. And off we went on our walk. The third time, I went alone, this time to Hyde Park and that’s when it all really took off.
As my dogs ran hither and thither, I met loads of people all under the guise of getting my dogs to “behave”. I met dog walkers and canine behaviourists and a cyclist who stopped to admire the athleticism of my collie. By the end of the walk I’d got three men’s telephone numbers, had an impromptu coffee with a man I shall call Mr Alsatian (whose dog tried to shag Aggie) and been asked to join a dog walking group by dashing Mr Flat Coat Retriever.
In my work as a therapist and coach — and being faced with the lost and the lonely on a daily basis — I now always float the idea that my clients consider getting a dog. The reasons are twofold; you’ll always come home to a warm presence who is delighted to see you and also it’s far easier to talk to people when you have a dog. You can spy someone you might like walking in the park and instead of trying to find a way of getting to talk to them — we don’t drop gloves anymore — it’s perfectly easy to go up to them and say something like “Ooh, look at your lovely dog. What breed is she/he?” And then you are off.
I am having so much fun that I have now decided to branch out. Mr Hampstead Heath and I are still having our bi-monthly walks and have developed a friendship and the Hyde Parkers are shaping up nicely.
But come the new year I’m heading out for new territory. In my sights are Clissold Park in Stoke Newington, Highgate Woods and Holland Park. I can’t wait to see who I will meet there.