Using gardens and parks as ideal wedding venues

Horticulture key in parks and gardens bringing in income by hosting weddings.

Woburn Abbey: weddings are hosted at the Sculpture Gallery where this year’s HW Custodian Awards will be held - image: © Woburn Marketing
Woburn Abbey: weddings are hosted at the Sculpture Gallery where this year’s HW Custodian Awards will be held - image: © Woburn Marketing

The nation has been breathing a huge sigh of relief in recent weeks with spring and sunshine finally arriving. Public parks and gardens are gearing up for peak summer visitor season and, for many, their other important season - wedding season. But what are the advantages and the challenges of turning your garden or park into a wedding or civil partnership venue? And how important is horticulture to selling couples their dream day?

English Heritage holds around 125 weddings a year across its venues. "The gardens are a key part of being able to sell the weddings," says English Heritage head of gardens and landscape John Watkins. "One of the reasons that people choose historic properties for their weddings is because they are very special places. If you add a beautiful or inspiring landscape to it, it times that by 100."

English Heritage's wedding business is growing, and this has been accelerating over the past three years. Its most popular venue, Wrest Park, now hosts 50 ceremonies a year. "When we developed our plans we integrated weddings into that and it quickly became our biggest wedding venue," adds Watkins. "In the business plan that helped me as a champion for gardens to make the case that we needed to restore the parterres. When couples come through the house then come out and see a blaze of colour and interest, it really sells it."

Couples can get married in some of the country's grandest houses and most gorgeous gardens, from Osborne, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's seaside mansion on the Isle of Wight, to Bodnant Garden, Conwy, where couples can have wedding pictures taken against its Italianate terraces with a backdrop of stunning mountain scenery.

Or Lancelot Capability Brown's sweeping landscapes at Stowe. Former homes to royalty or prime ministers and evocative ruined abbeys and castles are all on offer. Whoever owns the property, picture perfect landscapes ideal for treasured wedding and civil partnership photos are mentioned again and again on the websites of the National Trust, English Heritage and others.

Botanic gardens have not been left behind. From April to September Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh holds outdoor ceremonies in its "wedding grove" under its towering Californian Redwoods. Other options include the Victorian Caledonian Hall with views over the rock garden and waterfall to the modern John Hope Gateway with special prices for winter wedding packages. It also holds a yearly wedding fair.

Kew offers The Princess of Wales Conservatory, Cambridge Cottage, Nash Conservatory, St Joseph Banks building and The Orangery as well as lush picture opportunities in its famous Palm House. Weddings are also hosted at its Sussex garden, Wakehurst Place.

Woburn Abbey

At Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, weddings are held at the Sculpture Gallery, which is also the venue for this year's Horticulture Week Custodian Awards (28 June). Head of garden and estates Martin Towsey says: "The gardens are the last part of the sales walkabout and are a key part of the whole Woburn experience. We like to think of it as putting the cherry on the top."

The Sculpture Gallery's activities pay for the time it takes to tend this area of the gardens, the equivalent of 75% of one person's full working week. "Weddings are a very important part of the economics of the site," says Watkins. "The success is all in the planning for the whole site."

You do not need an ancient castle or aristocratic mansion to benefit. Stanley Park in Liverpool is one public park that has a roaring trade in weddings and functions at its bandstand and Isla Gladstone Conservatory built in 1870 as part of Edward Kemp's vision to create a healthy outdoor space for locals. It was originally intended to house tropical plants grown in surrounding greenhouses.

The conservatory and bandstand were rescued from rack and ruin following a £14m restoration of Stanley Park by Liverpool City Council, which leases the building to savvy local businesswoman Gemma McGowan, who saw its potential for weddings and other events such as football hospitality. Park manager Rachael O'Byrne is based in the same office as the weddings team, from where she also arranges events such as walks and yoga classes that take place in the park. The bandstand is licensed to hold ceremonies and couples can choose to get married there or inside the conservatory.

Event co-ordinator Rachel McKenna says: "The park setting is very important to us. It's nice for pictures. A lot of customers do come to us after seeing the venue through coming to the park. We have a bistro below the conservatory which is open to the public and also throughout wedding ceremonies, so people can see these lovely events happening."

