Bringing together muck and magic: Heart Searching: There are now agencies especially for the country liver or lover. Joanna Gibbon reports

UPROOTING yourself from London for rural Herefordshire might be considered stressful, but add to it simultaneously joining an introduction agency and the prospect seems alarming. For Wendy, then aged 42, it was time to take her life in hand. 'I had to do something positive rather than wait for something by chance,' she says.

Single, divorced, with no children, and sickened by the opulent Eighties, Wendy quit her secretarial job with an estate agent and moved house two and half years ago. Even though she knew a few people in Herefordshire she joined Country Partners, an introduction agency specialising in people interested in the country.

'When you are young it is easier to meet people but at my age everyone is in couples, or that is how it seems,' explains Wendy, who had never before contacted a dating agency. 'By joining you cut out all those queries you have when you meet and like someone at a party - such as whether they are available.'

Wendy met a few men over 12 months. 'They were pleasant. It was nice to have a raison d'etre for the weekend - meeting someone for lunch or a drink - and much better than sitting at home hoping someone was going to drop out of the sky.' She feels that even if Mr Right doesn't turn up through Country Partners, it is still a good way of widening your circle of friends.

Country Partners, says Wendy, stressed that flexibility and an optimistic outlook helped: 'If you meet a couple of people who aren't your cup of tea then you must treat it with humour, and not throw the towel in.' One suspects that even if Wendy had not met Alexander, about a year ago, she would still have this level-headed and sensible approach.

When she read Alexander's description - a divorce with children, involved with agricultural sales and counselling for farmers, and who has lived in Herefordshire a long time - she wondered whether his farming-oriented background would be right for her.

On their first meeting - a safe, genteel cup of tea at Bridgnorth - all worries disappeared. 'I thought he was terrific, very gentle, a lovely sense of humour and a sweet-natured person. When you meet someone who is right there aren't any questions, it is only the ones who aren't right who you agonise over,' she says,

In fact, Alexander had only been with Country Partners a short while - 'the good ones get snapped up,' explains Wendy. They now live together and are extremely happy. 'I consider myself very fortunate.' She is adamant that joining Country Partners is a sensible, not a peculiar, thing to do: 'Picking someone up in a wine bar would be much more hazardous,' she observes.

Wendy's predicament is fairly typical of the sort of people who approach Country Partners, says Heather Heber Percy, the organisation's founder. As a former Samaritan in Shropshire, Mrs Heber Percy was aware of the desperate loneliness of people living in remote rural areas: many of those on the end of the telephone were isolated. 'I felt if they could make some friends then the loneliness would be reduced,' she says.

When she set up her agency 10 years ago she had an overwhelming response from the local farming community. Gradually all sorts of people living and mostly working in the country joined, including vets, doctors, accountants and even, at the moment, an MP. The agency now has 5,000 people from all over Britain on its books: with a predominance from the Midlands. The Scots, apparently, are the most reluctant to join.

The car is partly responsible for changing country life, says Mrs Heber Percy, and in effect has added to the isolation. 'People drive miles away to work - they no longer work in the community, so village life has all but disappeared. Also, people move about more with their careers, they don't make new friends and don't build on older friendships,' she explains.

'We are not an extrovert nation,' believes Mrs Heber Percy, who feels that the stigma attached to introduction agencies is disappearing. 'The sort of people who join are absolutely normal,' she says.

Even so, they are quite fussy. The men are all looking for a slim, elegant, beautiful woman who is fairly independent, has not too many children, a zest for living and a sense of humour. The women, most of whom are financially independent, want someone who is kind to their teenage children, home-loving, tall, solvent and neither bald nor with a beard.

Mrs Heber Percy takes on men over 27 and women aged 25 and over, although most of those on her books are in their forties and divorced. She or one of her nationwide interviewers sees each client before taking them on. When an introduction is effected - on average about two a month - only christian names are given and a telephone number; clients are advised always to meet at a large hotel - somewhere neutral - and not at home or in a car park.

Mrs Patricia Warren, founder of the Farmers and Country Bureau, based in Derbyshire, is stricter about her definition of country folk. They must live in the country, preferably work on the land or satisfy her that they are country people; she will only allow people living in the city if they are farmer's daughters wanting to return, marry and live in the countryside. 'If someone's heart is really in the countryside they will already be living there anyway,' she maintains.

A farmer's wife herself, she feels she understands the long, solitary hours a farmer works these days. Farming has changed over the last few decades: 'A remote 200-acre farm which would have had a lot more activity on it is now run by one man and he may not have time to get out and meet people.'

The farm worker has changed, too - most are self-employed, home owners and contract out their skills. Mrs Warren occasionally gets the almost- extinct country landowner with a vast estate.

Those contacting her - Mrs Warren has between 1,500 and 2,000 people on her files - have passed the local Young Farmers group stage: the bulk of the men are in their early thirties and the women slightly younger. She does not insist on an interview, which she or an assistant conducts, but most people come anyway.

A few people have fixed ideas about what they want: 'I do try to make them look more realistically without disillusioning them completely,' she explains. Recently a wealthy dairy farmer from Cheshire signed up, saying he was too busy for an interview and almost too busy to meet someone, even though he did want to marry and produce an heir.

'I asked him if he thought he was doing something he ought to do or did he really want someone. In the end he realised he was being a bit silly. He knows, underneath, that someone doesn't just come along like that,' says Mrs Warren, who says that only about 5 per cent of those approaching her have no luck at all.

Recently, a girl insisted that the person of her dreams must live in typically English countryside: Mrs Warren found someone living on a remote island and they married within 3 weeks of meeting. 'It is not at all like the English countryside; but when I described this man she forgot about all the preliminary criteria,' she says. 'The timing was unusual, but that doesn't mean to say the marriage won't be successful.'

Country Partners, Cider Mill Barn, 2 Cotts Farm, Cotts Lane, Lugwardine, Herefordshire HR1 3NO. Tel: 0432 851414.

Farmers & Country Bureau, Mere Farm, Bakewell, Derbyshire DE4 1LX. Tel: 0629 636281.

(Photograph omitted)

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