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Friday, July 18, 2008


Where on earth can you get married like a sensible person?

Okay, Londoners, I need help. I'm trying to plan a wedding and I'm up against the most horrifying industry I've ever encountered.

It sounds simple enough, right? We'd like to have a civil ceremony somewhere with friends and family present, then go somewhere else and eat. We'd also like not to have to spend many months' income on it. Those two things are astonishingly difficult to reconcile.

Not wanting to marry in a church, we started scoping other places that offer wedding services. Registry offices tend to be small, and while dire necessity may end up driving us to it, the idea of a two-tier guest list where only some people are allowed into the actual marriage ceremony seems against the whole spirit; a wedding is, after all, a community event. But everywhere else - everywhere that has a large room in a reasonably nice setting - has worked out that there's big, big money to be made in leasing it out, secure in the knowledge that we non-churchgoers are really pretty stuck if we don't find somewhere reasonably sized.

The going rate for a wedding and reception seems to start at about ten thousand pounds. That's the baseline rate. For Pete's sake.

It was when the locations we checked out revealed that they only worked with certain catering companies, and those catering companies starting recommending photographers, and marquee hire companies, and lighting technicians, and string quartets, that I got a full sense of what we were up against. I knew the wedding industry was vast and profitable, but I didn't realise the extent to which companies strike deals with each other. Once you engage with any part of it, you're taking on all of it. Every location has ironclad deals with other companies; you simply can't get married in location X, it seems, without signing up for overpriced canapes.

Even if you explain you're on a budget, there's a terrible sense of being railroaded. When the person you're talking to takes it for granted that you want a cake and canapes, it's quite hard to know where to start your explanation that really, you just want a nice, normal meal for a large group. When you explain that you don't feel the need for a formal photographer and your adviser starts recommending photographers who can do informal-looking shots, it feels ungracious to explain that what you meant was that pretty much everyone you know owns a camera and can work out how to use it. When someone starts talking about the champagne toast as if it were just as essential as signing the certificate, it feels positively thuggish to suggest that there's no law against toasting with whatever happens to be in your glass at the time. The wedding business depends on presenting as essentials stuff that you absolutely and truly don't need. I don't know whether any businesses use the word 'essentializing', but that's what seems to be going on. And in locations that actually have a civil license, they're right: they don't let you hire the place without their particular caterers - and caterers charge you for hiring everything, from staff to spoons.

It's driving me crazy. I want to get married, but I'm feeling like a mark.

I've managed to circumnavigate the dress issue, to my relief, because the idea of a wedding dress shop sounds like an ordeal. The whole individual-attention, princess-for-a-day aspect of it makes me very uncomfortable. I'm not a princess, I'm a middle-class adult woman, and people will only treat me like a princess if I pay them large sums to do so. The whole point of royalty is that people bow and scrape at you for free while handing over their tax money; if you're paying for that kind of treatment, somebody's putting somebody on. And I don't enjoy buying clothes at the best of times: the thought of spending hours in some mirror-lined room surrounded by overpriced dresses while some fashionable woman hovers like a vulture, pretending to be my new best friend while separating me from my money ... It all sounds awful. I just don't wanna go there. Consequently, I picked up a skirt I loved in Camden Market and bought a basque off Ebay, all for about a fifteenth of what I'd be expected to spend in a dress shop, and I feel a sense of piratical glee at getting out of that one.

But the location is proving a nightmare. We need a registry office or licensed place that can accommodate eighty to a hundred people without charging two thousand quid (much easier if you get married in a church; personally I'd like to see a foundation for secular wedding locations; the faithful seem to have an unfair advantage), and a place where you can get fed - either a restaurant with a large private room, or a hall you can hire that doesn't insist on you hiring their own particular buddies to cater. I sort of found one of each, but they're prohibitively far apart; I need places within striking distance of each other. Anyone know anything? Anything at all? Please, please help me out.

Your email just bounced, so I'm posting here:

In case you didn't know, In Great Waters is pre-orderable on Amazon UK right now - release date: 5th March 2009.

Have a lovely day! :-)
My sister saved tons of money by getting married on a Friday evening instead of Saturday. Many places were fifty percent cheaper on Friday.

We're in the United States, and I don't know if things are similar across the pond, but she was a big fan of a website called "The Knot." It had a lot of ideas for budget weddings. Perhaps there is something similar where you live?
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I'm on the other side of the pond, and haven't any experience with planning anything really, much less weddings. However--YAY! congrats! Hurray for happy celebrations. I hope you two will continue to be very happy for ages and ages. And good luck with the details of solemnizing everything!
Is it possible to just lie ? Tell the locations you're organizing a convention or something ?

It would be a convention where the organizer just happens to get married at the same time.

