Maybe you’ve had to cancel your wedding this year. Maybe you’re feeling the pressure and stress of having to postpone or rearrange. Maybe you’ve decided to change your wedding plans entirely. Right now, there are a lot of ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’. And I want to assure you that, whatever shape your wedding takes, whatever changes and adjustments have to be made, know that it will be the most glorious of days, because it’s yours – and that is all you need to make it special.
I want to share with you our wedding day. I want this to be a reminder of the magic coming your way, of the special times still to be had. I want to share our wedding day with you so you can perhaps take away some ideas, or alternatively decide what you’d rather not have (which in itself can be helpful when you’re bombarded with options); and if my lessons learnt help even a few of you, then that in itself is marvellous.
And for those of you fancying a French wedding in the future, then with all my heart I recommend Château de Lerse…
It wasn’t the hottest of September days, but I had never felt such warmth in all my life. The sun’s butterscotch rays beat down onto my bare back, bubbles of laughter and champagne fizzed into the late afternoon air; the toasty heat of cherished friendships, the ear-to-ear grins and happy tears, enough to melt bucket after bucket of cocktail-ready ice cubes. I had never felt so loved, or in love.
This was our wedding day.
The day that had crept, cantered then galloped towards us at adrenaline-pumping speed. The day we had scrupulously sculpted for months and months, accompanied by so many “eeep-we’re-really-doing-this!” moments.
And yes, our lives did revolve around mounting piles of hand-me-down wedding magazines, spreadsheets, decision-making and budgeting. There were the should we, shouldn’t we, can we, can’t we questions, our wedding-modes zapping into action mere milliseconds after eyelids bid the day bonjour. Even with a CV of bridesmaid-ing and bestman-ing, for any first-timers in the wedding seats, there’s beaucoup to learn and beaucoup to do.
But before you stop reading, already put off by the prospect of scrambling up Wedmin Mountain, let me tell you this. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Is there any feeling in the world quite like your wedding day, no matter how big or small, however flower-filled or sunny-skied? Absolutely not.
Our ‘I do’ venue was Château de Lerse in France’s Perignac region. We were first acquainted with Lerse (first name terms from the word go) on a nose-drippingly cold February night. The bare boughs of the long, tree-lined drive beckoned us towards the soft glow of the chateau lights. Stepping into the snug kitchen was like being wrapped in the familiar arms of an old friend. We didn’t even contemplate unpacking. Instead we shared stories, relationship advice and recipes for a hearty life with the château’s resident chef, Joss (by the time you’ve read this I’m sure you’ll agree that he deserves an article all to himself), accompanied by the glottal stop glug of wine, a chattering fire and an exceedingly waggy-tailed Bono the dog. Climbing into bed that night in the ‘Grande Champagne’ room of this delectable fifteenth century château, we knew our wedding venue hunt was over.
Built on the route of the Camino de Santiago, for centuries Château de Lerse has welcomed pilgrims on their journey. For my fiancé and I, this was to be the most important journey of our lives, the very place where we would exchange our vows. Now, wedding planning could bel et bien commence.
I mean, how hard can wedding planning be? I can do busy. I can juggle projects and tasks and work to eye-wateringly tight deadlines – so organising a wedding will surely be as simple as spreading butter onto hot toasted crumpets. Oui?…
It turns out organising a wedding en France is quite tricky when you live en Surrey. On top of the issue of geography, we were faced with other niggles, such as pilots going on strike the day all our guests were due to fly out to France (no irony lost in the fact that my husband and many of our guests are pilots themselves); such as Storm Humberto hovering directly over the venue drowning all hopes of the long-promised Indian summer; such as my husband’s penchant for an egg sandwich leaving him hospitalised less than a week before the wedding with a severe case of salmonella. Enough to test anyone’s sense of humour.
Thankfully, throughout it all, we had someone who knew this wedding lark inside out, back-to-front and upside-down. Someone who knew what was needed, by whom, how and when. Our wedding fairy smiled her way into our lives in the form of Lucy, the wonderful woman behind Mise En Scène Events. From our very first Skype chat, to the moment she rang the château bells chiming our newly-wed elation, Lucy’s enviable in-built algorithm of calm, logic, organisation and ideas was invaluable. All that was missing were the magic wand and the wings.
