Wednesday, St Valentine's, Cupid out in force, broken arrows everywhere . But for the true of heart, his aim will bring the ring of truth. Rosie Millard swoons. Photographs by Jane Sebire and Derek Francis

By rights, there should be no one on the streets of Farringdon on a Saturday. The big banks on Fleet Street are shut; the photocopiers and sandwich bars along Chancery Lane are all having a good weekend of it while the law courts are closed. The City lanes, Saffron Street and Herbal Hill, tiny, winding routes with ancient names, are empty. Farringdon in the City of London is closed for business; all that is, except Hatton Garden.

At first glance you wonder why everyone is walking in twos. The street is packed, and everyone in it is in a tightly knit couple, holding hands or linking arms. It's like a Twenties tea dance: men on the left, women on the right. The couples weave past one another, staring not at the sky or even at each other, but into the twinkling, plate-glass windows that line both sides of the street. For this is where more than 40 shops and a thousand manufacturers provide the rings for the country's brides and grooms.

There are four banks on Hatton Garden and several building societies; all are open in preparation to give out the readies for that special moment, which happens in Hatton Garden every 15 minutes on average.

"We've had men on their knees in the shop," says Justin Tait of Alexander Craig Jewellers. "Ooh yes. They get their girlfriend to turn up alone for some silly reason, like getting a watch mended. Then the flowers arrive. Then he arrives, and he's on his knees, handing the ring over. Oh, there's tears, and kissing. She'll say it's lovely. And you know, " says Justin, looking distinctly moist lidded, "you can see it's Love. It really is."

The wedding business in Hatton Garden is currently worth pounds 1.4 billion per annum. Even the furniture is devoted to it. Each shop is equipped with double chairs facing a table, a mirror and a salesman, so that both bride and groom can feel at home.

Right now, pearls, opals and any semiprecious stones are out. Princess Diana's big, blue oval rock was in, but is now out, out, out. Solitaire diamonds, big ones, are in, as are, in descending order, solitaire sapphires, rubies and emeralds. "But you've got to watch out doing the washing-up with an emerald ring on," says Williams - apparently the stone doesn't much care for Fairy Liquid. The peak time for getting a ring is January to May.

"The man pays but it's the woman who knows what she wants," says Howard Goldman, manager of the Wedding Ring Shop, where punters must walk through a vast plastic ring to get in. "Unless it's a surprise. If the groom's prepared to wear a ring, he'll just kind of go, `Yeah, that'll do.' Occasionally they give you the wrong hand to try on, like they don't know..." "Do we ever accept rings back?", asks Goldman, whose prices range from pounds 19 to "eternity". "Nah. I see it, like, I've got 1,500 rings here already, I don't need yours as well. At the end of the day it's not our fault the wedding's been called off."

If the best man messes up, Hatton Garden will come to his aid. "We had this one who managed to lose the rings on the stag night," says Deana McGraine, of the Wedding Ring Shop. "I think he was having a friendly tussle with the groom and the rings fell down a drain. He came in on the wedding day in a dreadful state. Luckily we had a record of the sizes and styles, so we could replace them there and then."

Belinda is Australian and works in PR; Guy is a trainee medical officer at Brompton Hospital. They will get married in Australia later this year. Guy asked Belinda to marry him while walking in the Lake District last Christmas. "It was a lovely day, a great view and a frozen lake," says Guy. "I thought, do it now. I said, Let's sit down here and have a Kit Kat." "I was bloody frozen," says Belinda. "But I guessed what was coming. So I sat down on a rock. And Guy says, I'm going to ask you a question, but don't answer for a week." "I just said, I'd like you to be my wife," says Guy. A week later they had a champagne dinner and Belinda said yes. "I feel different now," she says. "Now I've got my ring. It's more of a statement." "You just can't wipe the smile off your face, darling," says her fiance.

Clare and Richard first met when Clare was five years old, and knew each other throughout school. Richard now works at BT; Clare is unemployed. "He's the love of my life, apart from my cat," says Clare. "He actually asked me three years ago. When he was drunk. It was up to him. It's up to the man. Unless it's a leap year. And I insisted on having a ring. You don't feel engaged otherwise." The wedding's on 20 April, at Leighton Registry Office; it's to be a white wedding, "with all the frills". They're in Hatton Garden to buy two wedding rings: Clare wants Richard to wear a ring as well as herself. "I don't really want to," admits Richard. "But I'm easy about it." They have chosen identical plain gold bands that cost pounds 80 each. "I'd like other women to know he's married," says Clare.

Nick works for the Ministry of Defence; Joanna is a medical student at King's College, London. They are in Hatton Garden with Nick's children from a previous marriage. "We were underneath the Karoomba Waterfalls in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, on New Year's Eve. I was looking at the waterfall and I knew it would be the right moment. So I just said, Will you marry me, my darling? We kissed in the waterfall, and then all these tourists started taking photographs of us. Afterwards we tried to get some champagne back at the Karoomba cafe, but there wasn't any." Nick has just bought Joanna a Tiffany solitaire diamond ring for pounds 1,200. "It's important that the man asks his bride to marry him. To me, marriage is a traditional thing. You either accept it, or frankly, you don't."

