This weekend we did the flowers for a beautiful wedding in the Cotswolds. As I’m learning, the upshot of weddings is a mountain of overdue washing, purple bruises and an almighty comedown. After a week of relentless early mornings, late nights, junk food (there’s no chance of not burning it off, after all) and daily drowning in beautiful flowers, a day off comes as an abrupt shock to the system. The house is an aftermath of shed foxgloves - a forlorn sight, somehow - hastily arranged, gracefully fading leftovers and plants that have travelled around the county countless times this past week and are in need of a long drink. The van’s in a worse state, I can hardly bear to look at it - petal detritus, flower frogs, Berocca capsules, half drunk bottles of Badoit water in the footwell. It still smells of bluebells. We want to wind back a week and start over. But our next wedding isn't for another couple of weeks yet, and I've got to pack up the cottage and move before then. Yesterday I was text some images of the bride, laughing radiantly, holding her bouquet against a delicate lace bodice. It must be strange, after such a build-up, for it to all be over. But I gather she is heading for Sri Lanka now, so I shan't feel too sorry for her.
I've made no secret here of the fact that we’re not really big white wedding kinda girls. Mine was a minimal fuss Chelsea registry office affair; I made my bouquet from tube station flowers over the bath at the hotel and a family dinner was followed by dancing at a funny underground bar in Fitzrovia to Stevie Wonder. Superstition (DJ’s choice) inadvertently became our 'first dance' song, if you can call it that - we were undoubtedly three sheets to the wind by then. But I love being a part of other people's big do's, behind the scenes. The really trad ones - the veil, the big old car, the full shebang. I'm edging toward becoming a convert, via the flowers. There is a certain magic to the pageantry of it all, the wedding circus. English churches are an alchemy of haunted light and old wood and cool stone. And then there’s the build-up - the nerves, the late-night texts, the anticipation. It's frenetic, and I like frenetic.
Jess, as you know, is Queen of The Itinerary. Everyone knows where they need to be, and when, and with what. There’s a checklist. Sibling mockery aside, it sure takes the stress out of the whole thing. Weddings are a herculean operation. There are a lot of tasks and timings and temperatures, a lot of stuff required, an awful lot that could go wrong. There's nothing worse than realising you're on a job without chicken wire or tack. We had a fleet of four vehicles including a large hire van and we drove like politicians, in stately convoy, rumbling down the winding country lanes of the Cotswolds, but piled high with branches rather than briefcases, and with louder music. Itineraries and checklists duly acknowledged, all went off without a hitch. (If you discount Google maps trying to send the van half a mile down a bramble-swollen public footpath, which was a pretty interesting detour.)
The bride - a glamorous, impossibly long limbed and beautiful blonde - asked us, last year, for blossom. YES, we said. Oh, the terrific heartache of blossom – we now know you well. I remember talking to our suppliers last April. They were awash with bales of every fruiting branch imaginable. This year? Not so.
It’s been a capricious spring, warm and then freezing cold - blackthorn winter, they call it - which made sourcing the blossom a bit of a logistical minefield. Will there be blossom? What kind? Most importantly when? The million dollar question. Some said to buy it in two weeks in advance, others at the very last minute, others that it wasn't the year - couldn't we use something else? We remained resolute - we'd promised our bride blossom, and we were sure as hell going to give it to her. So we bought 180 apple blossom branches to mix in with a hundred or so cherry. But, blighted, perhaps, by a late frost or too-cold refrigeration during transport, they failed to bloom and then shed their little leaves all over the floor in a gesture of complete and utter defeat. Cue rather desperate phone calls and emails. In the end we mixed it up, with a late delivery of some exquisite 2.5 metre prunus serrulata - Japanese cherry - some (healthy) local apple blossom with sugary pink flowers intermingled with white petal balls, white pear, and shorter-stemmed white cherry that we forced indoors until the sticky buds obligingly exploded into beautiful fat clusters of blossom. The Land Gardeners, on an estate not far from us in Northamptonshire, came up trumps with last minute extras. To say our little studio was crowded would be an understatement - we overflowed, brimful. We had more than we could ever need. And at that moment, of course, all the apple, plum, pear and cherry trees across Oxfordshire burst into life. Oh, the irony; post wedding, I can even write this with half a smile. But colossal blossom situation overcome, the next complication was not far behind. Branches in their hundreds obtained we noticed that they rapidly stained the water a suspicious looking brown. Not the most pleasing look through the glass of the vases the couple had chosen. Not a pleasing look at all on white linen, and at head-height with guests about to eat. Somehow, from somewhere, I remembered reading a trick in one of my old Constance Spry books, that a little lozenge of charcoal will keep water clear for glass vessels. For the record, it works a treat. Clear as crystal. (Constance, what would we do without you?)
