Friday, June 24, 2011

Wedding Venue: Stoneleigh Park

Apart from the date and the dress, the other big thing I didn't want to broadcast online until after the wedding was the venue.

In England, you can get married in a church, in a register office, or (since the 1990s) in "approved premises". Since neither I nor Steve have any religious beliefs, it would be disrespectful of us to get married in a church, not to mention meaningless. And there's no parking - not even blue badge parking - at the register office's "Ceremony Rooms", so approved premises it was. This has the other big advantage that you can have the ceremony and reception in the same place.

We had already decided that I would use my chair for as much of the day as possible, and of course there's always the chance that guests may have their own access requirements, so accessibility was important to us. I regret to say that most of the venues in our area either admitted outright that they could not provide proper wheelchair access, or simply didn't bother to respond to my queries. This took us from the choice of fifty-odd venues that a non-disabled bride would have, to a choice of about half a dozen.

Stoneleigh Park, also known as the National Agriculture Centre, is an absolutely unique venue. They've got all sorts of on-site facilities (4x4 offroading? Segways? Helicopter landing pads?) and different styles and sizes of room. Access, while far from perfect, is much better than at many of the other Approved Premises, but what really swung the decision was the attitude of the staff.

You see, there are plenty of wedding venues that hold perfectly "nice" weddings as long as you are having the wedding they want you to have. If you want a lovely ceremony and then reception drinks and then a mediocre yet formal sit-down three-course meal followed by speeches and a cheesy disco, they'll make it happen, but heaven forbid you suggest anything outside that template. They look at you like you've grown a second head or something.

Not Stoneleigh. I'm sure they could do that sort of wedding, and they'd probably make a perfectly good job of it, but it would be a wasted opportunity. They're used to holding Major Events. They're not primarily a hotel, or a golf club, or a village hall. They're a dedicated events venue accustomed to dealing with hundreds, thousands of guests at a time. This means that they aren't scared of doing something different. They pride themselves on flexibility. The only limits were (1) the laws of time and space, (2) the law of the land, (3) imagination and of course (4) money. Not as much money as you might think, though. I mean, they're not a budget option, but their quote was competitive with the hotels and golf clubs who were really offering much less for the money.

The Stoneleigh Park staff were absolutely awesome. My first point of contact was a woman called Rachel and she co-ordinated all the planning for rooms, facilities, liaising with our on-the-day suppliers, making sure we had all the right contracts and invoices, that sort of thing. Whenever I had a problem or a query I could go straight to her, and especially in the last few days when last-minute things popped up, she was wonderfully calm and capable at dealing with them.

The other main staff member we dealt with was a man called Mark who was in charge of our catering, and was our "on the day" co-ordinator. He worked closely with Rachel to be sure he knew what our plan was, and then on the day he oversaw events and, with his team, made sure the day went absolutely smoothly. Armed with a phone, a walkie-talkie, and a little golf-buggy type vehicle for zipping about the site from location to location, he anticipated everything. I haven't seen him in a single photo, yet somehow he was always there if we had a query and the answer to any query was usually "already being taken care of," which gave the day an almost dream-like quality.

There was not a single moment, from the initial enquiry to the post-wedding feedback enquiry, where Steve or I felt our wedding was receiving any less attention than the larger events hosted at Stoneleigh Park.

The level of privacy we had was wonderful, too. There was another event on-site that weekend (a scout camp) but the buildings, gardens, and other facilities we were using were for our private use and completely separate from anything else that was going on. We didn't have to fight town-centre car parking or put up with intrusion from pub regulars. We didn't have to schedule our food around other patrons of the restaurant or try and ignore the decorations from a playgroup. There was a handy on-site hotel, but our celebrations were in a completely different building. It was like having a tiny world set up entirely for the convenience of us and our wedding guests.

So we got our bouncy castle. We had a garden. We had comfy sofas. We had pictures by a lake. We had a cream tea. We had platters on tables rather than a buffet. We didn't need a seating plan. We were able to choose what drinks were served at the bar. Our estimated finish time of "erm, we'll have to see how it goes," was acceptable. They were completely unflappable and didn't say No to a single suggestion, although they often made suggestions that enhanced our ideas with the benefit of their experience, which was very welcome.

I really would recommend Stoneleigh Park as a venue to anyone planning a wedding.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wedding: the Aftermath

There are certain patterns with ME/CFS, and one of the major ones has to do with the relationship between activity and fatigue. I follow the classic pattern:
  • I do something active.

  • I feel tired, often rather more tired than the activity warrants.

  • I have a rest.

  • I feel, not 100% better, but significantly improved.

  • I carry on with my life.

  • ... and then somewhere between 24 and 48 hours after the activity, a massive dose of absolute exhaustion coshes me over the head, all plans must be cancelled and I spend a lot of time in bed trying to recover.

The wedding was obviously an enormous active event. I had planned out a 72-hour food and medication schedule to give myself the best chance and this went amazingly well, but the fact remains that by Sunday morning, despite a full night's sleep, I had a major spoon deficit and the knowledge that it was about to get a lot worse.

First Breakfast was a slice of wedding cake (we'd asked for a couple of slices to be put in our room just in case we didn't get to eat much cake during the reception) and that gave me the kick start I needed to go and have a more traditional Second Breakfast of tea and toast with a few of the guests who had stayed at the hotel. The hotel staff helped us divvy up the leftover cake.

We'd hired an MPV to enable us to move lots of stuff around, but even so, Steve ended up having to go home on his own with the car full of gifts and our own equipment (like the TV and the Wii), empty it all out, and then come back to collect me, my chair, the dress, the suitcase and all the other bits and bobs remaining. By this point I was starting to struggle, but I was able to walk from the car to the house.