Colin is a decorator; Jan works for a telecommunications company. They got engaged on New Year's Eve 1994 but have only just decided to get married; they're looking for a wedding ring for Jan. "He asked me after a party. He was drunk," says Jan. "Well, we were both drunk. I said, Ask me in the morning. So he did. And I said yes. And then I said, It's your turn to make the tea." Jan is now four months pregnant, and worried about being an unmarried mother, so the wedding has been brought forward. "We were going to have a big summer do in a castle. Now we're having a quiet wedding on 24 February at Hornchurch Registry. I was put under pressure at work. People made nasty comments," she says sadly. The baby's due in July. "Then we'll have a big party and invite everyone."

Laura and Ossie (real name Shane Osbourne) have biked from Bury St Edmunds. Ossie is a lorry driver; Laura exports saddlery. They are getting married on 1 June. "I'm walking up the aisle to `November Rain' by Guns 'n' Roses," says Laura proudly. "Know it? It's our song." They have bought white-and-yellow gold wedding rings for pounds 205 (Linda's) and pounds 314 (Ossie's). "I asked her to marry me on her 21st birthday," says Ossie. "We were dancing to `November Rain'. I just handed her the ring." For the wedding, Ossie is turning up on a Suzuki GS450 Low Rider; Laura will wear white, with a waterfall train. The day will be one of revelations, particularly for Laura's mother. "She hadn't seen my tattoo until I tried my dress on," says Laura. "Since then I've had my nose pierced. But this is me."

Debrett's, that oracle for modern manners, has no guide for the correct way of proposing marriage. "We don't think it's appropriate," said a spokesperson, very politely. "We wouldn't dream of telling people to go down on one knee." All right, no knee; but no flowers, no ring, even? "NO" (firmly). "We feel perhaps the man should do the asking," was all they would be drawn on.

All very well, but from adverts for Impulse deodorant, where the man rushes up to the woman with a bunch of flowers, to De Beers' "A Diamond Is Forever", with shadowy hand waving a ring about, dating couples are inundated with imagery hinting at the correct way to "pop the question".

Experts in the field think this is all wrong. Canon John Oates, who marries about 80 couples a year at St Bride's Church in Fleet Street, London, sees the proposal as possibly the least important element. "What really matters is the lead-up: the way companionship and friendship develop between two people. The point is, do you feel as if you just can't spend time away from each other? Rings and bended knees are not really what it's about. Yes, in everyone's mind there's a yearning for romantic love, but some people feel that proposing and getting married is the whole point. And that's a recipe for disaster."

Yet the hold of the romance industry - rings, cards, flowers, Telemessages - is strong. Jane went to Australia with Pat, her boyfriend of three years. "We went to all these romantic places. Ayers Rock at sunset. The Barrier Reef at dawn. Sydney Harbour Bridge. I was really good-natured all through the holiday, because I was convinced he'd use a really romantic place to propose, and I didn't want to ruin it," she says. "Our friends kept ringing me up and asking me if he'd done it. Zilch. It was dreadful." Pat asked Jane to marry him several months later, at 4am in their house. Four years and two children later, she admits she had had a hopelessly romantic outlook on life.

Men can also suffer, their chief mistake being to surprise their beloved with a large, diamond-studded ring. It happened to Mary. "We were going out to the movies," she says, "and my boyfriend suddenly said, `I've got something to ask you.' Before I knew it, he'd whipped out this pounds 3,000 ring from Tiffany's. It was a nightmare. I would never have worn a ring like that. I just had to tell him I'd let him know. But I thought if he could get my taste so wrong he obviously didn't really know me." The relationship never recovered.

"Oh, there's so much silly fuss made about it," splutters Claire Rayner, the nation's agony aunt. "Mothers' Day, Valentine's Day, rings, proposals on one knee. It's all commercialisation. What about the poor little buggers who can't afford big diamond rings? How must they feel? Other things are more important," she says briskly. "If you follow a rule book as to where and when you should propose, well, you shouldn't be doing it all."

Indeed, Claire's own marriage proposal was startlingly Minimalist. "Well, Desmond and I were changing trains at Kings Cross Station. On the Underground. We were crossing a platform and we didn't even break step. Desmond simply said, `The next time your family wants to know if it's official, well, you can tell them that it is.' And that was it. And that was fine," says Claire. "It was enough for me. I knew exactly what he meant, and that was nice. We've been together for 29 years"

Any time, any place, anywhere

Peter Bryden and Vicky Savory

Peter proposed to Vicky in the revolving doors at Sainsbury's, Banbury. She said yes and they emerged from the door to dance down the fruit and veg aisle.

Andrew Blackwell and Lynda Parry

Pig maniacs. Andrew proposed to Lynda by a pigsty at Chester Zoo. He then adopted a pig for her at the zoo. They intend to get married in the same trough.

Steve Nicholson and Caroline Harrison

Steve proposed to Caroline while they were adrift in shark-infested waters off the Indonesian coast. They promised to get married if they were saved. They were. Caroline was still married to somebody else, but that was a minor detail.

Neil Richards and Paula Bennett

Leading Seaman Neil proposed to Wren Paula shortly after head-butting her and grabbing her throat in a jealous rage aboard an aircraft carrier. She accepted.

Linda Ward and Mike Sagin

Linda, a newsreader on Westcountry TV, asked Mike to marry her on air during a late-night news bulletin. He was watching the programme at home and fell off his chair in shock. News of his acceptance was later broadcast to riveted viewers.

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