28 Dates Later by Willard Foxton: Part Six, The Farmgirl

In which Willard gets his first proper kiss since the project began.

It's fair to say a great many of my friends have commented on my dating adventures.

Most of them have just laughed, but a select happy few have pointed me in the directions of dating sites that they themselves or friends have used successfully - or alternatively, ones that they think me going on would be hilarious:

My friend Janine (who is now becoming a regular feature of the blog) would like to make it clear she's not into polygamy personals, or threesomes, she just thinks it would be funny to see me blunder into them. 

Another ludicrous favourite that has been suggested is Sea Captain dating, which measures your distance to your dates in Nautical miles - but more on that later. (Yarrrr).

While some of them have been a bit optimistic - for example, my friend who met her husband through millionaire dating ("I was sick of being taken out in Birmingham, decided I wanted to be taken out to Barbados") - there was one message from an old university friend that caught my eye.
Hi Willard,
I hope you are well. I saw your blog post - I think you beat some of my crackers! That said I thought I'd share with you that Tom and I met on Muddy Matches, it's an agricultural / country dating website. 

There were some astounding men on there, and not in a good way. Having been assessed by some as to whether I'd breed well (estimated breed value ebv is a common term in ag) I was lucky to find Tom. If you're in need of entertainment then it's worth having a look!

Just thought if you were looking for a different type of women it does have a good mix on there!!
So, farmer dating. Yes, we're definitely back in the twilight zone. As my ex-Sun journo housemate said, taking a drag on his cigarette "I dunno mate, Muddy Matches sounds like a cover for shitlovers.com".
As a confirmed urbanite - I live in the middle of London and love it - I was a little nervous about logging on to a site which enables you to meet "muddy" country types. I couldn't help flashing back to one afternoon in a rural barrister's chambers in my mid twenties, when a man wearing tweed with bushy white sideburns & wellies walked in, laid his double barrelled shotgun on the clerk's desk and said, in a broad west country accent "Oi'll be needin' a lawyer, Oi've just shot moi woife".
Indeed, much of my mercifully brief legal career consisted of defending tractor thieves who hailed from a hamlet near Bath called Norton Radstock. I was slightly worried anyone I might meet on the site would be the sort of ruddy faced person who chews tobacco and readily uses a bit of rope as a belt, but at least the Radstock experience would stand me in good stead if the conversation turned to the value of agricultural machinery. 
I was slight reassured that the site's "rate your own muddiness" calculator proclaimed me to be "Muddy at heart, but you think civilisation also has a lot to offer", but equally worried that the top three options on "how did you hear about this site" were "Horse & Hound magazine", "The Field" or "at a cross-country point to point", none of which were things I was that into. So, I put myself out there. 

After a couple of days, I had a couple of messages, but one leaped out at me. There were plenty of "country girls at heart" who lived on the King's Road (it seems very good for finding those - if you're a bloke who loves horse riding with women called Persephone, you probably couldn't find a better site), but there was only one actual farmer.

She was a fruit farmer from Berkshire, and she was very flattered by my offer to come out to her village for a swift pint. So, one evening, I jumped on a train from Paddington, and ventured out into the wilds. We'd agreed to meet at the station, and so I waited there for five minutes in the freezing rain before she pulled up, in her battered Land Rover. I laughed, but what did I expect? She flung open the door, invited me to jump in, and we sped off to a local pub.
She was very pleasant - late thirties, had worked in the City for a few years before jacking it in to take over the family farm. She'd been with the same bloke for about 8 years, but had broken up with him last year when it turned out he was a bit of a shit. We had a lovely chat in front of the pub fire, decided to extend the evening into dinner. 

We talked about how we'd both dodged the bad marriage bullet, politics, how rubbish the EU is, our families - we'd both had parents in the military, so we were able to compare notes on growing up as army brats. She had a great dirty laugh, and was seriously flirtatious, in a kind of wax jacketed, upper class, graduate of Cheltenham ladies college way.

She told me of the difficulty of meeting a man when her main concern was often making supermarkets pay on time for tons of raspberries; her last date was with a Bulgarian farm worker called Dmitar, although it was "less dating, more just sex really. His English wasn't really up to conversation". The mind boggles. Farming was never like this on The Archers

After dinner, she drove me back to the station, and I got my first proper kiss of the dating project! Hurrah!
This post originally appeared at 28 Dates Later. Stay tuned as we catch you up with all Willard's disastrous dates so far over the next week.
"So, farmer dating. Yes, we're definitely back in the twilight zone." Photograph: Getty Images.

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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