My first proper boyfriend was a farmer’s son, whose family home overlooked some of Rutland’s most bucolic countryside, through which we used to quad bike together. He wore a flat cap, served me milk fresh from his cows for breakfast, and when he dumped me, I bawled my eyes out.
Our romance isn’t just seared on my brain because of his charisma and my broken teenage heart, however, but because it was the only serious relationship I had growing up two miles from the border of Rutland – a county I left in my early 20s but returned to recently after two decades away.
Reading this week’s findings from the 2021 census, that there are fewer women than men in Rutland – 40 per cent female to 60 per cent male aged 20 to 30 – than anywhere else in the UK, didn’t come as a surprise.
As a teenager in the Nineties, testosterone in this tiniest of English counties (population 41,000) was as pronounced as the tractors clogging up the country lanes.
But the figures derived from last year’s census did beg the questions: should I have bagged more boyfriends as a result? Has Rutland’s history of raining men left a raft of epic love stories trailing in its wake? And should every single woman worth her salt be stumping up for the eye-watering council tax and settling here to find love?
David Manners, the 11th Duke of Rutland, whose family seat is the nearby Belvoir Castle, might welcome that development. His 20-year-marriage to wife Emma broke down after he had an affair with a woman who lived on his 15,000-acre estate, and he has since broken up with his Brazilian-born lover, Andrea Webb.
If ageing aristocrats aren’t your cup of tea, there are – or at least were – plenty of younger men to pick from. As a school friend I called to reminisce with put it: “There were so many boys, I wanted to snog them all.”
We certainly gave that our best shot, tagging along to events surely created with the adolescent male adrenalin junkie in mind such as bottle-kicking, an annual Easter Monday “sport” held in a village just outside the county in which teams competed to roll barrels of beer down a hill (and ambulances waited at the bottom in case of injury).
Neither of us had a scintilla of interest in the vertiginous jumps at various local horse trials – we downed shots as a forfeit every time we saw a horse – but they were a brilliant place to flirt.
Parties were held in parents’ barns, courtships conducted in Oakham (the county’s capital), Castle grounds and despite – or perhaps because of – all the snogging, friendships formed that I still think of fondly today.
But then I left for the bright lights of London, aware that without a family business to join or a farm to run, jobs could be thin on the ground. I’d wager the same would hold true for many twentysomething women in the county today, given the census also found that the disparity between men and women in Rutland widens among those in their 20s, with over 60 per cent of all young adults being men.
Years of dating city slickers who took themselves too seriously followed before I met my husband, Chris, a financial analyst (who didn’t), and the quiet beauty of my upbringing began to resurface.
After bribing Chris back to Rutland with the promise we’d get a dog four years ago, and with our two children in tow, a period of readjustment as to what it meant to be manly began.
Gone were the stuffy suits and fear of offending. Chris, who grew up on a suburban estate, bought a pair of burgundy cords to show willing. I gritted my teeth when the plumber told me off for swearing.
Profanities aside, I soon realised, this is a county where fathers are valued in the family unit, eccentricity abounds – yesterday I saw a dad on the school run wearing wellies – and chivalry still exists.
In a world in which men might feel stifled and overlooked, I can see why so many wouldn’t want to leave, especially when their old-school charm is likely to endear them to women here still looking for love. “I’ve never had to buy a round of drinks, and they insist on paying for meals,” says a local single female friend. “Perhaps I should be offended but I’m flattered.”
She warns, however, that the surplus of suitors is, in fact, an illusion, with most adult men over 40 unavailable: “The majority who appear on Tinder or Bumble are from Leicestershire or Northamptonshire, and I’m too worried to go up to anyone in a bar in case they’re married.” And if you see one wearing red trousers and awkwardly opening doors – he’s mine.