Stanley Park's is one of several bandstands registered to hold weddings, according to park bandstand expert and Watford Borough Council head of parks Paul Rabbitts. Others include Burslem Park in Stoke on Trent and Weston Park in Sheffield. Getting the recently restored Cassiobury Park bandstand licensed for weddings is on Rabbitts' to-do list.

"We're going to look at it from the point of view of having weddings on the bandstand - having some opportunity for people to go down to the tea pavilion cafe or the Cassiobury hub that we have just built. We spent £2m on it. We're more than happy to put up marquees. We can charge them for it, maybe £500 to hire the bandstand. We haven't worked out the costs yet but it's an income stream." The hub is a long multifunctional space that spills out onto a terrace. Alongside weddings, Rabbitts expects to hire it out for other events, with its "very, very good caterers" a draw.

Watford is also looking at non-religious weddings, either at the site of special scientific interest in Cassiobury or Whippendell Woods, where scenes from Star Wars The Phantom Menace were filmed. Rabbitts is in discussion with the registrar for Hertfordshire regarding whether it is possible for a ranger to be licensed to perform weddings there. "They'll be some enthusiasts who'll want to dress up and get married there. If you're going to hire a National Trust property and get married in the garden they'll charge you a lot of money. I think if you're offering something a bit different and it's better value it could be quite attractive."

Big business

Weddings at Woburn Abbey are big business, with 86 held there last year. Towsey, who had his own wedding at Woburn, says a high standard of horticulture is key. "Our deputy head gardener looks after this area and we marry the commercial requirements with a high standard of horticulture in order to deliver the sense of arrival, the sense of luxury and the delivery of high standards.

"It encourages people to come back as visitors as people gain an emotional attachment to Woburn and their special day. All the teams at the abbey - events, security and the gardens team - deliver a couple's dream day by pulling together as one big team. We do have couples that were married here in the gardens that come back to visit around Valentine's Day to take part in our 'Shed loads of love' weekend, when they can leave messages to their loved one about the special day they had at Woburn. The Camellia House was restored with one of its remits to give a wet weather option for wedding photography."

Weddings have helped pay for some of English Heritage's top-level horticulture, according to Watkins. "People want something that is sumptuous and beautiful. Having weddings allows us financially to have a level of maintenance that otherwise we couldn't do on some of those sites which benefits our other visitors. It's a win-win situation. "

Weddings do not influence horticultural choices, however, because each bride has a different idea of what they want their wedding to be. But planting at Woburn is influenced by its wedding trade. Colours chosen for planting are soft picks such as whites and pale blues, no orange and yellow because this may clash with wedding colours.

Woburn has also just started planting up the recreation of Humphry Repton's Rosarium Britannicum, which will feature many varieties of roses and will link into the Sculpture Gallery's weddings business, Towsey explains. "It also links into our overall garden's strategy of creating 'Horticulture at Woburn in a stimulating, relevant and interesting way'," he adds.

However, the horticulture has to be worked around the wedding schedule. Towsey says time and logistics can be a challenge when delivering the high standard the venue requires. "We work alongside the Sculpture Gallery team and they give us monthly and weekly venue booking sheets. At the gardens' weekly ops meeting the Sculpture Gallery is a full agenda. Doug, the deputy head gardener who tends the area, plans his work around their requirements - and he does a great job."

The weddings and gardens teams work closely together at English Heritage too. Some properties, such as Wrest, have space for marquees where the wedding party can be held. It is crucial for the health of the lawn that set-up and pull-down of marquees happens with military precision and the minimum of delay.

Watkins says it is absolutely key that its wedding specialists understand what is going on around the gardens so they can paint the right picture for potential clients. "They might come in the summer planning a winter wedding expecting that it will look the same as it does in the summer, or vice versa. You want people to have a really great day and for them and their friends to come back."

There is even an opportunity to use these occasions to tell the historical story of the gardens, says Watkins. "These houses and gardens were used for parties and celebrations. The head gardener's main role was delivering that wow factor required by the family. When the family was there it had to be just right. You're very much a showperson, a ring master. People love that great country house look and great flamboyant planting. It was always intended to impress and still does."

Key Facts - Garden weddings

Woburn Abbey & Gardens:

2014 80 weddings

2015 94 weddings

2016 86 weddings

Top three English Heritage wedding venues:

1 Wrest Park - 50 per year

2 Eltham Palace - 40 per year

3 Osborne - 10-12 per year.

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