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Thoughts on Love and an English Wedding

September 13, 2014


I sometimes wonder if I don’t waste too much energy writing about war, pestilence and foolish politicians. It’s time to talk about some nice people for a change.

Last weekend my wife and I went to a wedding in the beautiful village of Winchcombe, near Cheltenham in the Cotswold Hills. For those of you who don’t know the area, it’s full of villages and towns built from honey-coloured limestone. It’s an archaeologist’s paradise, covered with of ancient settlements from Neolithic to Roman and Saxon. More recent inhabitants gained much of their wealth from the wool trade, and ploughed it into the handsome stone churches, high streets and stately homes that still stand today. No wonder the hills and meadows of the Cotswolds were designated an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

It wasn’t what you would call a society wedding, full of people with titles before their names. More a gathering of achievers – people with letters after their names. Not too much ostentation, but plenty of hats – some mutated way beyond the original purpose of the garment – as you would find in grand social events like Royal Ascot. The leading men were attired in full wedding garb – morning suits, elegant waistcoats and flowers in their lapels. The bride was gorgeous in traditional white, eyes shining with that special ecstasy that only a long-awaited wedding can induce. The groom was confident and gracious.

It was a wedding that had been planned for over a year. Agonised over, wept over, argued over and rehearsed down to the finest detail. Loving parents on both sides, no fractured families with awkward exes coming together for the occasion. Each with their own stories of achievement and heartbreak, united on a day that was as special for them as it was for the loving couple.

The weather for which we all prayed came to be: sunny, but not too hot. The ceremony was traditional. The choir, the hymns, the oft-repeated vows. The priest, good humoured and informal, assisted by an uncle of the groom who delivered the homily. The flower girls, the bridesmaids, the best man and his supporters, all decked out to perfection and playing their part as the chorus in this timeless opera. The counterpoint of carefully selected roles: the father of the bride duly delivering his only daughter, the mother of the groom reading a poem about marriage, friends and relatives reading from the pulpit. We, the congregation formed the base of a pyramid of love, at the apex of which stood the bride and groom – the reason we were there.

Everything you expected to see and hear was as it should be. There was even the obligatory Scotsman, whose kilt reminded us that the union we were celebrating might shortly be followed by the dissolution of another.

The reception was in the grounds of Sudeley Castle, once a feudal stronghold and the resting place of Henry VIII’s last wife, Catherine Parr. Now – as so many castles are – it’s put to work as a tourist attraction and a sumptuous wedding venue. Champagne, canapés, music and dinner in a big marquee close to the castle walls.  The speeches, carefully scripted but delivered from the heart. The usual embarrassing tales about bride and groom. Laughter, tears, embraces and dancing. And of course the inevitable early retirement of one couple, overcome by the hospitality and helped gently into a taxi by the groom’s attendants. Such things always happen at weddings, said the mild-mannered father of the bride, and indeed they do.

Though the wedding was a very English affair, it brought together people from many parts of the world. From India, Canada, the US, the Caribbean and Saudi Arabia, the latter being where the bride’s parents – American and British – have lived and worked for many years. Like the couple themselves, the younger contingent were articulate, friendly and seemingly well-established in professional careers. In thirty years’ time perhaps they will be watching their children walk down a similar aisle.

In what kind of country, I wondered. Will we be balkanised, afraid of our shadows, unable to find any place where we are free of security cameras and safe from random or premeditated violence? Will we have to choose between living in cities where English is just another language, or in country towns where economic barriers of affordability combine with rising xenophobia to create enclaves of “essential Englishness”? Will it be down to their parents’ wealth whether our young learn their values in sink schools ravaged by cultural and religious divisions, and spend their lives in debt and insecurity, or end up in private schools, privatised universities and jobs tacitly reserved for a self-perpetuating minority? Will their future be marred by resentment and envy, or by fearful concern for self-preservation?

Or will we overcome the political, economic and social woes that are causing our country to fracture and shudder with anxiety? Will we start recognising what is good about the new? Will we build on new strengths and mobilise all the talents at our disposal in an inclusive, outward-looking and socially mobile nation, whatever borders end up defining it?

The parents of the newly-weds – Isobel, Fred, Ian, Jennifer – and all the other people of my generation at that wedding will be increasingly incidental to whatever outcomes await us.

We have helped to create the uncertain present. This post is dedicated to you, Jessika and Chris. You gave us a sunny respite from the cares that bear down on all of us. The future belongs to your generation. Make the best of it, and have a long and happy marriage.

From → Social, Travel, UK

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