With no Valentine’s Day plans, ShortList.com’s David Cornish boarded the Virgin Trains Love Carriage for an afternoon of speed dating (and free booze)
"Tinder is shit," a tight-t-shirt clad 20-something announces to his first speed date.
She nods, politely, grabbing for a champagne flute threatening to tumble from their shared table.
This is a commonly held opinion aboard the first class carriage of the 1531 from King’s Cross to York - bedecked in rose petals (fake) and fairy lights (dim), it's filled with around 20 singletons who’d all rather spend their Valentine's Day on a train than sitting at home wallowing in Netflix and Dominos.
This curated group of individuals, consumed by the threat of abject loneliness, have decided that spending six hours in the company of total strangers in the confines of a train cabin is preferable to spending the 14th February alone.
I am one of said singletons, nodding in world-weary agreement at the statement of Mr So-Right-Tight-t-shirt (I should have worn something a little more revealing, I realise, rolling up my sleeves). My experience of Tinder is one of perpetual shittiness - repeated by Bumble, Happn and all other assorted digital dating solutions that I have slapped a profile on. I am here to find out if old-fashioned speed dating might hold something over the app experience.
It's an odd set up: a PR stunt demonstrating the luxury of the Virgin Trains first class experience, and the nippy speed at which it covers the distance between London and York (a little over two hours). Every 10 minutes, men are asked to shuffle between tables, navigating the Virgin Trains staff on hand to keep the nervy mob pleasantly sloshed.
The scene is made all the more bizarre by the inclusion of Fred Sirieix, swaying down the carriage, his trademark Gallic charm intact, but weathered. The beloved host of First Dates is knackered, having spent the last few weeks contributing to a host of similar Valentine's events. He's buggering off to the Caribbean in a few days, a holiday set to be devoid of any roses.
"I just want to lick his face," mutters the woman I'm attempting to share a bowl of popcorn with. "Do you think he'd mind if I straddled him?"
Crushing. Tearing out my still-beating heart with more haste than Virgin Trains can transport its passengers from King's Cross to York (£56.50 for an off-peak single. The ticket, not the marital status). Where's that drinks trolley got to...
The selection of punters aboard the Love Carriage isn't entirely representative of the usual speed dating or app selection. Aged between 24 and 35, the majority of us work in some area of the media industry. Attendees appear confident, extrovert, attractive - no one seems to be having a bad time, and it's difficult to imagine any of this bunch posing next to a drugged-up tiger. But that might have something to do with the copious amount of wine.
By the third table swap, I'm beginning to realise that speed dating holds a lot in common with the world of dating apps:
- The first moments of conversation go down one of two routes - a discussion of your job, your home, your immediate observations of the day ("It's weird, isn't it?! Yeah, fun weird!") or an obscure observation that can quickly spiral down less structured avenues - like their secret desire to straddle Fred.
- While apps can readily cater to introductory conversations, they can't replicate that all important "in real life" spark crucial to making or breaking a date. It's the flaw behind the tight-t-shirt guy's remark: apps are "shit" because, while you might find the photos of Steph (29, 11 miles away) attractive, until you sit down with her in the close confines of a bar you've got no idea if you'll be attracted to her mannerisms, her personality, the way she carries herself. To your horror, you realise you have to spend a polite amount of time necking a drink before you can make your excuses and head for the door - while here, you know you've only got seven more minutes to fill.
Another plus, as one woman points out - there are "fewer dick pics with speed dating too".
Having arrived in York, we've all begun to get an idea of who we'd rather spend the return leg/another bottle of wine with. We're ushered into the Royal York Hotel for more drinks (did I mention the drinks?) and selfies with Fred before the next train to King's Cross arrives. No one straddles him.
There's a lot of giggling as the Love Carriage team call each woman over to find out who they'd most like to spend the journey back with. Meanwhile, the men cast anxious looks in the direction of Fred, drawing heavily on their latest drink, fidgeting with their free sausage roll (not a euphemism).
The return leg is decidedly less civil. Gone are the twinkling fairy lights and earnest introductions, replaced by genuine members of the public, understandably put out that they'll be sharing their first class carriage with a group pumped up on Prosecco and hormones - the dating rabble, all media teeth and confidence, raising their voices in merriment like we're about to hit the dying hours of a student house party.
I am having a great time
One chap begins picking out a tune on the guitar he brought along. Someone manages to convince the staff to leave a whole bottle behind, rather than just pouring a glass. Fred is tapping away on his phone having given up on synchronising any further dates, allowing people to either couple off by their own accord or sit eight-to-a-table, sharing dating horror stories, flirting and yet more wine.
By the time we arrive back in London the cry goes up to head to the nearest bar. Drinks are bought. Numbers are exchanged. One guy has got lost attempting to find the toilets. Everyone suddenly realises it's dark outside and the Monday morning alarm is ticking ever closer - but there's a reluctance to head toward the doors. It's difficult to tell if this is due to any real bond made during the rickety ride to York and back or simply because we're all the type of people who consider a six hour train ride preferable to being home alone on Valentine's Day.
As I head to the tube home (alone), I ponder on what I've gleaned from the day. Have I answered questions about myself no woman ever could? Am I set to never return to the digital dating scene? No, but I do know this: York is only around two hours away and the Minster is a must see.