Apart from the date and the dress, the other big thing I didn't want to broadcast online until after the wedding was the venue.
In England, you can get married in a church, in a register office, or (since the 1990s) in "approved premises". Since neither I nor Steve have any religious beliefs, it would be disrespectful of us to get married in a church, not to mention meaningless. And there's no parking - not even blue badge parking - at the register office's "Ceremony Rooms", so approved premises it was. This has the other big advantage that you can have the ceremony and reception in the same place.
We had already decided that I would use my chair for as much of the day as possible, and of course there's always the chance that guests may have their own access requirements, so accessibility was important to us. I regret to say that most of the venues in our area either admitted outright that they could not provide proper wheelchair access, or simply didn't bother to respond to my queries. This took us from the choice of fifty-odd venues that a non-disabled bride would have, to a choice of about half a dozen.
Stoneleigh Park, also known as the National Agriculture Centre, is an absolutely unique venue. They've got all sorts of on-site facilities (4x4 offroading? Segways? Helicopter landing pads?) and different styles and sizes of room. Access, while far from perfect, is much better than at many of the other Approved Premises, but what really swung the decision was the attitude of the staff.
You see, there are plenty of wedding venues that hold perfectly "nice" weddings as long as you are having the wedding they want you to have. If you want a lovely ceremony and then reception drinks and then a mediocre yet formal sit-down three-course meal followed by speeches and a cheesy disco, they'll make it happen, but heaven forbid you suggest anything outside that template. They look at you like you've grown a second head or something.
Not Stoneleigh. I'm sure they could do that sort of wedding, and they'd probably make a perfectly good job of it, but it would be a wasted opportunity. They're used to holding Major Events. They're not primarily a hotel, or a golf club, or a village hall. They're a dedicated events venue accustomed to dealing with hundreds, thousands of guests at a time. This means that they aren't scared of doing something different. They pride themselves on flexibility. The only limits were (1) the laws of time and space, (2) the law of the land, (3) imagination and of course (4) money. Not as much money as you might think, though. I mean, they're not a budget option, but their quote was competitive with the hotels and golf clubs who were really offering much less for the money.
The Stoneleigh Park staff were absolutely awesome. My first point of contact was a woman called Rachel and she co-ordinated all the planning for rooms, facilities, liaising with our on-the-day suppliers, making sure we had all the right contracts and invoices, that sort of thing. Whenever I had a problem or a query I could go straight to her, and especially in the last few days when last-minute things popped up, she was wonderfully calm and capable at dealing with them.
The other main staff member we dealt with was a man called Mark who was in charge of our catering, and was our "on the day" co-ordinator. He worked closely with Rachel to be sure he knew what our plan was, and then on the day he oversaw events and, with his team, made sure the day went absolutely smoothly. Armed with a phone, a walkie-talkie, and a little golf-buggy type vehicle for zipping about the site from location to location, he anticipated everything. I haven't seen him in a single photo, yet somehow he was always there if we had a query and the answer to any query was usually "already being taken care of," which gave the day an almost dream-like quality.
There was not a single moment, from the initial enquiry to the post-wedding feedback enquiry, where Steve or I felt our wedding was receiving any less attention than the larger events hosted at Stoneleigh Park.
The level of privacy we had was wonderful, too. There was another event on-site that weekend (a scout camp) but the buildings, gardens, and other facilities we were using were for our private use and completely separate from anything else that was going on. We didn't have to fight town-centre car parking or put up with intrusion from pub regulars. We didn't have to schedule our food around other patrons of the restaurant or try and ignore the decorations from a playgroup. There was a handy on-site hotel, but our celebrations were in a completely different building. It was like having a tiny world set up entirely for the convenience of us and our wedding guests.
So we got our bouncy castle. We had a garden. We had comfy sofas. We had pictures by a lake. We had a cream tea. We had platters on tables rather than a buffet. We didn't need a seating plan. We were able to choose what drinks were served at the bar. Our estimated finish time of "erm, we'll have to see how it goes," was acceptable. They were completely unflappable and didn't say No to a single suggestion, although they often made suggestions that enhanced our ideas with the benefit of their experience, which was very welcome.
I really would recommend Stoneleigh Park as a venue to anyone planning a wedding.