Back from holiday in Italy, I look out of my kitchen window in Northamptonshire to find the country view blocked by an enormous marquee with red pennants flying from the top. People are bustling about, carrying boxes of cutlery, glasses and china. I suddenly remember that there is to be a wedding reception here tomorrow. I let people hold such receptions to help pay for the maintenance of two crumbling Inigo Jones pavilions, the surviving appendages of a 17th-century country house that was destroyed by fire in the 1880s. I charge for these events, but this is but a tiny proportion of the cost of the receptions for the couples concerned. They typically have sit-down suppers for over 100 people, and many more guests afterwards to dance till midnight to deafening rock music. I can easily believe the estimates in the press that the average cost of a wedding in Britain is now somewhere over £20,000.
It’s no fun being here when these noisy parties are going on; nor next morning to find my house surrounded by cars that have been left behind by drivers who have drunk too much the night before. Occasionally, I even find condoms in the flowerbeds. But there are compensations: first, the money; and second, the happiness of the wedding guests, who often express their appreciation in the most generous terms. Sometimes the very couples that have spent a small fortune on getting married even write me thank-you letters for letting them use this place. This makes me feel rather guilty.
On the other hand, the weddings are an essential source of income; so we try hard to get more couples to hold their receptions here. This is not easy. Not only are fewer people bothering to get married nowadays, but also the ‘events’ business is intensely competitive. The hard-pressed owners of country houses and other romantic places are increasingly seeking salvation in the marriage market. And at Stoke Park we don’t even have a licence to solemnise weddings, though lots of other places do, including the old Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton, where some show-offs choose to get married on stage.
I sometimes wonder why couples bother with these huge wedding receptions at all, given that they have often been living together for years and have their teenage daughters as bridesmaids. But from America has come an exciting justification for it all. Research by the University of Virginia has found that the bigger the wedding, the more enduring the marriage. Apparently, making a commitment in front of lots of people encourages couples to stay together. According to this research, couples who have 150 guests or more at their wedding are much more likely to remain married than those who have 50 guests or fewer, 47 per cent compared with 31 per cent. One explanation offered was that couples who have plighted their troth before a large audience are more embarrassed about breaking up; another was that those who have lavish weddings are more likely to have large networks of friends and relations and therefore to get ‘more help and encouragement in navigating the challenges of married life’.
This is a selling point that hadn’t occurred to me. Tell people that the more money they spend on their wedding reception, the longer and happier their married life will be. I am not wholly convinced of this, however. It may be so with young couples who haven’t been living together before, but not, I would have thought, with couples who have been co-habiting for years: for them marriage is often a last-ditch attempt to reinvigorate a faltering relationship, and frequently it doesn’t work. And even the researchers in Virginia are not optimistic about the prospects of people who have been sleeping around before their marriage. ‘Having more relationship experience may lead to a greater sense of what the alternatives are,’ said Dr Galena Rhoades, the main author of their report. ‘If you have a greater sense of other options, it may be harder to invest in, or commit to, a marriage.’
Marriage has never been less popular. Statistics published early this year showed that there were only four million families in Britain that consist of a married couple with children, only 15.2 per cent of all families. Yet an awful lot of people still do get married. The main reason, I suspect, is that a wedding is about the only respectable excuse for most people to throw a lavish party that they cannot really afford.