We arrived in France a few days before The Big Day, a chance to unwind and sort out any last-minute bits and pieces. While my husband-to-be stayed oh so chilled, I was inching towards Bridezilla-mode. I blame Humberto. As we made our way there, our windscreen wipers battled against the blinding rain, each drop ricocheting off the road, the shot-put strength of the storm pushing some locals to put their foot right in it: “Mon Dieu, can you believe this weather! We’ve never known anything like it at this time of year! And it’s due to stay for days – you won’t catch me outside again in this!”. Deep breaths Helena, deep breaths… This was not the bienvenue en France I had envisaged.
Château de Lerse was sympathetically non-plussed. The roaring flames in their vast fireplaces licked at my bride-to-be weather wounds, each of the six bedrooms, the living rooms, the spick and span gite, each rustic wooden chair and carefully laid placemat warmly anticipated our guests’ arrival. Indeed, Lerse has an evergreen charm – no seasonal misbehaviour could even contemplate stealing it away.
Overseeing everything was Joss. He deserves a halo. Truly. Every morning, cheese and pâtés, crispy baguettes and freshly squeezed orange juice, homemade muesli and big porcelain bowls struggling to contain mounds of juicy, seasonal fruits were waiting to fuel us for the day. Lunch and dinners at Lerse are a weather and mood-dependant toss-up between dining in the courtyard with the swathes of darling French countryside for company, or on the terrace, unequivocally the best seats in the house to bask beneath a resplendent sunset. On cooler days, or when a spot of shelter is rather agreeable, at the back of the château you’ll find an enormous, perfectly Harry Potter-esque, wooden table, with crunching, crackling firepits crouching alongside. Indoors, there’s a vast, chunky dining room table poised for plate after plate of glass-clinking and ceaseless deliciousness on those chilly winter evenings. Whatever your day at Lerse holds, you can guarantee this – Team Joss, his cuisine and his unwavering good-nature are guaranteed to set any spirit alight.
We all settled in and got cracking at once, making a hundred paper aeroplanes (thank you dear brother!), sticking, gluing and observing as the chateau burst into fairy-lit life before our wonderful guests arrived. This was family teamwork in action. Sweet stalls exploded into sugary existence, name tags were tied, welcome letters and petit gifts were carefully placed in each of the château’s rooms, in the neighbouring gite, in the divinely cute pigeonnier and in the tipis. Ah, oui, les tipis!
These optional additions were for us an unquestionable yes. For a start, they look fabulous. Surrounding Lerse’s lake, with its merrily bobbing pontoon and unwavering hospitality for anyone wanting a dip (inflatable flamingos, excitable Bono and water-loving sister-in-law included!), the tipis were a delightfully quirky juxtaposition to the surrounding hundred hectares of greenery. Before you shun the idea of sleeping bags under the stars, these tipis from Tipi Spirit are something special. Friends unzipped their way into dens of cosy double beds, carpeted floors, Moroccan-style rugs, little desks and tried and tested tap-dance-friendly decking. They’re accompanied by outdoor showers and dry toilets for those wanting to further embrace the great outdoors, with indoor options available for those who aren’t such alfresco aficionados. I remember gazing out of my turret window (a sentence I’ve wanted to write since I was about 4 years old!) onto the garden stretching towards the drive, and taking in the pigeonnier where we would spend our wedding night (because who on earth would turn down the chance to stay in a converted pigeon house?!), the marshmallow clouds mirrored in the lake and the tipis soon to be filled with friends – and I felt that inner satisfaction of knowing that, with Lerse, we had got it spot on.