My husband (!) and I sat down to open our cards and gifts. We were completely overwhelmed - there were cards on every flat surface and still there were some we didn't have room for, all with the most lovely messages. We just about had the sense to log all the gifts against our guestlist so that we would have an easier time writing the thank-you notes.

That's about all I can really remember as at that point the extreme exhaustion kicked in. I know I did things, like visiting a friend who couldn't make it and eating obscene quantities of cake, but only on an academic level, I don't have any personal recollection of it. Apparently right up to Thursday I was telling people what a marvellous day I'd had "yesterday" at the wedding, and although I wrote a few posts online, they were all absolute surprises to me when I re-read them a few days later! Thankfully Steve had the full week off work, so we could really do everything at our own pace.

One month on and things that are done include:
  • We've recovered back to "normal for us" levels of physical and mental energy, house-tidiness, eating and sleeping patterns, etc.

  • We've installed our new Stuff in the appropriate places (mostly the kitchen), and taken the old Stuff and all the packaging to the recycling centre.

  • I've mostly finished changing my name, although I still keep getting surprised by the odd little things that keep popping up with my old name and I still hesitate every time I introduce myself.

  • We've paid off all of the bills, and given back everything that was hired or borrowed like the car and the cake stand, so there's a nice line drawn under it all - we don't owe anyone anything.

  • We've had some of the photos back and have been able to print ourselves some copies to show people.

  • We've given or posted all of the thank you notes.

We still need to take decent close-up photos of "stuff" like the dress, the flowers, the jewellery and so on... Steve's been promising to do this for a while so I think I'll just wait for the next dry sunny day and take some snaps of them in the garden with my point-and-shoot - everything looks good on a sunny, grassy background, right? We need to get digital copies of wedding photos from a few more guests, and then we can start putting together an album.

I also need to do another blogpost or two about some of our vendors who really were exceptionally good.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Wedding: the party

This is me and Evilstevie enjoying our first hours of married life:

After the ceremony described in my previous post, we bundled into a car with our Official Photographer (Steve's cousin) and went to a more scenic part of the venue to take some nice, couple-y photos. I'd recommend this to anybody. It allowed us to have some time to just cuddle each other and marvel at the fact that we were actually married, rather than having to dive straight in to a busy mishmash of family politics and being congratulated for a ceremony we were still getting our heads around.

This took maybe half an hour or so, and then we headed over for the reception. I had decided ahead of time that I would walk for the ceremony but use the chair for the reception, and I think this was a good idea. Our reception room was advertised as accommodating up to 160 people. Our guest list was about 80 and about 75 came. It did look a little bit sparsely populated - especially as the summery weather saw a lot of people hanging around the outdoor areas - but it also meant that I had plenty of room for manoeuvring the chair, that parents didn't have to worry about where to put buggies, that strangers weren't sitting more or less on top of each other - all of which are good things. If I was doing it again, which I don't intend to do, and if I had a free choice of room sizes that met my other requirements, then I'd probably go for something nearer the "seats 120" capacity for an 80-person guest list.

The reception was going well when we arrived. Rather than a disco drowning out all hope of civilised conversation, we'd opted for quiet chill-out jazz and this worked really well.

We'd invited all the kids (mostly little boys between 2 and 10) to come dressed as pirates. The idea was that this way their parents wouldn't have to fork out for uncomfortable suits that would be ripped and outgrown within minutes. We'd hired a bouncy castle shaped like a pirate ship, complete with giant purple octopus overhanging the prow.
purple octopus
We also had heaps of chocolate coins/pirate treasure on every table, in lieu of favours...
... and our cake table had several chocolate pirates on the beach, alongside their enormous treasure chest.
Cake table

We did have our Wii set up in one corner to entertain the kids in case of bad weather, or if the bouncy castle was too full. It was set to just scroll through a slideshow in the meanwhile. None of the kids even noticed it.

Lunch was an assortment of sandwiches, and scones with cream and jam. The venue caterers served these in large dishes to each table, a happy medium between the awkwardness of a buffet and the unwanted formality of a plated meal and seating plan. Obviously at this point Steve and I were both making our way around the tables, with the tragic result that I had to eat two scones. Just to be polite, obviously.

You can't put helium balloons and engineers in a room together without there being an effort to get something floating. At our wedding, this was one of the pirate ship table decorations...
The balloon ship
... shortly followed by the Stunt Bride And Groom.
Floating Stunt Bride And Groom

We only had one Stunt Bride and Groom which we really didn't want to lose, but we had plenty of table decorations. With this in mind, when a certain young lady begged for permission to take the floating pirate ship out and launch it... well obviously it's irresponsible and we couldn't endorse it, but we felt equally unable to say no. And it did look beautiful drifting off into the dusk.
launch successful

Technically the bouncy castle was for children only, although at one point Evilstevie and I did, erm, pose on it for wedding portraits that may have had a slight bouncing element.

By the evening some people had left and others had changed into more comfortable, less formal clothes. At Jiva's suggestion, I too had a less formal outfit of black trousers and a white top to get changed into for the evening. This was another one of the Really Good Ideas. My dress wasn't uncomfortable to wear or difficult to manage as wedding dresses go, but it was more effort than my normal clothes and I was starting to get really quite tired. Also, dinner was bangers and mash with vegetables and gravy. Getting changed was definitely a good way forwards.

The bangers and mash had another effect we hadn't predicted. All those little pirates, who'd spent the day hopped up on sugar enjoying sunshine, a big grassy area to play on, and an unlimited-access bouncy castle, suddenly had bellies full of a nice solid hot dinner, and very nearly fell asleep on the spot. It was magic.

The last guests left a little while after 9pm. By that point I wasn't making sense any more, but I was very happy and had enjoyed the most wonderful day.