Despite Newcastle's swish new light rail and apartment influx in the city, plenty of people will tell you this up-and-coming city is still a country town. Many ex-Sydneysiders agree it's a great location to raise a family, or find affordable housing, or go surfing.
But what about single women looking for a partner, or just a fun night out?
Finding love in Newcastle is not always easy, as I found out when I set out to find women willing to talk about their dating experiences.
But dating opportunities are everywhere in Newcastle, from social groups, to trivia nights to a variety of online options.
Some look no further than the nightclub scene for potential soulmates. Others have found success via dating apps, although not all apps are created equal. Some women are fed up, some women are swooning, and some don't feel like sharing their personal lives with a writer. Fair enough.
What follows is a small sample size of straight women in Newcastle and their ups, downs and in-betweens, as they navigate the local dating scene. (Same-sex dating in Newcastle comes with its own set of challenges as well and if you're in the boat and would like to share your story, please get in touch.)
Twenty-four-year-old Kacee Nelson lives in Newcastle's CBD, and she's been single for nearly four years. For three years she didn't use dating apps, but eventually she realised Tinder was a cheaper way to hook up. She recently started seeing someone more seriously, but for a long time she looked at dating in Newcastle as a way to have a bit of fun. She estimates she's dated at least 200 men in Newcastle.
"I like the bar better because, one, you get to see who they associate themselves with, and, two, how they are in person. I know my Tinder profile pictures are the best of me and I'm never necessarily that. What turns me on in the pub is confidence and how they could approach me or how they react. Tinder is more of a battle of who wants to break the silence first."
She liked meeting people in person at the pub, but she felt her options were dwindling. She wondered if the city was too small or she was going for the wrong guys who were having a bad influence on her. She found it hard to move on from certain "types" of guys, for example uni guys or rugby league guys.
"I remember being maybe 20, and I was at a room in Argyle House and there were eight people I'd been with in one room," she says. "Newcastle is small and everyone runs in the same circles."
The decision to get on dating apps came from witnessing her colleagues and housemates use Tinder. A few of her female colleagues were on Tinder and they had dates all the time. Finally Nelson went home after a bad day at work, threw her phone at one of her housemates and said "download Tinder, I'm ready".
"That evening we were sitting on the couch, and they were teaching me how to use the app," she says.
"The boys found it more interesting to browse through my Tinder app because they were interested to see what other guys had on their site. And we ended up mirror imaging my Tinder app onto the TV and voting about what we liked and what we didn't like. There were three of us to start and then our fourth housemate came home. My vote was worth two and everyone else's was worth one. Sometimes I was definitely outvoted and from that evening came my first Tinder date."
The dating app changed her view of romantic opportunities.
"There's this whole other world of guys that I never knew existed," she says.
"I've lived in Newcastle my whole life, how did I not know about this group of people? I liked Tinder for that reason, you found the men who didn't go to Argyle House every weekend."
Her housemates have ended up helping her secure a few different dates and lovers, but after four years of fun she's seeing someone exclusively, a man she met in Brisbane of all places. They hit it off after what she thought would be a one-night stand. She deleted her app as soon as she returned to Newcastle and now goes to see him twice a month. She hopes they can maintain the relationship, but she wouldn't feel comfortable with him moving to Newcastle.
"It's still so small, no matter who he becomes friends with, he'll run into someone that I've dated," she says.
Cinta Durney, 31, moved to Newcastle in June 2017 from northern NSW for work opportunities. She had also lived here before attending university.
She had a partner when she previously lived in Newcastle, but now that she's returned here, her career has taken priority. In the two years that she's been here, she's not necessarily been looking for love, but not opposed to it either. She reckons people can find "their type" in any city, but she's sure if she were in Sydney she'd have a different experience because there's a bigger population.
She's experienced Newcastle's romantic potential, too. She remembers being on Merewether beach with a partner (now ex-partner), playing on the sand as the sun went down.
But she's not interested in dating at the moment, despite recently taking a chance on Tinder. For a long time the app hadn't interested her and she associated it with vanity and a distasteful way of meeting someone. She wondered how she could make a valuable connection with someone she "window-shopped" for.
"In hindsight, perhaps my preconceived ideas and stigmas subconsciously tainted the whole experience." Durney says. "I caved one day because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. People are seemingly obsessed with it, and sometimes they do find someone whom they end up adoring."
She found she didn't have the time and energy for speed dating groups, and they didn't really appeal to her. She thought she could at least have some fun on the app.
She quickly and unexpectedly found a guy with whom she had real chemistry. She began to reconsider her disdain for Tinder until it all went downhill. She thinks it's not so much Tinder itself, but more the era, technology and people's growing lack of morals and emotional maturity - which Tinder has a knack for facilitating.
"Communication got strange. Tinder seems to give people a ticket to act shady. Insecurities that I thought had faded came flooding back because I had no idea of this guy's life when I wasn't around. He was still on Tinder, as a few months in when I went on to delete mine, his was still there, with an updated location," Durney says. This would imply he'd still been using the app.
She said they didn't work out, just like many relationships don't, regardless of Tinder's involvement. Ultimately, she believes the app is perhaps not for her.
