March Winds

September 20th, 2013

By Zena Birch

When the BHA Ceremonies office, or ground control as I like to call it, put out a request to hear from anyone who had a visually interesting ceremony on the horizon, I stood to attention. I do! I do! I shouted (it’s not usually right for a wedding celebrant to be the one saying these words enthusiastically, but in this case it was appropriate).

It was March – and I had a wedding ON A BEACH!

Yes. It bears repeating. March. In England. On a beach.

This temperate and unpredictable island was to bear host to a beach wedding. Brave or foolish, who cares? I loved my couple for this plan. And best of all, they would be flying from their Australian summer to celebrate this wedding on a Cornish beach. In spite of what you may think, they weren’t delusional, or unaware of Britain’s climate, coming from Cornwall themselves before emigrating southwards, they were simply what most of the couples who opt of a humanist wedding were. Enthusiastic, romantic and looking to celebrate their wedding in a location that truly meant something to them as a couple. And isn’t that why we love our job? Not being restricted to a registered location, couples really can find locations not just ceremonies that help reflect who they are.

So I asked Emily (the bride) and Matt (the groom) if they would mind me coming with a Reuters photographer in tow to capture their day. At first they were a little unsure, their ceremony was a fairly intimate affair, about 45 guests, all family and close friends and they already had a photographer, would two look a bit showy? But Olivia from Reuters assured us that she would be taking over view shots and would be discreet and in keeping with their requests and so, they kindly agreed.

Olivia had been asked to take some photographs that would accompany an article researching ceremonies without religion. I was delighted to be able to help because this ceremony encapsulated and highlighted why choosing a humanist ceremony over a religious ceremony or civic ceremony was the right thing to do for this couple. It was going to be very personal, poignant and most of all a lot of fun.

They had emigrated to Australia two years ago, but their family and friends were still all in the UK. This ceremony wasn’t just a way of celebrating their love for each other, they wanted it to be a way of acknowledging how important the people in their lives were. How important it was to them to have them all gathered together. They wanted to be able to say thank you for all of the support they have had from each of them over the years, both personally and as a couple and especially as they started their new lives so many thousands of miles away. And so they hatched a plan for something memorable, meaningful and relevant.

To do this properly they wanted to be able to declare their commitments to each other; being held accountable by those whose opinions mattered, in a place that meant an awful lot to all of them. The groom’s best man owned a little restaurant on the cliff overlooking Swanpool beach. When the bride had been working as a waitress for him, she was introduced to her would be husband there and so how correct it was, to have their reception in this restaurant overlooking the beach. And the beach held so many memories, childhood memories, family memories, romantic memories – some of their first kisses had taken place there! And once they returned to Australia, they wanted this location to be a memory for all of their family and friends who would pass it daily, too.

When I met Emily and Matt via Skype one of the first things they asked me was “would you still be happy to conduct the ceremony in the rain?” Heck yes! was my reply. I think it is important for us celebrants to put our money where our mouth is when it comes to stating that we want to create their perfect ceremony. Proclaiming that I want to help a couple reflect what marriage, their love and the people they have invited mean to them can’t have limits (with mortal danger being my only exception!). Last summer each and every one of us must have learned that it takes more than rain to dampen a humanist ceremony! This agreed we decided to not dwell on the weather, what will be will be and the next six months were spent getting to know each other and creating the ceremony itself.

So, March arrived. There was a glimmer of sunshine for a few days and it was all looking hopeful. Olivia was excited to shoot on the beach, the bride and groom had already arrived back in the UK and were acclimatising to the temperature drop and I was enjoying telling people that I had a beach wedding coming up before Easter!

As I arrived at my B&B the day before (ready for our rehearsal) I was greeted with the following words. “I’m glad you got down here before dark, there’s a storm blowing in” (When said in a westcountry accent, this can sound very menacing!) It was true. Sea mist was already rolling in, shrouding Falmouth in a damp blanket of dew. Nevermind, I thought, we’ll discuss plan b at the rehearsal, it will still be lovely and we mustn’t fret over things beyond our control. I was however, deeply disappointed for our Reuters photographer, the beach shots would have been great.

