THE number of couples seeking wedded bliss has increased for the third year in a row, according to official figures.

And Swindon has not escaped the love bug either with churches reporting year on year increases in terms of the number of people tying the knot.

There were 270,700 marriages in England and Wales in 2004, up from 270,110 in 2003 and 255,596 in 2002, the Office for National Statistics reported yesterday.

It is a dramatic turnaround from five years ago when the number of newlyweds plummeted to the lowest annual number recorded since 1897, at 249, 227.

Monsignor Canon Jeremy Rigden, of Holy Family RC Church in Marlowe Avenue, said that the number of weddings at his parish had more than doubled in the last year.

"It has gone up by 250 per cent from two to five," he said.

"But it is gratifying to think weddings are going up a bit.

"It is very hard to say why more people are getting married.

"Maybe people are recognising the value of the institution and perhaps the Church is offering them something a little bit extra and different from a secular service."

Swindon Advertiser Bride of the Year winner Lindsey Crowe, 24, said she was surprised by the increase in marriages, but is looking forward to walking down the aisle to marry husband-to-be Ian Wood, 25, in July.

"I'm a bit surprised the number of marriages has gone up because people tend to live together these days, but a lot of my friends are engaged," she said.

"We have been together for just over a year and we lived together after six months, but marriage just seemed to be the next step."

Although the number of marriages is steadily on the increase, couples are now marrying later.

Grooms are on average aged 35.8 years, up from 35.6 years in 2003, while brides are 33.1 years old, up from 32.9 years.

There were 183,550 civil marriages in 2004, which accounted for 68 per cent of all weddings.

The statistics were released to coincide with National Marriage Week, which ends on Valentine's Day.