"[His Tinder account] was his business. I mentioned it, then let it go, and I'm sure he kept it regardless. He had every right to really, though why would you need a dating account if you were apparently smitten with someone and wanted them to be loyal and committed to you? It seemed somewhat hypocritical, and eventually communication or miscommunication mixed with insecurities and uncertainty killed the whole thing."
Her advice for single men looking for love in Newcastle is simple: "Know what you want and don't string people along."
Linda Read, 40, is a mother of two based in New Lambton. She reentered the dating scene in 2014 when she split with her husband of seven years.
She spent a few years dating locally, often with the assistance of dating apps. She's learnt enough about modern and digital dating to deliver a PowerPoint presentation, and while she's had moments of cynicism, she couldn't be happier with her current partner. The pair have formed a beautiful blended family thanks, in part, to Tinder.
She was a single mum working in an office with a small number of people. None of her friends had single friends, so she knew meeting someone on a whim would be unlikely. She didn't want to go to a bar; she didn't want to be with the kind of guy who picks up women in bars.
"You get to the age where you know you want to start over with someone; you're not just there to play around," Read says.
She tried eharmony dating app, but found it was just a waste of time for her - she couldn't find anyone close by. (The dating apps tell you the vicinity of each user.) Particularly because Read has children, she didn't want to have to uproot them from school and friends.
"I found, depending on the age group you're in, the fewer options there were," she says.
"There's that depressing time when you're swiping through all of them and it says 'no more left', you loosen your prerequisites of distance and age and say 'I guess I could travel 20 minutes further.' "
Then she would visit her mum in Sydney and she'd turn on Tinder and the look of guys was totally different, and there were more.
"I had a love-hate relationship with Tinder, I would go on it because I wanted to meet someone and that was the only avenue I had. I couldn't go out at night because I had kids and then I'd have some horrible experience and then I'd go off it again," Read says. "I did meet someone and we saw each other for a few months. It didn't work out in the end, but he was a lovely guy. Just like with any situation, things don't [always] work out."
Being a mother to children presented its own challenges as well.
"It just meant obviously it was hard," she says. "This is with any relationship, not just Tinder; you have to make sure you like them enough that it's worth introducing them to the kids, but you also want to make sure the kids like him before you interact with him too much; it's a really hard balance."
But with her current partner, she quickly realised it felt different. When she found his account it wasn't so much about his photos but his bio - she liked where he mentioned he was on good terms with his ex-wife and that his kids came first. He had his own business and seemed driven.
Their first date was at a cafe on King Street in Newcastle. As with all first dates, she was cautious, but this time it felt different.
"Being so cautious going into new relationships, I think I was taken by surprise at how quickly we progressed to love," she says.
"Before I knew it, I was in a safe and secure relationship with a man, and had all the passion and joy I'd always hoped for. "
Fast forward and they're now a family. They've been together nearly two years and also own a house together.
"It felt so different from other guys, more adult," Read says. "I was going into it with my head as well as my heart."
She added that after their first date he updated his Tinder to read "Hi, I'm on here looking for Linda", and he left it like that.
Karen Cross, 54, has lived in Newcastle for 20 years. Two years ago she and her husband split from a 26-year relationship.
"Finding yourself single after that is real shock," she says. "I had no social skills outside our group of friends. I'd forgotten how to meet new people. I didn't have the confidence. I hibernated for the first eight months and got my head together with what do I do now."
Eventually she got tired of her own company, so she decided to try Meetup, an online platform which facilitates group activities for people with similar interests. She'd never heard of it before, but her daughter had encouraged her to try it.
She learnt about Single Events Newcastle and went on speed-dating nights, events with opportunities to go on future dates. She also met Milly Morison, the group's organiser.
"The Newy dating scene is small, we don't have the pool size of Sydney and everyone knows everyone," Morison says. "So you can't be mean to anyone: stick to your values or it will come back to haunt you."
Through Single Events Newcastle, Cross ended up with six dates after one night.
"I didn't care who I went out with, but I thought I'd like to go on a date with a man," Cross says. "I wasn't necessarily attracted to them, but they were really nice people. All of a sudden I was excited about the weekend because I had a lunch date with someone or a coffee date."
She's also had an experience with a variety of dating apps.
"From a dating perspective, face-to-face opportunities are so much better, because there's a disconnect between who you're talking to and the picture you're looking at. Whenever you meet them face to face, 99 per cent of the time you're going to be disappointed. I'm five foot two and size 14; if they're expecting a size 10 they're going to be disappointed. [When you meet] face to face, what you see is what you get."
She tried a singles website, but it wasn't what she wanted.
"I found I went on one date with a business owner and it's like they sit there and roll out there asset list: Houses, boats, holiday homes etc," she says. "They're like 'what are you bringing to this relationship?'"
She says with Tinder people are seen as disposable, but she also likes that she can ghost or block people when they're being too forward or rude. She's also met men who aren't quite ready to get back into the dating pool.
"On the very first date night you want it to be light and jovial, but some of these guys on the first date you hear all about the ex-wife and the PTSD, a mind dump of all of their problems and, virtually, you walk out the door," she says. "You ghost them, they can never contact you again. I like that part of it."