In came the flowers, bucket-load by bucket-load. Sourced from all over - a mix of British, Dutch, Italian, homegrown and foraged. Jess drove down to Hampshire to cut our finest tulips, which were all in perfect shape to coincide with her arrival - Snow Parrots, Black Parrot, Bruine Wimpel, Recreado, China Town and the irresistible double-flowered La Belle Époque. Using these few of our very own flowers is the beginning of a growing journey for us, and already an addictive pastime - there’s nothing more satisfying than arranging flowers knowing exactly where each delectable stem you handle has hailed from, how they have overcome the elements and the slugs and mice and prospered regardless. That’s very romantic to me. Being part of it from the beginning. The story of each life.
We made nine bouquets on Friday morning, with bluesy, smouldering Alison Moyet tracks on repeat and the jitters that only Colombian coffee can induce. The bride, who might be the most laidback we will ever have the pleasure to work for, had a lavishly girly selection of pale blossom, light pink ranunculus and roses, lilac, peonies, columbine, sweetpeas, jasmine and honeysuckle. And intricate wisps of Maidenhair fern, because her name, you guessed it, is Fern, and it seemed a pity not to. Tied with a powder blue silk-satin ribbon, because if you're going for the Sofia Coppola Marie Antoinette vibe why not do it with aplomb. Later, sitting at the kitchen table, we made up all the buttonholes, corsages and circlets of intricate jasmine for the flower girls. Afternoon became evening; evening became night.
We started at first light. The reception dinner and dancing was held in a Papa Kata tipi-style tent in a wild flower meadow at the top of a hill overlooking a postcard view of the Cotswolds. It was bright sunshine, cloudless that morning. Other than the security guard, no-one was around. We dressed the tables with candles and votives and layered the blossom into tall vases, wrapping the bases with trails of woodland ivy. They looked spectacular, reaching up to the pale tented ceiling rippling in the wind, as though the tables were beneath small trees of pink and white flowers. I'm kicking myself now that we didn't get better photos - praying the photographer did.
Time ticking hastily away by then, we drove on through Oxfordshire to the 13th Century Church of St Mary where we made up pew ends that extended Lady Bank’s rose and honeysuckle trails along to the entrance doorway, woven with solomon’s seal, white bellflowers, jasmine, columbine, white and cream ranunculus and narcissi. Jesse and I sat cross-legged on the aisle floor among branches and buckets and snippets of chicken wire (thankfully remembered). We were calm, on time. We drank from flasks of coffee (checklist, tick). There were no expletives, not even whispered (this being a place of worship). Slanting light snuck in through a side window. The organist came in quietly at the back and warmed up. We sang along - Jerusalem, Lord of the Dance, Lord of All Hopefulness - our lone voices echoing through the empty pews. We built large urn arrangements on plinths with great copper beech branches, apple and cherry blossom, ethereal foxgloves in the palest mauve - the colour of a summer dawn, ammi and jasmine, which we transported and reconstructed back at the tent for the evening dinner. But not before lunch outside the local pub, while the bride and groom said their I Do’s and I Will’s. Fish and chips, naturally. The sky threatened rain. It was a very British affair.
To Tom and Fern: we wish you every possible happiness, and a bloody brilliant honeymoon.