On-farm weddings seen to be particularly in vogue at the moment.
From converted livestock barns to historic farmhouses, they can offer an original, picturesque and special setting for a couple’s big day.
This is great news for farming families who have diversified – or are looking to diversify – into the events industry.
But, as with any project involving the public, it can be hard work and bring challenges.
Kate Chapman talks to some of those who are providing brides and grooms with a rural flavour for their special day to find out about the opportunities and the potential problems
Huntstile Organic Farm Weddings, Somerset
The decision to use the 15th-century farmhouse as a wedding venue has saved Huntstile Organic Farm – and has meant John and Lizzie Ridout can continue living there.
They farm 180ha of tenanted land near Bridgwater, Somerset, growing organic wheat, barley, oats and beans alongside a microbrewery and a few Gloucester Old Spot pigs, but they had to diversify to save their business.
“John was born at the farm and has lived here all his life. It’s a very special place and the thought of losing it was terrible,” says Lizzie.
“We got together in 2004. John’s business had been struggling for some time and he was unsure of how to diversify.
“But it was crunch time – we couldn’t afford to carry on living here as the overheads of a Grade II listed building can be quite a drain on resources and our income from the farm was low.”
Having successfully put a couple of fields into organic diversion, they turned the whole farm over to it and drew up plans to use the house – which they own – as a B&B.
“When John’s youngest sister announced her wedding, they decided to hold a handfasting at the top of the hill, on the edge of a piece of woodland,” says Lizzie.
“Everyone enjoyed the preparation and the family built a stone circle from old hamstone staddle stones off the farm.
“It was then we realised what a lovely place Huntstile is for a wedding. We included some wedding ideas in a very creative business plan and sent it off to the bank – and they agreed,” adds Lizzie, a trained portrait artist with a background in retail and customer service.
Tips for diversifying into weddings
For anyone considering diversifying into the wedding business:
- Seek expert advice if your venture requires planning consent and/or change of use and other legal requirements, such as public liability insurance, health and safety and alcohol licences.
- Don’t rush into anything and make rash decisions – start slowly and let your business develop organically.
- Don’t think the wedding industry is one big party – the hours are very unsociable.
- Set your own ground rules for your venue and don’t be pushed into allowing events to overrun.
- Be considerate to your neighbours and their needs, especially when it comes to issues such as noise.
Initially there was a lot of paperwork relating to health and safety regulations, fire safety, insurance and staff safety and recruitment.
“When we began, all our staff were multitaskers – John’s son would drive a tractor in the day and serve behind the bar at night, my son would be at college and then working as a waiter, and I would be front of house, doing all the cooking and then moving the cows or taking the workers their lunch.
“Harvest time was madly ridiculous, but you learn to manage and improve things along the way. It has been a huge learning curve and we still learn new things every week.
“We have a wonderful team of staff, which has grown from two to 20 at peak times.”
The main wedding season runs from April to September. Handfasting ceremonies have been held since 2005 and, in January, Huntstile was granted a legal wedding licence – with John and Lizzie the first to marry there legally.
The couple hold ceremonies in their garden room and dining hall, catering for all events with options ranging from a hog roast to a five-course banquet. B&B is also provided in the house, with further accommodation on a campsite with gypsy caravans, tents and a tipi.
“The weddings we offer are very individual,” adds Lizzie. “People get the chance to put their own personal stamp on each one. We seem to attract a particular type of person, who is perhaps more outdoorsy, or a bit more environmentally minded, and more interested in their natural surroundings.
“They like to know the provenance of their food, too. We have a kitchen garden, pigs and laying hens, while there are some lovely farms producing fantastic meat nearby.
“We try to support other local businesses, too, as it’s a good way of promoting British farming and encouraging others to do so.”
Huntstile has witnessed some unusual wedding ceremonies, including one between an Elvis Presley impersonator and a “flower queen”.
There have been celebrity guests, too – including Hollywood actor Nicholas Cage, whose son, Weston, married there earlier this year, and Martin Freeman, who attended the wedding of his niece.
Lizzie finds word of mouth is best when it comes to advertising, although she has recently employed someone to help promote Huntstile via social media.
“We have our own website, but social media is not our strong point and marketing is really important,” she says.
“The wedding business is quite different from farming; it’s very sociable – you have to like people. But I can honestly say we love what we do – and we really enjoy sharing our home with the people that choose it as the place they wish to celebrate their wedding.
“We love being able to promote farming, and we could not afford to stay here if we had to survive on the farm alone.”
For more about the business see Huntstile Organic Farm Weddings’ website.
Creslow Events, Buckinghamshire
Diversifying into the wedding business is a marriage made in heaven for many farms, but it requires lots of hard work – as one Buckinghamshire family testifies.
Creslow Manor has been a family farm for generations and today is home to Brian and Linda Lear.
Aided by children Steven, 31, Adam, 29, and Nicola, 27, they keep a large herd of pedigree Limousins and farm 810ha of combinable crops.
In 2008 the younger generation launched Creslow Events – setting up a marquee in the grounds of the manor house on the farm, to be hired out for wedding receptions.
“Creslow Manor [pictured above] is the oldest house in Buckinghamshire. It’s Grade I listed and is a really nice setting,” says Steven (pictured with wife Catherine above and right).
“We all work full-time on the farm and wanted something that was ours as well as Mum’s and Dad’s. We had all been involved in planning a lot of parties through Young Farmers, so we decided on a seasonal marquee for weddings.”
They started by hiring a marquee for one wedding, before taking bookings for more parties, charity events and corporate functions. The family offers three hire packages, which can be customised, starting from £4,680.
“We bought our own marquee two years ago,” says Steven. “It doesn’t stay up permanently, only as and when required through May to September. We clean it ourselves and keep it in really good condition.”