Emily and Matt welcomed me to their best man’s restaurant with wide smiles and a glint in their eyes. “We still want to do it on the beach.” Brilliant, I thought, impractical but brave! We will have to work out the logistics, but like me, they thought that the evening’s storm would blow over and it would just be a little grey and drizzly on the beach, which was something we would be able to handle. I admired their gusto and commitment to a plan, so was more than happy to go along with it. We would all just have to huddle close for warmth, it could only add to the intimate nature of the ceremony. Also, the irony wouldn’t be lost on anyone that these guys had just left an Australian summer, where a beach wedding would be so appropriate, for here; the rain sodden westcountry! And again, from a purely opportunistic point of view, it would still make for wonderful photographs for Reuters. I went to bed optimistic.

I awoke to howling winds.

I am sure many celebrants will agree that rain, we can do. Aeroplane flight paths we can handle. But wind we just can’t fight. When I arrived at the bestman’s restaurant the awning was out. It didn’t fully enclose people, it was see through so the beach and the sea could still be seen and best of all, we could leave one end open as the side protected us from the wind. This was a perfectly acceptable, if slightly disappointing plan b. But for Olivia, who had travelled by sleeper train from London it was deeply disappointing. And I understood. In person this option was still quite exciting, but photographically, it not only threw forward many impracticalities (all of the guests would really have to squeeze in to fit, there was very little space for one photographer, let alone two) but the lens wouldn’t capture the view through the awning like the naked eye could. We were all trying to be upbeat, but when I went to see the bride who was getting ready in a little cottage nearby, there was no denying that we were all crestfallen and putting a brave face on it.

So it was my turn to hatch a plan.

I conspired with the restaurant staff, who took every guest’s umbrella as they arrived and then placed them in buckets around the ceremony space. We gathered in the partially covered awning space and good naturedly joked about this beautiful day. The Bride arrived. As all brides do, she looked radiant, the run from the car just adding to her glow. The huddled crowd organically parted for her arrival creating one of my favourite ever make shift aisles and the groom and I stood, our backs to the wind and rain, welcoming her forward.

It is important with all ceremonies that everybody can hear what is being said, these words are carefully constructed and unlike a religious or civil ceremony, they aren’t the same words that you will have heard time and time again. What we place in a bespoke ceremony is relevant, important – no matter how well you already know the couple, you should come away feeling like you know them just that little bit more, after all, what is ceremony if it isn’t the communing of people recognizing and acknowledging each other and intent.

So being under shelter, with the wind buffeting outside didn’t hinder everyone’s ability to hear and enjoy the ceremony. BUT….as we came to the signing of the certificate I lay out a challenge to the guests (pre-approved and enthusiastically received by the Bride, Groom and Olivia from Reuters!) “grab your umbrellas! We came here today to watch Emily and Matt become husband and wife on Swanpool beach, let’s not let a little squall get in the way – who’s up for the journey?” I looked expectantly around the crowd. A little stunned, but then taking the dare, without exception everyone collected their umbrellas – Emily, Matt and I led the procession. It was a sight to behold. The storm was truly hitting the beach now, the bride’s dress was blowing in every direction and the bridesmaids were doing a sterling job of protecting her modesty and their own all at the same time. Passing cars drew to a halt, the few intrepid dog walkers pulled out their camera phones as the wedding party and all 45 of their guests (with over twenty pairs of stilettos – I counted!) marched with determination onto the beach. Once gathered I spoke my final paragraphs with the wind (luckily) carrying each word up and out into the crowd. I made the proclamation and declared that ‘in truth and in honesty in front of all of those who they hold dear to them’, they had now pronounced one another husband and wife.

They kissed. Confetti went quite literally everywhere. Not one single umbrella remained the right way in. And the noise! The jubilation! The storm and the cheering. It sent shivers down my spine. Not from the wind or the rain or the cold. But by the magic two people can conjure when they stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of everything and celebrate their love how it should be.

And if that turns out to be on a deeply impractical stormy beach, so be it.*

*And it makes for some spectacular photographs 😉