As had Chef Joss, with his prediction that the sun would shine on our wedding day. My husband winced awake to rice grains of rain pitter-pattering onto his tipi (note: in France it’s good luck for it to rain on your wedding day, so merci Lady Luck, but you can now take the rest of your rain elsewhere!), but by the time I woke, the sun had elbowed her way through the rain clouds and thus this bride’s heart sang. The smell of freshly ground coffee and buttery croissants nudged its way under my door. I yanked it open, skipped across the little corridor in my ‘Mrs Lake’ embroidered dressing gown and dived onto my parents’ bed. This was it. This was our wedding day.
It was the most kaleidoscopically colourful day of our lives. Vibrant hues of happiness, laughter splatter-painted onto the walls, dancing-ready heels scuffing the grass sgraffito-style, all calmly observed by the chateau with its serene sun-kissed complexion.
When it comes to envisaging your wedding day, words are one thing, but it’s quite another translating it into reality. On the morning of our wedding, our florist, Agnès, proved to be the very best translator. Watching her busy fingers in action from the sanctuary of our girls-only getting-ready room (complete with the most delectably cute crémant-stocked turret bar) was a joy. Her vision was spot on. Rustic chic, stylish disorder (I don’t do matching, apart from when it comes to socks), floral displays with impact and character – she did it all. Mid-bronzer (expertly applied by our wonderful make-up artist, Carey), there was a knock at the door followed by the delivery of my take-my-breath-away bouquet. This expertly created explosion of flowers encapsulated so much of my life. They whisked me right back to walks through the village with my Grandma, to our Yorkshire garden in summer, to my cherished moment of utter engagement joy – so many precious memories for me to carry down the aisle in the midst of making fabulous new ones.
Coral was at the epicentre of our wedding palette. After saying an astonished “Yes!” on Table Mountain, we knew we wanted South African king and queen protea to take the starring role on the flora front. My precious bridesmaids and flower girls grinned their way down the aisle, each carrying a stunning statement of a single protea. The theme continued with the men’s boutonnières bursting with aptly named blushing bride protea and sprigs of lavender. Terracotta pots of lavender were interspersed with mini pots of herbs on each of the tables in the canopy-covered courtyard – displays that let the château do the talking, simply embellishing its sentences with some aromatic adjectives.
Indeed, with a venue this delightful, it felt a sin (not to mention unnecessary extra expense) to distract with parades of flowers. The château’s beautifully and stylishly-furnished interior spilled into our outdoor ceremony – its wine barrels, books, candles and vases adorned with protea and eucalyptus leaves framing our ceremony, and our day. Where one florist had said we would need to spend a minimum of a few thousand euros (and that a floral arch was compulsory), Agnès’ vision was focused on complementing our desires, the location and our budget. I didn’t get to say this on the day itself, but Agnès, your talent made our day even more magical.
Now. My dress, my dress, MY DRESS! I adore my dress (nearly) as much as I love my husband. Although, unlike the evening I met my husband, this wasn’t love-at-first-sight. Instead, wrinkling my brow at the Portia dress from Pronovias sparkling away on the hanger, I knew it was something of a wildcard. Stepping into the sparkles, I stood in London’s Mirror Mirror on a chilly Tuesday afternoon and questioned my reflection for a few seconds. Taking a deep breath, I ventured from behind the curtain where two of my best friends were poised, champagne glasses in hand. There was silence. Unnerving, oh-gees-I-should-take-it-off-right-away silence. Followed by… “I love it. Oh my goodness, I really, really love it!”. (Cue whooping!). For me, it wasn’t so much how I looked in it, it was how I felt in it. This dress was a fusion of fun, flirtatiousness, sophistication and a twist of glamour. Laughter was sewn into its seams. It made me grin from ear to ear. And, for the record, laugh is exactly what my mum did upon the Big Dress Reveal. Scrap that clichéd tearful mother-daughter movie moment. My mum looked at me, burst into laughter and giggled “It’s so you! It’s the one!” right at me. And, to be truthful, that meant more to me than any number of tears ever could. We’ve gone through life getting the giggles, and it would seem this would be no different!
