“On your way, son,” comes the reply, from a woman in her fifties, before a question can even be asked. “Okay, thank you madam, have a nice day.”
Wrapped up in their standard-issue windcheaters on Scunthorpe’s freezing high street, the clipboard touting “charity muggers” are in for a long day. They are soliciting donations for the British Heart Foundation, but when it comes to the tender matters of that most vital organ, this is a town that’s had a quadruple bypass.
In the shadow of the country’s largest works and under a slag dust sky, Scunthorpe was this week voted the least romantic place in Britain, narrowly ahead of Bradford and Blackpool, and far away from Cornwall and the Cotswolds, who are smugly seated at the better end of the leaderboard of love. So where do you find love in a town with a heart as cold as iron?
Perhaps with the Dexters, Paul and Hayley, a happy couple in middle age emerging from the Card Factory, clutching a giant and expensive looking Valentines card in a paper bag. “Oh no, this isn’t for him,” she says, pointing at Paul. “This is for my twelve-year-old’s girlfriend. I gave him money for it yesterday. Sent him into town. He come back with Xbox vouchers.”
Paul, in fact, hasn’t been into the Card Factory. “Oh no,” says Hayley. “Mine’ll be from the corner shop.”
“It’s not because they’re cheaper,” Paul explains. “They’ve got better rhymes.”
The lunchtime queue for Valentine’s gifts in the Card Factory is sizeable. “I want to Poke You” reads one card. “Twitter with my YouTube til I Google all over your Facebook” is the adjacent witticism. Cashier Natalie Arnfield’s favourite gift, the bouquet of chocolate roses, has already sold out. But the poll results don’t surprise her.
“I met my fella in the pub,” she says. “Most people here meet when they’re falling out of nightclubs drunk. If you want to go somewhere romantic in Scunthorpe, you go out of town.”
Is there nowhere nice? “Actually, Raaz, the Indian, that’s quite romantic. They give the lady a rose when you walk in.”
I head round to Raaz to find it closed. A cursory web search informs that last summer it was fined £21,000 for a live rat infestation. “Filthy and infested with vermin,” was the magistrate’s verdict. “You could have caused a major outbreak of food poisoning in Scunthorpe.”
Just down the road is Schnapps bar, open til 3.30am, the first of a strip of nightclubs. “Oh you’ll see a bit of romance in here, for sure, whatever romance means nowadays,” claims the barman, where Jägerbombs are £1.50. “I don’t know why Scunthorpe’s come last. It’s no different from Grimsby or Doncaster.”
For centuries, North Lincolnshire’s “Industrial Garden Town” (it would surely fare better in a vote to find the nation’s favourite oxymoron) has been exchanging demure looks with Hull, on the other side of the Humber Estuary, but the Industrial Revolution came and went before either of them did much about it. Scunny, as the place is affectionately known, is soldiering on, but times are not as they were. Even the Scunthorpe Slag Handicap Hurdle, a horse race at nearby Market Rasen, came to an end in the late nineties.
IT managers are familiar with what is termed “The Scunthorpe Problem”. Emails containing the town’s name often get blocked by company filters, a consequence of the Anglo Saxon term thinly disguised in its first syllable. The honourable member for Scunthorpe, Labour’s Nic Dakin, thinks it’s not just computers that misunderstand the place. “The people who’ve voted in this poll probably haven’t been there. Scunthorpe is full of romantic places,” he claims.
“Some of the most fantastic Indian food in the country, and Italian too. Concerts at Baths Hall, a romantic walk along Ridge Walk, with stunning views of the Trent Valley.
“Everyone who visits tells me they are pleasantly surprised about how green and beautiful it is.”
Scunthorpe’s previous MP would no doubt agree. Elliot Morley evidently spent so long staring wistfully at the smoke belching spires that he clean forgot to stop claiming for a mortgage he’d already paid off, a £30,000 misfortune that led to his transportation to the far less agreeable surroundings of Her Majesty’s hospitality in West Sussex.
The train out of Scunthorpe leads past Glanford Park, home of Scunthorpe United FC. Football stadium anoraks will tell you it was inspired by Paris’s Stade de France, the majestic bowl on the outskirts of the international city of love. It is impossible to see how, although the north-west corner, named after the club’s most famous ever player, is a final inspiration for lovers everywhere: the “Sir Ian Botham Executive Lounge”. Whoever said romance was dead?