"A SINGLES bar, now that's sad," says 29-year-old Steve, as he places the evening's third jug of sangria on the trestle table. "What a big turn-off," agrees his mate. "They'd never work down here in Bristol."

We're sitting in Rocinantes tapas bar, a hang-out for local media types by day, bare-midriff country for the beautiful and fashionable by night. It is, by popular consensus, the place to come if you're single and seeking. But the five men around the table deny vehemently that their favourite drinking-spot is a pick-up bar. "Definitely not," says one, indignantly. "If I wanted to pull, I'd go to a club," says Steve. "Now Henry Africa's, that is a pick-up joint."

Not according to a long-serving waitress at Henry Africa's "cocktail" bar it isn't. "People never come in here on their own," she insists after I have walked past the impenetrable single-sex clusters, panicked over where to put myself and finally perched on a stool by the window. I am the only person on my own in the bar and I stick out like, well, like a woman on her own in a bar.

More than half the population is single, according to the1991 census, and nearly a quarter of those are in their twenties and thirties. So what do more than 5 million young, free and single people do if they want to meet members of the opposite sex, not to "pull", but to meet a partner or just new friends?

One hundred thousand of them sign up with dating agencies, of which there are more than 80 in the UK. Others try their luck with the numerous singles clubs, Lonely Hearts columns and video dating services. The panoply of gimmicks puts Cupid's dart to shame. Judging by their sheer numbers, attitudes to dating agencies have shifted in the past decade, with more and more twentysomethings signing up. Cheryl Brown of Candleburners introduction agency says: "Five years ago, when I used to go to weddings of couples I had introduced, I would keep very quiet. People tend to be much more open about it now and even recommend me in their wedding speeches."

Today's questers can take their pick from the Nexus "skill banks" ("You come over and put up my shelves, and I'll cook your Yorkshire puddings"), Christian Singles, or Watercolours Singles Gallery. They can cruise cyberspace with the Lovenet, bump trolleys on Asda's special singles nights, or climb aboard the Coach to Happiness, a feels-on-wheels dating agency launched last month.

The ATS club in London, founded three years ago by Harry Denford, 26, is just one of the emerging organisations which may yet revolutionise the singles scene. A social club exclusively for people in their twenties and thirties, it has 450 members and offers activities from rollerblading to "spliff weekends to Amsterdam". ATS stands for Alternative Train Spotters. "It's taking the piss out of the other clubs and the people that join them," says Denford. "People said the club won't work because the people you are trying to attract don't join clubs - they're for sad, lonely people or people just desperate for a shag. But ours is a nerd-free zone. We don't allow the sex pest or the anorak brigade."

But if dating agencies are moving away from the image of computerised conquest for bloodless stamp collectors, why don't more people join them? "It still seems the ultimate in desperation," says Joanna, a 30-year-old photographer, over a glass of wine in Bath's Shades wine bar. "People do see it as a last resort."

Shades, as the closest equivalent to the American singles bars which started up in the Sixties, is an acceptable alternative to the dating agency. Small, friendly, relaxed, it's the sort of place where you can expect to start up a conversation at the bar without being branded a lascivious loser. But it remains difficult to meet people, especially if you are bold enough to turn up on your own.

"There is certainly scope for something which is as sociable and easy- going as Shades, but is more refined, more sophisticated," says Joanna, as a woman by the bar has her stockings removed by an admirer, "and which doesn't have the stigma of being a singles bar. That doesn't seem to exist."

Indeed not, if Caspers Telephone Exchange, Britain's only official singles bar, is anything to go by. Opened in 1988 in central London, it is modelled on the German cabaret phone bars of the 1930s. "I'm just going down for a drink at the bar," I say to the doorman as he ticks off guests' dinner reservations.

"Are you on your own?"

"Yes," I reply. The question is repeated. Incredulity gives way to: "What's a nice girl like you..." I descend into a hell-hole of Dantesque misery. Sweaty bodies gyrate to "You're the One That I Want"; boys scream at girls down the telephones placed on each table; a man clutches a woman from behind and flicks a V-sign when she wriggles away, unimpressed; a woman dances with six balloons on her head.

But Daffyd Rogers of the Royal Court Theatre, another singles pioneer, believes there is hope for the UK singles scene. Next month the theatre launches a monthly singles night aimed at taking the stigma away both from going to the theatre alone and being unattached. "Here we are very couple-orientated," says Rogers, 26 and single. "When people say single in this country it says negative things but in New York it's hip to be single."

Hip may be pushing a point. New Yorkers rarely talk about going to a singles bar, even if it has official singles status, as many do. "Too lounge-lizardy," as one New Yorker puts it. "It smacks of the Seventies and Saturday Night Fever." But bar culture is part of daily life, sexual hunting an accepted part of that package. There is something for everyone, from Club 44 for people "of size" to the singles restaurants, listed in the Zagat guide, where you can pick up a dining companion at the bar.

But this sexually charged bar culture runs, according to another New Yorker, on a current of "desperation". As in the UK, men and women are working harder and longer and simply don't have time for quality socialising. Similarly, women, wary of mistaking a psychopath for a soulmate, an eligible bachelor for a married man, don't date strangers. Nor does either sex have matchmaking structures in society to fall back on. Gone are the days of the extended family, the cocktail parties for the exchanging of eligible offspring, the dinner-dances and church events. They want to mate, but time, like partners, is running out. Hence, here in the UK, they turn to introduction agencies.

For those happy to throw caution to the wind, singles bars may be the answer. But they have been tried before and they haven't worked. The British are too reserved, there are always more men than women and the men that do turn up don't know how to behave. David ran Hobnob, a successful monthly singles bar, for from 1990 to 1994. It attracted 250 professional people in their thirties and forties.

"But, as with any singles bar, our problems came," says David, 48, "when you wanted to exclude people. It became like a hunting-ground. There are plenty of undesirables out there, either too boring or nasty, offensive. In the end we closed down because of people like that."

A members-only singles bar masquerading as a nightclub might be the answer to Cupid's problems. It is not, however, an easy thing to disguise. In the meantime, I head off to go to Kartouche, the glamorous members' bar and nightclub in Fulham, south-west London. I've been told that it's the place to hatch a romance. It is, after all, where Imran Khan wooed Jemima Goldsmith.

But, judging by one svelte peroxide blonde, meeting Mr Right here is not as easy as everyone says. "I have just," she says by way of explanation, "been on Blind Date." THE BEST AND WORST PLACES TO BE SINGLE THE WORST Liverpool The choice for meeting people is between Pickwicks, known locally as "pick-a-dicks", the Grifton's "grab a granny" nights or the singles nights at Liverlaundrettes. London Reputedly the unfriendliest city in the Western world. Bournemouth Hordes of single people with nothing to do except play bingo and choose their retirement homes. Birmingham Because nobody new ever moves into this environmentally challenged Bermuda Triangle of a city. Leeds Because a caring 28-year-old blonde with sapphire blue eyes is driven to seeking romance on the Internet.

THE BEST Nottingham Alternative singles club, ATS, failed to get off the ground here because "people aren't unfriendly like in London". Newcastle It's reputedly the most happening, friendly city in the UK. The whole of Cheshire Because Manchester has so many bars and clubs, plus there's the No 15 wine bar in Prestbury, a reputedly civilised and sophisticated singles haunt. Glasgow The Social Circles social club, set up a year ago, only has 100 members.