With the main wedding season in summer, Steven admits it is often all hands on deck to make sure everything goes smoothly when the farm is at its busiest, too.
“The wedding business really doesn’t fit with farming at all,” he laughs.
“It’s completely the wrong time of year, as everyone wants to get married during harvest.
“We have to make sure we don’t book to do anything else. We wouldn’t be able to do this if it wasn’t for the family. We all chip in when we need to – Mum will come out and serve drinks, too.
“We do get some bar staff in, but we don’t do catering. We organise the marquee, the toilets, the bar and tables and chairs.”
Despite the timing disadvantage, there are plenty of positives for the family when it comes to using their farming skills.
“The practical side of farming helps, perhaps from just being outside all the time,” explains Steven.
“Things can go wrong, like the toilets for example, but we have the ability to fix them ourselves. When it comes to putting the marquee up, we are all quite practical – how long it takes depends on how many people are about to help. It’s usually about a couple of days to get everything in and looking good.
“You can sit on a tractor all day and talk to no one. Then, when you go to these events, working behind the bar, there are 200 people there. It’s so different from farming – but it’s a nice change.”
The family does a limited amount of marketing, but tries to keep overheads as low as possible, instead relying on word of mouth, their website and social media.
“We are about where we want to be with the business now. If we got any bigger we would have to take on more staff, which would increase overheads,” says Steven.
“At the end of the day we are still farmers – this is an additional income to the farm. With commodity prices jumping about all over the place, it’s nice to have this set income as well.”
Since launching Creslow Events, the family have had plenty of unusual requests – including one for a model Eiffel Tower over the dance floor. Its impracticality meant it didn’t go ahead, although there are plans for the venue’s first hanging wedding cake at a forthcoming reception.
“One of the most memorable weddings we have had was in March last year. We took the booking as the guy was going to Afghanistan two weeks later,” says Steven.
“It snowed a huge amount the day before and we were clearing snow off the roof at 4.30am. The weather isn’t normally an issue, the marquee is fine in the rain, but it can’t cope with snow on the roof, and heavy winds can be a real problem, too.
“We find that when people come to a wedding they’re here to have a good time, though – if it’s wet they get some great photos with the umbrellas up and their wellies on!”
See the Creslow Events website for more information on the wedding business.
The Sussex Barn, Sussex
It was never part of the plan to hire out their redundant 400-year-old barn for wedding receptions, but when its potential was spotted, the Gribble family decided the opportunity was too good to miss.
The Grade II listed oak-framed Sussex Barn in Hellingly originally stored hay and straw for animals – and, more recently, old machinery – but following a family proposal it was transformed into a stunning reception venue, and a business was born.
“Using it for weddings had never really been discussed,” says Rachael Newble, 35, who looks after the venture with brothers Mark, 36, and Charlie, 30.
“Mark got engaged in 2008, and it was all down to my sister-in-law, Lucy, who really wanted to have their wedding reception there.
“She’s a florist and could see through the rubbish – she made it look amazing.”
The family started advertising the barn’s availability shortly after the 2009 wedding and now hosts up to 15 events a year.
“We didn’t sit down and say: ‘Right, let’s turn this into a wedding venue’. It was more a case of: ‘Let’s see if people are interested’,” says Rachael, who looks after the administration side on a part-time basis to fit in around looking after her children.
“We had been talking about diversification, looking at different ways to make the most of our assets, such as holiday lets and the usual, so this fitted.
“We started slowly as we had to make some changes. We’ve redone the courtyard outside, removing all the old breeze blocks, and we also had to go through a change of use with the council, which is when English Heritage listed it.”
The farm has been in the family since 1979 and is now run by Mark and Charlie, following the death of their father, Gordon, in 2011. They grow wheat, spring barley and beans on 280ha and keep 400 Suffolk Mule and Mule ewes plus a 70-strong continental-cross beef herd.
Because of the barn’s location, Rachael says, land work can continue pretty much unaffected when events are on.
“Now we are up and running, there’s not really much for my brothers to do in the summer, other than change a few light bulbs, carry out a bit of routine maintenance and make sure all the lights are off after an event. It doesn’t interfere with the running of the farm,” she adds.
“Couples know our farm is a fully functioning one – that’s part of its charm.
“It works well between the three of us, as we all seem to have fallen naturally into our roles and Lucy runs her business, Florist on the Farm, from the stables, so in summer it’s quite a wedding hub.
“The barn provides a valuable additional income now we have been going for around five years, although prior to that any money made was ploughed back in to improve things.”
The barn is hired out empty, with tables and chairs or with decorations, with prices starting from £3,750 for 2017.
Word of mouth has been one of the best forms of promotion, but Rachael also uses social media and advertises on wedding sites and at wedding fairs. The farm also holds an open day each April.
“We get local couples and some who come from miles away,” she adds.
“We don’t offer catering, which keeps it simple. Besides, lots of people like to make their own decisions on these things.
“Recently a couple had their food in picnic hampers – home-made pies and sausage rolls – and in the evening they had a pizza van. The barn gives the flexibility to do that.
“We don’t get too involved unless people want us to, in which case we help them as much as we can.
“It’s nice to see everyone’s ideas. The barn has been decorated with bunting and hops, and one weekend we had upside-down umbrellas suspended from the ceiling over the dance floor – it was really simple, but so effective.”
The barn is fully booked for 2016, when it will also be licensed to provide civil ceremonies for the first time, and already has bookings for 2017.
“This wasn’t something we deliberately set out to do, but watching people in their finery out in the courtyard brings back some lovely memories of us sorting the sheep out there when we were younger,” Rachael adds.
The Sussex Barn’s website has more details about its weddings business.