The great outdoors

A perfect summer wedding day has the sunshine pouring down, the bride sparkling in her beautiful dress, and the guests enjoying the lush green surroundings… If your heart is set on an outdoor ceremony, there are a few things you need to keep in mind, both legal and practical.

In Australia, for example, you can have any kind of wedding, anywhere you like. You simply complete a Notice of Intended Marriage and agree the details with your celebrant. They can then perform the ceremony of your choice – religious, secular, modern or traditional. The same is true in the United States, where quite often people choose their own homes or back gardens.
In England, private houses are excluded from gaining civil approval because in order to grant a license a premise must be “regularly available to the public for either marriage ceremonies or the formation of civil partnerships”. So unless you are willing to open up your house for other people’s weddings, it’s a non-starter!

The rules

For ceremonies to be conducted outdoors, the Home Office rules say a suitable roofed structure must be licensed by the relevant County Registrar and approved by the Fire Officer. Examples include summer houses, gazebos, follies and dovecotes.
The minimum number of occupants approved by the Fire Officer must be six or more. Present inside for the ceremony are the bride and groom, two registrars and two principal witnesses. If the Fire Officer approves, additional people may be included. The total size of the congregation, mostly seated outside, must not exceed the maximum number for which the venue has an indoor bad weather alternative licensed ceremony space. The location must be published.
Saying your vows in a flower-filled garden, gazing tenderly at each other on a beach at sunset, admiring the view from a rooftop rockery…outdoor weddings have become the last word in romance since ceremonies began to move out of churches.
As with any wedding – whether indoors or out – preparation is key…and then you will not be surprised by the weather, come rain or shine. Although it seldom rains all day, you will need to have a bad weather contingency plan. The final decision need not be made by the couple in consultation with the registrars until, literally, minutes before the “off”.
Beaches around the world are popular outdoor venues for weddings, particularly in the Caribbean. Most hotels offer tailored packages for the bride, groom and their families, which allow you to have a holiday before and after the ceremony.
Marquees are traditional if you’re holding the dining and dancing out of doors. Make sure you know what size of marquee you’ll need for the number of guests and ensure your chosen venue can fit it in – if not, consider renting a local function room. It’s important that your marquee is sturdy and well-anchored, particularly in winter when it’ll need to withstand heavier rain and wind. If you’ve organised a marquee for your celebrations, try to get the best your budget will allow for. A good quality marquee will come with adjustable sides, that you can alter depending on the weather. If your big day just so happens to coincide with a heat wave, you can remove them completely and bring the sunshine in! If it’s cooler than expected, put up the walls and use heaters to keep guests at the right temperature.
Stately homes and castles often have wedding licences that cover both their interior and the gardens. For those lucky enough to have attractive parks near their home, these can be a spacious and picturesque place to hold your ceremony. If you’re sizing up a venue, ask whether their grounds are licensed and if you can be shown popular ‘wedding spots’ within them.

Summer versus winter

Outdoor weddings aren’t just for summer months – they can be just as memorable and fun during the colder months providing you take proper precautions. Give your guests a weather warning – let them know on the save the date and/or invitation that the event’s an outdoor one and to dress accordingly/appropriately. Provide screens around the seating to block wind, and keep everybody from freezing by renting patio heaters and providing lap blankets.
Summer weddings can carry their own pitfalls, too, as guests can suffer from the heat while sitting through the ceremony. Consider guests who may suffer from hayfever or be prone to bug bites and stings. Shading the seating at the sides with an awning or parasols to protect the more fragile-skinned is a good solution, and provide plenty of jugs of iced water to help keep guests cool. Inexpensive, battery-powered portable fans for each guest are a good idea, or save money by printing your wedding programme onto paper fans.
It’s worth remembering that spring weather can be darker and damper than summer, so consider lighting up your wedding marquee with torches or lanterns.

Dressing for the occasion

Try building in layers to you and your bridesmaids’ outfits so you can weather the outdoor and indoor climates easily – add a full-length, fur-trimmed coat over your long gown that can be removed in heated rooms, and wear a light wrap or bolero jacket to cover your shoulders in air-conditioned rooms.
Shoes are a tricky proposition outdoors. If you’re marrying on grass, avoid very high heels that could get stuck in the soil, while those planning a beach ceremony should dispense with shoes altogether and wed in bare feet (make sure your gown’s the right length for you without shoes on, though).
Elaborate hairstyles might have difficulty withstanding windy conditions, so consult your hairdresser. Go as light as you can on the make-up in hot weather – avoid heavy eyeliner and blusher, swap foundation for tinted moisturiser or use fake tan.

Wining & dining

Don’t serve guests food that won’t stand up to the heat well. Avoid creamy dressings, iced desserts or anything that’s likely to melt on you, while alcohol can dehydrate people quickly in hot weather, so ensure there’s plenty of iced water and soft drinks. And equally, it’s probably best not to serve chilled soups and cold salad during the colder months, when a hearty roast will go down well! Serve mulled wine on arrival at your reception – it will add a warm glow and help get the celebrations underway, while hot chocolate and all the trimmings are a luxurious way to finish off your sit-down meal.

Final check

Part of the joy of an outdoor wedding is that the natural beauty of the surroundings removes any need to spend a fortune on decoration, but it won’t be much of a celebration if your chosen area is rubbish-strewn and overgrown. Visit a week before to make sure the grass is mown and litter’s been removed, then send the ushers out to check all is well on the morning of the wedding. Also arm ushers with umbrellas to shield guests should the heavens open!
Public venues may have restrictions concerning rubbish collection, alcohol consumption, lighting lanterns, or music levels and time limits. Check out your plans with your venue to ensure you won’t be breaking any rules and make sure ushers, waiters and event organisers are aware of the limits/restrictions/conditions.

Some do’s and don’ts

• Plan the bridal route to the altar carefully – you don’t want to be knee deep in mud if walking. Consider arriving in a tuk-tuk, or on the back of a pony – this will provide a magical photo opportunity, not to mention a surprise for the guests!
• Add a touch of decoration to the structure to personalise it. Theme colours of flowers, chair covers and bows, bunting etc with your chosen wedding theme colour, or the theme of your wedding – from medieval to Star Wars any theme goes!
• Ensure you have a good amplification and PA system.
• Consider stage style lighting on sunny days.
• Have plenty of brollies on hand, both for rain or shine.
• Use outdoor chairs with suitable feet that won’t bog down in the grass.
• Clear chairs promptly after the ceremony for photos and drinks.
• If it’s touch-and-go, have the ushers on hand to transport ceremony flowers and decorations at the last minute.