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My happy marriAGE SAYS BRIDE WED AT 17 TO HUBBY, 54; EXCLUSIVE 'They said I was a dirty old man to my face'.

Byline: By SHARON VAN GEUNS

WHEN they met she was a 15-year-old schoolgirl with a paper round and he was a 53-year-old divorced dad of three.

And when they fell in love, their 38-year age gap caused a bitter family divide and led to insults such as "paedophile" and "cradle-snatcher".

But against all odds, Nicola Philpott and husband Joe are still together after six years of marriage and three kids.

In fact they are so in love they are renewing their wedding vows and trying for another child.

Nicola, now 24, of Chigwell, Essex, met Joe when her bike broke down on her paper round one day. "My friend Robert helped me finish then took me round to his Uncle Joe's so he could fix my bike. I'm so glad I went."

After that meeting, Nicola would often call at Joe's house pretending she was looking for Robert.

She says: "I felt an instant attraction. I had been out with older men before but with Joe I saw something different."

Joe, a former plumber who has arthritis and has had a stroke, started helping Nicola with schoolwork and they found themselves growing closer.

Struggling with his feelings and unaware that Nicola felt the same, he kept quiet until just before her 16th birthday.

"After a few weeks of her coming round all the time I realised she must have feelings for me. I was starting to have feelings for her but I was in a difficult position

"In the end I thought that if I didn't say anything it might be something I regretted for the rest of my life."

On one visit, Joe finally confessed how he felt. Thrilled Nicola told him she felt the same - and their romance began.

Despite her mother's disbelief, she moved in with Joe on her 16th birthday.

But the couple faced embarrassment while out. "You could see people talking about us," recalls Joe. "Some called me a dirty old man to my face and asked Nic what she saw in me. Others called me a paedophile and a cradle-snatcher."

Joe's eldest son accepted the relationship but his other two sons have refused to speak to him ever since.

Nicola became pregnant just before her 17th birthday. She says: "It wasn't planned but I was absolutely thrilled. I've wanted children since I was 12 and Joe was just as pleased."

Nine months later their daughter Felicity was born when Nicola was 17 and Joe was 54. They married a few months later and two years on Nicola gave birth to their son Thomas, now four, followed by Kody, three.

Nicola admits: "I don't think my mum has ever been happy about me and Joe, but she's got used to it, probably for the sake of her grandchildren."

Joe, now 62, says: "Having three little ones has made me feel young, but I do worry about not being able to see them grow up."

As the couple prepare to renew their vows, Nicola, now 24, says: "I never had a proper reception at my wedding and I would love the chance to."

She adds: "There's still plenty of life in Joe. Believe me, he's like a young stallion in the bedroom - and he doesn't need Viagra to keep going."

sharon.vangeuns@sundaymirror.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

The gap-py couple... Nicola and Joe on their wedding day and (inset) Nicola aged 14; Nicola and Joe yesterday
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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 17, 2008
Words:570
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