Me And My Home: The matchmaker
Singles agency supremo Mary Balfour talks to Alice Hart-Davis
Wednesday 11 February 2004
Mary Balfour runs the Drawing Down the Moon, Only Lunch and loveandfriends.com introduction agencies. She lives with her husband Sebastian in an Edwardian house in west London
I have lived in North Kensington since 1980, when I was the head of the local adult education centre. I'm a very parochial, villagey person and I feel this is my manor; I was brought up a mile from here, so it's a home from home. It's very peaceful. You can still park outside your front door, yet you can be in the West End in 15 minutes. It's near Wormwood Scrubs, where I go running, which is big and wild with wide horizons - you can even see the London Eye from there. It's wonderfully multicultural and not at all metropolitan. Ponies come along the street from the local riding school - really fat, round Thelwell ponies, and only this morning a flock of geese wandered by.
"Our house is Edwardian redbrick, with the odd Art Nouveau flourish. The house originally had two storeys and though we've added a floor, you can still see the sky from every room, which is very important to me. The top floor, the attic, is my husband's castle. I bought the house when I was single, and when we married, my husband felt a bit like a lodger, so he wanted his own part of the house at the top. He's a professor at the LSE, and he has an office up there, with the walls lined with books, and his cello which he plays for pleasure.
"There are three bedrooms on the first floor, so there's plenty of space for my two stepdaughters, who visit now and again. My home office is up there, too. On the ground floor, the living room is off the hallway. It is two rooms knocked into one, with two art nouveau fireplaces and has the original plaster ceiling. For the past 20 years it has been the same rich dark bluey green colour, which provides a very nice backdrop to the pools of light that come from the lamps - we don't like bright lights. We have wooden floors throughout the house, and it's very friendly and relaxing, very womb-like. There are two big armchairs, a double sofa, a piano and a huge television which is too complicated for us to work. We've had lessons from the man who sold it to us and we still can't do it, so we tend to watch the old one in the kitchen.
"Beyond the living room, what used to be the old French doors to the garden open onto the new kitchen, which is our pride and joy. We had a small extension before, and for planning reasons, the upper storey of that had to be retained, so building a bigger kitchen underneath it was quite a challenge. We had a brilliant local architect, Gennaro Picardi, who lives just down the road and he did an amazing job with sprayed silver RSJs, so it looks a bit like a 1920s aircraft. It is a very modern structure, but we chose a colour scheme that evokes the French country kitchen that my husband knew from his childhood (he's half French), with lots of French country blue, and antique hexagonal terracotta tiles which we went to Normandy to buy. We used a very clever kitchen designer, Mats Lindroth, who gave it a wonderful look with clean lines, exactly as we wanted, with masses of cupboards for all the kitchen gadgets.
"We used to eat out a lot with friends, but the new kitchen has transformed the house. It has made the kitchen into a place where I really like to be, and put us in a new frame of mind where we have friends round a great deal. I love entertaining in small numbers. I love cooking; I feel that preparing and sharing food is a very important bonding process, whether you are a couple who are getting to know each other or whether you are entertaining others.
"I'm a very gregarious sort of person, though I don't like parties - I prefer people one to one. Running a personal introductions agency suits me down to the ground. Drawing Down the Moon was the original agency, and was meant for thinking people, though that doesn't mean serious or older people. It started in 1984 and I took it over in 1986. I wanted to take on a job which meant I never had to retire, and I thought, 'I can carry on doing this until I'm 102.' I have three agencies now.
"One of the others is Only Lunch, which I acquired five or six years ago. It's a very clever idea, where people meet up for lunch dates. We match you up with a person, you turn up at the restaurant, and if you like them, you can exchange numbers. It is much less of a commitment than dinner, though people are so busy that actually very few of them can do lunch except on Sundays, so most of them do meet up for dinner.
"The third agency is loveandfriends.com, and on this one, people can flirt by e-mail for a month or two before meeting up. It's interesting, because then they get to know each other from the inside out. It's like old-fashioned love letters.
"I've been working a lot from home this year - I'm writing a book about how to catch your man. And no, I didn't meet my husband through an agency. He was a next door neighbour, and I met him up a ladder, long before I took over the dating agencies."
www.drawingdownthemoon.co.uk (020-7937 6263); www.onlylunch.co.uk (020-7376 2213); www.love andfriends.com. Mary's next singles seminar is 6.30pm tonight at Waterstones in Piccadilly (£10, phone 020-7937 6263 to book)
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