We have experienced a quintessentially English village hall wedding, that of the daughter of a dear friend of ours. I am moved to create Chaucer-like descriptions of some of the main characters, the chief set piece scenes.
I took a day off to make the journey from my home to the place where the wedding was being held. My wife preceded me by car, to offer help to the bride’s mother. On a sunny morn I went on foot from London Bridge to St Pancras, stopping to look in the outdoor equipment outfitters in Covent Garden. I stopped in a café on Shaftesbury Avenue, before pushing on through the streets of this great city. Whenever I walk in this town I am accompanied by the shade of my wife’s dear Aunt, who died at the beginning of April this year.
She knew this town, and I oftimes walked these streets, especially the streets around Bloomsbury, on my way to have dinner with her. Those walks are memories to treasure, for I shall never again have dinner with her. But we press on, and remember well.
Recall from our C.S Lewis, how Screwtape rages when his young devil allows his “client” to do something he really likes doing. Be it a walk by the river and a cream tea; be it a deep scented bath with candles; be it a glass of lager and a Club sandwich. Or a walk through the streets of this great city.
People close to the bride’s family gather in the days before the Great Day. For months prior to the event the bride’s mother has been preparing decorations, ordering drinks, planning settings. On a hot Friday I journeyed by train from Surrey, arriving by omnibus at a village in the flat, big-sky country of the Trent valley, at 6pm on a sweltering summer evening.
The bride’s mother, the bride-to-be herself, my wife and oldest daughter (one of the Bridesmaids) and a host of other ladies, including the groom’s mother, are preparing the Village Hall. I am minded of the Natalie Merchant song “My sister Rose” about a similar village hall wedding in the USA. In other rooms, ladies in black Lycra do synchronised stretching. Kids gather for a karate lesson.
Tables are endlessly adjusted – a foot left here, one a bit forward and slightly to the right there. Eventually the tables are arranged to the satisfaction of the bride, whose critical eye sweeps over the tables one last time. It is time now for table cloths and place-setting. All wash their hands. We do not now leave the hall until the table has been laid for all the guests. Vintage china, napkins, glasses. It has to be just so. The sun is low on the sky before we set off back to the bride’s mother’s house for a well-earned drink ourselves.
The morning of the wedding
Immense quantities of Prosecco, wine, beer and soft drinks are transferred to the hall, in fridges and cool boxes. Cake, cheese, rolls, sandwiches: food is delivered to the kitchen in the hall, which has been scrubbed to within an inch of its life. Eventually, after much going back and forth, all seems ready and it is time for the labourers to scrub up and put on their glad rags, and become magically transformed into guests.
As we put the orders of service into the church, it starts to rain. It has been a long time coming; we could see the storm approaching all morning. The rain drums on the roof of the ancient and lovely church, and for a moment we are happy to be trapped inside. But only for a few minutes. In ten minutes it is over; in an hour, little sign remains of the downpour.
The gathering and the wedding
Guests start to arrive about an hour before the service is due to start. They gather like birds of paradise in their bright clothes, near the ornate lych gate on the main road. The groom’s mother recalls that the groom’s party arrive in a body, striding down the road toward the church like a western posse. Eventually, all are gathered in the cool of the church. 1pm comes and goes. Some of us discuss, in low tones, how fashionably late the bride will dare to be. At the altar, the groom and his best man stand, looking nervous. This is possibly the one occasion in the life of a young Englishman not schooled to military service, when he must stand up straight and look smart for a long period of time.
The conversation of the waiting guests dies down, and an expectant hush fills the church. It is 1.15pm. “All stand” rings out, though some of the guests can hear the vicar saying “excellent, excellent” as he has forgotten to turn off his throat mike. All are on their feet, ready, and the bride with her father make their entrance
“…dressed in simple white, wearing flowers in her hair,
Music as she walks slowly to the altar” (Chris de Burgh)
Classic English hymns – Jerusalem, Thine be the Glory – are drowned out by a brass band in this small English country church. The readings are taken. Firstly, by an elderly lady friend of the bride, who reads slowly, beautifully, and with the greatest dignity, and secondly by the bride’s grandfather, a devoted Christian man whose soft Geordie accent and clear faith illuminate the words.
At the Signing of the Register, the band play a wonderful and moving piece written by a songwriter known to many of us. This is the brass band’s finest moment, and it is achingly beautiful. And then, out into the churchyard for the photos.
A bridesmaid approaches my wife discreetly, holding some keys. The confetti…it is still at the bride’s mother’s house…might we fetch it? Off we go on a short car journey, a Confetti mercy dash, and the day is saved. No-one is any the wiser.
The afternoon tea
To the village hall, on foot. A journey of a few hundred yards on a pleasant summer afternoon. Eventually, after standing around drinking Prosecco for a time, we’re all seated in our places. The warm wind billows the curtains in through the open French doors. More Prosecco. And then there is cake and sandwiches, served on vintage china. Tea is brought in, in large teapots.
We are sat at a table with two very similar looking brothers in their late fifties, uncles of the groom. One has a teenage son with a thin shadow of a moustache. The youth wants to be a professional footballer, but is refreshingly reticent about this ambition. The other person at the table is the wife of one of these two brothers, an attractive lady in a red 1950’s style dress. She and her man have been married 44 years, and they both look good on it. It becomes clear in conversation with this lady – she has a certain look about her – that she is involved in the Guide movement, and indeed, was once a District Commissioner for Guides.
The elderly couple
Here are an elderly couple – let’s call them Jill and David. They have been married 60 years; old and frail they seem, but they are not as frail as they look. Each week David visits his elderly brother in a care home near Stockport, travelling by train from their own home in retirement, which is near Brighton. To make regular return train journeys between Brighton and Stockport would be an achievement for anyone in twenty-first century Britain; for someone in their eighties to do so, is a demonstration of immense commitment and love. This lovely Christian couple were the bride’s landlords during some of her time at university. Indeed, they became friends with the bride and offered her the full hospitality of their own home. David was a consultant surgeon and speaks with a lovely cut-glass English accent – though he is ostensibly of more humble origins than his wife. To my eyes he bears a startling resemblance to the TV naturalist Sir David Attenborough.
He spoke of a wedding he attended in Edinburgh, at which there was a fight. Someone in this fight got their thumb bitten off. David recounted how the wound, infected as it was with baccal bacteria from the mouth of the assailant, smelt of halitosis – bad breath. We feel assured that David played a full part as a surgeon in returning the victim to full health.
He spoke of struggling to get to his own wedding. He and his best man were at Waterloo, trying to get to Haslemere by train. And there were immense queues. Somehow they made it on time – this was 1957. It was said of this couple that they found their own wedding reception (controlled and run as it was by their parents) so stultifying, boring and bound by the conventions of the day, that they made their escape, hid under some railway arches and then took train to the Isle of Wight for their honeymoon. Wonderful. Literally true to say, you couldn’t make it up.