But she acknowledges that everyone on the dating scene is at different stages.
"Some of us are happy being single, some of us are really wanting someone to hold on to," she says.
She said you have to be in a good space to be on Tinder. "If you've got confidence issues do not go on Tinder," she says.
"I spent hours dressing up for a date, did the tan, shaved the legs, and he never showed. I sat down at the hotel, and then I couldn't even message him, he'd just [digitally] ghosted me." (She couldn't find his Tinder profile, likely meaning he'd blocked her.)
"I sat there and I thought 'No I'm here, I'm dressed up, and I'm having the champagne.' You've got to be tough."
Yet, she has met nice men on Tinder, which is why she hasn't deleted it.
After her hibernation, she's loving the dating space: "I'm the oldest at work, and they come to me to ask 'what's a great place to go out at night?' There's so many: Coal and Cedar, The Koutetsu, Kitami on King, Blind Monk and Babylon is the newest."
When it comes to her future love life, she's working out what she wants. "I love not being married, not being in the routine and the grind of the marriage, but I want someone special in my life," she says.
Q&A WITH SINGLES EVENTS NEWCASTLE FOUNDER MILLY MORISON
Milly Morison, founder of Singles Events Newcastle, is keen to make sure Newcastle continues to thrive as a scene for dating and socialising.
Here's her take on the local scene.
Where are you from and what's your background?
I was working from home for an academic publisher when I moved to Newcastle. I didn't have many friends here. I spent about three months talking to my cat and then my cat died and I started talking to the fridge. I was desperate for friends so I joined the Spider Pigs social group. When the leader moved away I couldn't let the group get shut down so I had to fight my anxiety and step up. I've been running the Spider Pigs for about four years now and we have an event every week and over 3000 members of all ages from all walks of life. The Spider Pigs was the start of everything else. It gave me the network of people I needed to feel at home in Newcastle, to start a business with confidence, to stop talking to the fridge.
When and why did you begin SEN Events?
I needed a date. I was complaining to a friend of mine about how hard it was to find a date in Newcastle, and he suggested I go speed dating. But there was no speed dating in Newcastle. He said to me, "Milly, you run events every week, start a speed dating night." A fortnight later, in July 2016, I was running my first event. Standing at the front watching 40 people chatting I realised I'd never be able to go speed dating as an attendee rather than a host, but the idea had legs. I modelled that night off events I had been to in Sydney, which wasn't the kind of event I wanted. My events needed to be friendly, approachable and person-centred, so that people who had social anxiety like me would feel comfortable coming and not just next in line on the dating conveyor belt. I've been running my events with the framework of Authenticity, Integrity, Empathy ever since.
Do you mind sharing your relationship history?
I love dating. When I realised that I was dating the same person over and over again I did the 52 Date Challenge and went on 30 dates in three months. It really broadened my romantic horizons and shook up my "type." One of those 30 dates had recently not worked out, and I was licking my wounds at an art class when I met Joe. Since our first date, we've been together every day. I fully anticipate spending every day for the foreseeable future with him.
How would you describe the Newcastle dating scene?
The Newy dating scene is small, we don't have the pool size of Sydney and everyone knows everyone. So you can't be mean to anyone: stick to your values or it will come back to haunt you. In the last few years, I've seen a real shift away from online dating preferences, while people are still using POF or Tinder a lot they're also trying more ways of finding people.
How would you describe SEN Events and Dating Coaching to people who haven't experienced it?
SEN is about being yourself and finding your people. SEN events are person-centred and are designed to be friendly and kind. My only real rule is to bring kindness with you. So it means people are less judgy and feel less judged. SEN's coaching arm follows a similar approach and mostly specialises in communication skills, body language, and self-confidence.
What is your view of dating apps such as Tinder, Plenty of Fish and Bumble?
The dating apps are a part of the tapestry of dating tools, but I don't like that they encourage people to think about other humans as consumptive objects. I've met some really great friends with Tinder and it's absolutely possible to find love there, so long as you're approaching the people you meet with no expectations about who they should be.
What is your advice to people hoping to enter the dating scene in Newcastle?
Be kind. Understand that no one has the same experience of the world or the same needs as you. Start each relationship with clear communication models and don't leave anything up to assumptions or expectations because that is what creates conflict. Be bold. Do things that you like doing because it creates space in your life for fun and other people and you're more likely to meet your people there.
Top five places to be social in Newy?
- Spider Pigs Meetup and other Meetup.com groups - there's something for everyone on Meetup.
- SEN's other social events - Speed Dating, The SEN Ball (not a singles event), Friday Drinks and Mingles etc
- Your local pubs - everyone is there to have a chat, especially the Stag & Hunter, Sydney Junction and The Wicko. These places are friendly and through the week are the community's kitchen table for people who want to connect.
- Hobbies like the Drawing Room at the Royal Exchange, indoor rock climbing and things that are tailored to your personal interests are great - it means you're already making space in your life for doing the things that you like and can do with someone special.
- Last Fridays at the Newcastle Art Gallery -A great way to meet people in a low-key setting that isn't based around drinking.