An admission. I wasn’t Mirror Mirror’s easiest customer. You see, I always like to do things a little bit differently, and even more so when it came to my dream wedding dress. I wanted to be in my dress every millisecond of our day, but fancied a completely different look for the evening. Bustling the layers of tulle and silk around me in the fitting room, polka-dot ruffles cascading around my bare legs, I instantly imagined a Spanish flamenco-style night-time transformation. Miracle-worker Meb and her team made this happen. Over the summer, she and her team created three unique looks – they made the long silk underskirt of the original dress detachable, created a shorter, show-off-your-silhouette underskirt for the second look, and for the third, sewed elegant loops through which ribbon could easily be threaded, bustling up the dress at the front to reflect my inner Spanish dancefloor diva. Throughout it all, the team were truly magnificent. Every trip to Mirror Mirror was a delight. They were patient, full of advice, had meticulous attention to detail and an abundance of creativity.
My dress made those once-in-a-lifetime moments feel even more magical. My father shed a tear (or three) as my frills bounced their way down the vast stone wooden steps of Lerse’s winding staircase, my heart nearly bursting out of the carefully sewn seams. I will forever have this moment etched in my mind – standing at the doorway, seconds before heading down the aisle, my gorgeous bridesmaids a dancing stream of coral opposite me, my brother’s grinning reflection in the glass of a framed map on the wall, my husband’s sisters – my two flower girls – filling me with love for my new family. Moments like this make all the preparation worth it a million times over.
Linking arms with my father, we stepped through the doors of the château into the sunshine, past the smiling eyes of all our guests, and arrived to the we’ve-got-this wink of my husband-to-be.
I sometimes find it hard to get my head around how much emotion can exist in the particles of a moment; our guests curving around us in prismatic unison, an avalanche of love cascading down our grassy aisle, my husband (grab a tissue and pull yourself together Helena) blazing so brightly in his kingfisher blue suit. I wanted to grab hold of the day’s reigns and slow its galloping hooves so we could savour it all. Alas, as everyone had warned us, the horseshoes were slowing for no-one.
Fortunately, we had our gem of a photographer, Katy, behind the camera, ensuring those moments can be re-lived again and again and again. It’s so important to not only find a photographer whose style you love, who will reflect the character, and characters, of your day, but also someone who will make guests feel at ease, who’ll spot the moments that a less-trained eye could so easily miss; someone who doesn’t dictate the day, but instead captures your story as it unravels.
Golden hour arrived in all its ethereal glory, my husband and I slipping away for our couple shots (and for my long-awaited chance to meadow-twirl, wedding dress flying high, a curly-haired medley of tousled tulle, polka-dots, sequins and grin!). We looked back at the château as the sun cast its affectionate adieu over the lawn where, hours earlier, we’d said our vows, and took an all-important moment to appreciate just how very lucky we are.
While we indulged in our petit moment à deux, our friends were indulging in Chef Joss’ divine cuisine. Joss has an insatiable energy for life, and for cooking. His infatuation with food is written on his heart, as well as on the giant blackboard of Lerse’s (stress-free and swearing-free) kitchen. Indeed, the ‘Recette de Lerse’ includes ‘quelques graines de folie douce’ (‘some grains of sheer madness’), ‘un soupçon d’art’ (‘a hint of art’), ‘et un coeur, surtout un coeur!’ (‘and a heart, above all a heart!’). They’re our kind of ingredients!
There was so much food, and all of it so scrumptious. Let’s start, perhaps, with the sizzle of scallops at our fish atelier. Indeed, Joss suggested having individual ‘workshops’ on the lawn to replace a more traditional sit-down starter – one fish, one meat and two vegetarian stations, each carefully paired with their own accompanying wine. At each atelier, chefs fried and tossed and garnished and drizzled, our guests’ plates piled perilously high with French delicacies – gambas au balsamique, terrine de foie gras, tapenade maison, tarte fine de confit oignon, huîtres Marenne d’Oléron – the definition of gourmandise.
