So far, the only wedding-related decision my boyfriend and I have managed to make since getting engaged nine months ago is a date: sometime in 2019 (size, country and continent are still fair game and don’t even talk to me about any sort of 'maid or 'man, they’re not on my radar). This feels like quite an achievement considering that so far the process has felt daunting, emotional and – it’s probably not very fashionable to say about your own wedding, but I’m calling it – boring.
And this is all before getting on to the biggest obstacle of all: money. Saving for a one-day party (the average British wedding costs £27,000) that's two years away, instead of a flat – the average UK first-time buyer deposit last year was more than £32,000, according to Halifax, and triple that in London – doesn’t always feel 100% sane.
Little wonder, then, that growing numbers of couples are swerving a traditional wedding altogether to elope.
“Eloping is back,” declared The Times in a recent report about the trend. Meanwhile, elopement “fixers” at home and abroad say they have never been busier thanks to soaring demand from couples who want personalised ceremonies without an audience – or at most a very small one – in far-flung destinations and specialist venues across Britain, at a cost of as little as £1,000-£2,000.
Maya Conway, 49, who founded elopement retreat BoHo Cornwall with her husband Tom four years ago, says the trend has “mushroomed” in the last year or so. “When we set up in west Cornwall, obviously there’s Gretna Green that everybody has heard of but it’s a bit 'production line', there was only one other doing it,” she adds. “But now there are loads.”
I always thought that if I got married, not only would I want to throw a party for as many people as humanly possible, but that it would be almost mean-spirited not to. Now, I am excited about getting married in front of friends and family, but any ideas of what form that might take are very swiftly starting to unravel.
Maya says it’s not unusual for couples to feel burnt-out by the planning process. Motivations for eloping include money, stress, pressure of being “on show” and privacy for people who are shy “but don’t want to compromise and go to a registry office,” she says. “We also get a lot of couples who planned traditional weddings but either [felt] pressure or drained by it and walked away from their deposits.” Often couples compromise by going to BoHo for a couple of nights to do the ceremony alone and then go home to celebrate with friends and family.
Unlike eloping of old, the 2017 version is less Gretna Green runaways, Austen-esque romantic scandals and Las Vegas shotgun weddings and more in the boutique category. Modern elopement is about “breaking with the norms of the past,” says Jenny MacFarlane, 39, from Eloping is Fun in New York – another popular elopement destination. By spending less money on the ceremony itself, she says couples are able to “splurge on fancy hotels and meals” while still shelling out much less than they would for a traditional ceremony. If they bring guests, she says it’s just a handful, adding: “They’re boiling it down to the most essential elements.” Some tell their friends and families beforehand, others keep it a secret and then surprise/shock them afterwards and have a separate celebration later.
This all sounds very practical in theory but in some families this would be potentially explosive. How does it go down? Laura Clarke, 30, a copywriter from west London who eloped to New York with her husband Jeff in May, says they got a few “raised eyebrows” when they first shared the news but that once they had reassured their parents that they weren’t doing a runner, “nobody really said anything”. Both their immediate families were there, but extended family weren’t invited.
“There were some family members who view it as a more kind of traditional day but all it took was a sit-down and explanation,” says propman Jeff, also 30. After eight years together, he says it was not about anyone being “given away” but rather “putting a stamp on our relationship”.
It took just a few soul-sapping visits to wedding venues at home to convince the couple that they wanted to do something different. As costs escalated they found the focus “started to drift away” from what they wanted their wedding to be about. In the end, they got a personalised wedding ceremony on the anniversary of their engagement in a museum in Brooklyn in front of a small group of family and friends, a nice dinner and a reception in a brewery – all for the cost of hiring a single teepee at home. “Not even the land to put it on, just the tent,” says Laura, gleefully.
They gave their modest guest list some notice but not loads. The transatlantic flight also helped to keep numbers down, as it required slightly more commitment than the well-trodden wedding-guest path of liquid brunch on a train into the countryside, ceremony, reception, Travelodge.
Artseller Katharine Drabble, 35, and her husband Ross, 39, a shipwright, decided early on that they wanted to elope. “We didn’t have a lot of free time to plan a large event and what most appealed to us was we were able to marry secretly on our own,” she says. “There was a very special moment in time where nobody knew we were married except us, and it felt sacred and special.” Eloping to BoHo enabled them to make the experience “as personal as possible without the worry of keeping guests happy and with a lot less planning, expense and fuss,” she says. Luckily, nobody objected when they told them afterwards and they had a small family celebration when they got home.
However, not every elopement story ends quite so happily. One wedding planner tells me about a young couple whose elopement plan was foiled by their parents just before the ceremony and they had to cancel it last-minute.
Of course, fortunately, marriage in Britain these days is usually a choice rather than a necessity and increasingly couples are choosing not to. But there is also a growing demand for alternatives. Over 78,000 people have signed a petition calling to open civil partnerships – currently only available to same sex-couples – to all, which they say would provide heterosexual couples with the same legal protections as marriage. A test case is expected to be heard at the Supreme Court next year.
Despite all the hassle and idiocy, personally marriage is something that I do want to do with my partner, but neither full-scale wedding or elopement feels quite right. I wouldn’t mind something in-between the two – a non-secret wedding with some guests and elopement-style informality – a welopement, you might say.