If anything, you'd get an idea of how much (if any) the wedding surcharge is.
Yeah, we call it the "wedding industrial complex". And it does give you a complex! Maybe pretend you're not having a wedding but just planning a party. I bet you'll get better rates, and they'll leave you alone. For example, to hire this scenic trolley bus in my hometown was one price for a family reunion, and double that price for a wedding - for the same hours and the same service!
I had 3 weddings (to the same person): one at City Hall, followed by a small dinner; one at an art gallery in my hometown with full-on reception; one at a garden retreat in Dorset near my partner's family. The last was the best. We rented this place (Springhead) for the weekend, had a friend's friend do the catering at cost, made the decorations ourselves, another friend's band played and DJed, and then we had a big bonfire in the garden and the "kids" stayed in bunk beds overnight, and everyone helped clear up in the morning.
Going through the same thing, feeling your pain. Churches don't solve that much, it seems, because that's just the wedding part, you still have to sit them all down and feed them, which basically involves paying out of the nose.

One guy I talked to said that he booked things for his kids wedding as a "family reunion", which made things a lot cheaper, and wasn't, after a fashion, really a lie.

In England you're a little more hosed, though, because you're only allowed to get married in licensed locations. North America doesn't have such rules. Maybe you can make the actual ceremony part private - just you and your best 10 friends in the mayors office (there's a brit equivalent of that, right?), and then emerge 30 minutes later to be fetted by your nearest and dearest (extended edition) for a big reunion at a hall. Not telling them it's for a wedding won't mean that they attempt to push photos, champagn, etc on you. They probably will have caterers locked in for the actual meal part - that's not tottaly unreasonable - the caterers are familiar with their setup, know how to work with the resources they have, and have served the purpose multiple times before without total-failures-to-show-up, or other such disasters. Prolly not a terrible thing.

Otherwise, if you can't find a reasonable host to organize it, you're just going to have to see negotiations as a business proposition - work out what you need, and then walk in saying "no photographer required, there'll be 1 meal, 3 courses, blah blah". Other things to watch for: Do they let you bring your own booze, or do you have to buy there.

The trap we've seen some places is they want you to put down a big deposit for the hall before it's entirely clear what the whole thing would cost. You can imagine the bad directions such a thing could go ("they want us to buy their booze at exhorbitant rates... but we've already put down a 1G deposit..."). What I'm suggesting is to realize that you are walking into an industry (despite all the fluffy trappings), and to treat it as one, despite any attempts they may have to manipulate you otherwise.

Good luck, and remember, the grief is mostly over once you've got your place picked out and booked. Then you get to ignore it for a while, and if you're planning on being as sensible and stripped down about it as you sound, then you'll probably be fine (though it is easy to get suckered into a serious discussion of absolute trivia when you are asked earnestly enough. What colour *should* the chair draperies be? Blech).
Oh, and on the asinine topic of layered guest lists... The places we looked at all charge (handsomly) per person, so multiplying friends lists makes for a rapidly multiplying bill. The upshot is that at this point we're on 3 layers of friends: The closest without whom it just wouldn't be your wedding, our really good friends, and people whom we like, that would be really nice to invite. It looks like the C list doesn't even stand a chance at this point :(

Still, we're rationalizing it like this: Much though it seems a nice idea to have all the people we like in one place, the reality is it's just for 1 evening, so the more of them there are, the less time we have to spend with each. Get enough people, and it turns into a stage show where you get two lines of dialogue with each of dozens of tables. That just seems sad :(
My husband and I just rented an area in the New Orleans City Park (the Peristyle, for those familiar with it - love the stone lions overlooking the bayou!) for the afternoon of our handfasting. City Park didn't care what we wanted it for; they just said "That'll be $300. Sign this waiver."

The reception, pretty much the same: Mom contacted Tavern on the Park, who had a standard deal on reserving the restaurant for a private party. They didn't go into a fit of maniacal cackling and price gouging the moment we said "It's for a wedding reception."

Everything was pretty much a la carte that way.

Are there really no parks or community halls in London that will let you just say "This day, please have this many chairs available"?
Oh. Just read Ecks's post about England requiring you getting married in licensed locations.

I retract my last question, and replace it with "OK, that sucks and needs changing, like, NAO."
For bonus trivia points, Nicole, the license law is why Prince Charles didn't have his 2nd marriage in Windsor Castle. To do so he would have had to register it as a location for marriages, which would have meant that other couples would have been able to book it for *their* weddings too. Apparently they didn't think it was worth opening the castle up to public use like that for.

(hm, would it be possible to get a corner of a public park licensed?)
Still, we're rationalizing it like this: Much though it seems a nice idea to have all the people we like in one place, the reality is it's just for 1 evening, so the more of them there are, the less time we have to spend with each. Get enough people, and it turns into a stage show where you get two lines of dialogue with each of dozens of tables. That just seems sad :(

My friend wanted a housewarming party but his apartment was too small for all the people he wanted to invite, so what he did was have three housewarming parties, one for his family, one for a first batch of friends and one for a second batch of friends.

It's not ideal, but it's a way to get around the too-many people problem.

(of course, organising three "we're getting married" parties (three actual weddings might be a bit much) is way more difficult than three housewarming parties, but whatever)

For bonus trivia points, Nicole, the license law is why Prince Charles didn't have his 2nd marriage in Windsor Castle.

That's interesting. What about his first marriage ? Was that law not yet in place or was Windsor Castle not even considered for some reason ?
Plenty of Parks in London, but relying on English weather is a recipe for disaster. You can never, ever bank on it not raining, no matter what the season. Marquee hire is another big business with weddings for this reason, and yet another expense in many locations.

Community halls would be fine; the question would be finding one that wasn't utterly depressing. Many community halls are very poorly maintained, and I'd like to feel the wedding was more like a celebration than an AA meeting. If anyone knows of a nice community hall in London, I'd love to hear.

Caterers locked in is a big problem; the price I quoted is without photographers, videographers, DJs and so on. It's just for the food, and the plates to eat it off. Some places let you bring in your own drink, but there's 'corkage charges': basically, they charge about four quid per bottle - ostensibly for opening it, but basically to ensure that it's cheaper for you to buy from them.

Prince Charles's first marriage was in Westminster Abbey, which is a church.
4 quid a bottle is actually pretty reasonable if you can buy one for the same price. Or do you just mean that the charge less than (price-at-store + 4)?

Have you considered having people get on a train and head an hour out of London? It might add hotel costs for most people, which sucks, but you might find less extortionate rates out of the smoke (though I still wouldn't count on anything sane).

We picked a small pretty town an hour and a half out of Toronto on the basis that if somewhere is pretty enough to start with you basically don't have to spend any money decorating it (which doesn't stop other people from trying, of course).

And we're actually going to a watered down version of the multi-party thing. We'll get married in Canada, but have a second very low-key party in the town where we live now for all the people we know here.
I'm not 100% clear on why the legal marriage part is so important. If you hold a "wedding" ceremony in an unlicensed hall it will probably bring the price down considerably. You'll still accomplish the goal of announcing your commitment to each other before your community, and you won't have to pay so much of a wedding surcharge.

If the legal standing is really important to you, and if the UK doesn't have common-law spouse laws the way we have them here in Canada, then you can just go to city hall with the requisite number of witnesses to do the paperwork. I just don't see why the legal aspect and the public aspect have to be connected, you know?
In the UK, or at least the circles of it I move in, a 'commitment ceremony' is something you'd only have if legal marriage wasn't available to you. It has a transatlantic flavour that jars with the local culture; a lot of people would feel put out at being asked to drag their tails across the country to witness you basically telling them something they already knew, to wit, that you were in a committed relationship. We've been in one of those for years.

The reason why the legal marriage bit is important to me is that it's
the only thing about our relationship that will be changing. We've lived together for five and a half years; when we're married, we'll be living in the same house we're living in now, following exactly the same life. The change in legal standing is what the whole wedding is about.

I don't at all feel comfortable about holding a mock-wedding; it would feel like putting on a play, turning the guests into an audience for a performance rather than witnesses to a legal contract. Witnessing the contract recognises their importance as members of the community - it's their presence that makes the contract valid - but putting on a staged 'wedding' feels discourteous; too many weddings are too much like performances anyway. It becomes about asking for their applause rather than recognising their standing and connection to us as members of the same community under the law. If they couldn't be present at the actual wedding, I'd rather just have them at the reception than do a mocked-up second 'ceremony'.

Oh, and we don't have city hall, we have registry offices. There are lots of them, so again, choosing one becomes a factor.

I just don't think it would work; it's not how we do things, at least among the people we'd be inviting. This is not to say that it's a bad option for people living in a culture where such things are accepted practice - it's fine if everyone's happy with it - but in the community I'm in, I'm concerned it would feel subtly rude.
Perhaps you could do a two stage wedding. Do the basic legal wedding at a registry hall, in the morning, with a handful of friends/family as witnesses.

Then in the afternoon or evening, have the wedding you want, at an unliscenced location of your choice, repeating your vows, and perhaps expanding them beyond the legal minimum, with the full witnessing of all the friends and famiily you want involved. Perhaps signing a decorative/display marriage certificate of your own design, so there is something nice to hang on your wall at home.

But all in one day, with both legal and social recognition of the change in your status.

I wouldn't treat it as a "mock wedding" as that would be disrespectful. Instead, have invitations that state that you will be married on such-and-such date at location A, and invite your friends to celebrate and witness this comittment at location B.

People know how silly the wedding industry is, and should understand.
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