The main course was a relaxed, sit-down affair, served in the courtyard under the fairy-lit canopy. Duck breast with spiced caramel, cod fillet with lemon sauce and vegetable tajine, to-die-for dauphinoise potatoes, all served with delicious wine carefully selected by Joss and his utterly flawless, and utterly delightful, head waiter Dirk. Dessert burst into the evening in the form of a croquembouche – a mountain of chocolate and vanilla profiteroles parading into the courtyard surrounded by our French Riviera band, the fabulous Troubadours.
I first saw The Troubadours perform in London years ago, when meeting the love of my life seemed a million miles away. I swore to myself that, should I ever get married, this spirited, quirky quartet with their dancing double bass, acoustic and electric guitar, miniature drums and their melodious mélange of English, Mexican and Brasilian would be right up there on the guest list. Their energy is contagious. Even Joss and Lucy’s teams, who were busy making sure everything ran smoothly and seamlessly, took a moment or two to embrace their brilliance.
As we flung our way around the courtyard to our first dance (a dance we’d rehearsed for all of zero seconds), I’m not sure we could have been any happier. We were in one of our favourite corners of the world, in a château we had fallen head-over-heels in love with, under a September sky exploding with stars. We were surrounded by so many kind, talented people who had helped us sculpt our wedding day from scratch, and we were surrounded by those we cherish as much as life itself – our remarkable friends and family, all here celebrating love and togetherness, and having a blooming great time.
In the words of my Uncle Colin that night, “Ain’t life grand!”. Yes, Uncle Col. It really is.
We’ve already planned to return to celebrate our anniversary. Lerse, and the people it introduced into our lives, will forever hold a château-shaped place in our hearts.
My Top Ten Lessons Learnt:
- Avoid egg sandwiches in the run-up to your wedding, otherwise you risk being hospitalised with a severe case of salmonella just days before saying ‘I do’.
- Find your own wedding fairy! When it comes to weddings, everyone needs a Lucy in their lives! If you don’t want a wedding planner, consider a wedding co-ordinator to make sure everything goes smoothly on the big day.
- If in need of a bunion operation, make sure you’re fully recovered in time for wedding shoe shopping and dress fittings. Trust me, trying to do it in a giant black bunion boot is no fun at all.
- Prioritise. High up on our priority list was a French chateau and fabulous food. Friends are still telling us it was the best food they’d ever had at a wedding and we are so delighted we followed our instinct and chose Château de Lerse with its resident chef Joss.
- Make sure you carve out time in your day to pause and drink it all in. This is one of, if not the most, precious day of your lives, so slow down for a few minutes and firmly lodge it in your memory for safekeeping.
- Trust your team. They’ve done it all before to spectacular success. Now concentrate on enjoying the exciting wedding build-up instead!
- Know when to stop. Tweaking things in the weeks, days or even hours leading up to the wedding can be tempting, but don’t give in to your niggles. You’ve made your choices, stick with them, and as for the rest, que sera sera.
- Don’t feel any pressure to rehearse your first dance. This was one of my favourite moments of the entire day. Our song came on by accident completely unannounced and we hadn’t even contemplated rehearsing it (ref. bunion operation!). The freedom of flinging your way around the dancefloor, totally and utterly caught up in the moment, with zero clue what you or your partner are going to do next made my soul soar.
- Let someone else be in charge of your phone on your wedding day. You don’t want to be fielding messages and phone calls left, right and centre when you should be concentrating on having a wonderful day!
- In the early days of planning, we were told there is no right or wrong. You can always do more, spend more, see more – the wedding list can take on a life of its own with astonishing speed and strength if allowed. You will never please everybody, no matter how much you desperately want to, so don’t waste your time trying to achieve the impossible. This is YOUR day. Savour every second!
To find out more about Château de Lerse, visit:
To discover more about Chef Joss (we can’t recommend him enough!), visit:
For event planning, visit Lucy at:
For your dream dress, and a dream team (Meb and Ilten were fabulous every step of the way), visit:
To see more of Katy’s fabulous fine art wedding photography (she is so incredibly talented) visit:
If you fancy The Troubadours bursting into your life, find them at:
To discover more about our make-up artist Carey, see:
When it comes to a fabulous florist in France, visit Agnès at:
If you rather fancy tipis at your event, find out more at: