Wedding Showcase at Eastnor Castle

Last Sunday I was at Eastnor Castle with one of our string quartets and our flute and string quartet, for their January wedding Showcase. I wasn't playing in the quartets this time, but was talking to brides, grooms and their families about what Midsummer Music can offer in terms of live music.

I've often seen string quartets playing at wedding fairs with interested people trying to talk to the musicians as they play. This is a complete disaster. It's virtually impossible for a musician to talk sensibly to someone whilst playing the music, particularly for the violinists and viola player who have got an instrument stuck under their chin. So to make it a useful day, both for the bride and groom and for the musicians, you really need someone who is knowledgeable about the musical options, and who can dedicate their entire attention to the customer. That was my job on Sunday. (It was a bit difficult keeping my eyes open as I had been playing at an Oxford college for a Burns night celebration the night before, and it didn't end until after midnight.)

So it struck me that I should do one of my ramblings, not only about the wedding Showcase at Eastnor Castle, but about Midsummer music's long association with them which stretches back some fifteen or twenty years, back to a time when weddings could only take place in churches or registry offices and venues like this could not conduct legally binding ceremonies. Back to a time when wonderful ceremonies were performed by humanist minister, a Canadian if I recall correctly. They were not legally binding and the bride and groom had to get married in a church or registry office before the event at the castle, but nevertheless they were wonderfully moving ceremonies. Back to a time when buckets would be put out in the great Hall when it rained hard, as the roof leaked. But how things have changed over the years. Eastnor Castle has been turned into one of the country's most prestigious wedding venues and is one of my favourite places to play at, not just because the acoustics are fantastic and the castle itself has been brought up to an amazing standard of grand you, but also because the staff are so nice and very efficient. You know what is happening. There is not the vagueness and disorganisation that can unfortunately happen at some wedding venues.

So I think I'd like to talk a bit about their wedding Showcase, weddings at the castle as I've experienced them over the years, and this amazing mediaeval fortress impression that was built by the second Baron Summers, later to become first Earl Summers, between eighteen ten and eighteen twenty-four. (There was an earlier timbered manor house in another location, dating from when the Cox family, and sisters of the present owner, moved to Eastnor late in the 16th century. This got demolished at some stage, presumably after the castle was built? I shouldn't think that the owners at that time with the kind of people to live in a caravan at the bottom of the garden while their new house was being constructed!)

The castle isn't just used for weddings, but for conferences, private dinners, concerts, has been used as a film set for Little Lord Fauntleroy, used by Madonna for one of her films, and especially used by Land Rover for their corporate events, but in amongst all this it is also a continuing family home for James Hervey Bathurst. James was brought up at the castle and has now brought it back to its full grand you with a lot of hard work and dedication by him and the team that is built around himself. It's really delightful that he is still involved with the events that go on in the castle, and appeared towards the end of the wedding fair to talk to the various suppliers that were exhibiting and who have been associated with the castle for many years. This is something that I just haven't experienced at other wedding venues, except for the smaller venues and wedding bands that are also part of the family's life.

So let me have a bit of a ramble about the wedding Showcase itself. When we are doing a wedding with a string quartet, we tend to move from room to room as the day unfolds, and I will describe this later. For now I will continue talking about the Showcase. In past years the string quartet has played in the great Hall, which is what people entering the castle come to first. For the last couple of showcases the great Hall has been arranged somewhat differently for greeting guests, and the string quartet is played in the octagon room, which is the room that guests move to for drinks immediately after the wedding ceremony.

There were other exhibits in the great Hall, I think photographers mostly, but certainly exhibitors that didn't take up very much room so that the hall could be used guests to gather. There was some more stands at the foot of the stairway (this is this grand staircase that the bride and bridesmaids descends during the wedding), and other displays in the Gothic room, the room that is used for the ceremony itself. We were sharing the octagon room with the latest makes simply amazing wedding cakes, (she is the favourite amongst all exhibitors, because at the end of the day she goes round handing out cake to everyone and by the end of the day everyone is ravenous. They are superb cakes!). Ah yes, I was talking about who else was in the octagon room when I got distracted by the thoughts of the cake, and why not, what life about?

We were also sharing the room with the company that puts on the firework displays. Eastnor Castle is a brilliant venue for five displays because there is the rounder at the back which overlooks a lake on the lawns. The firework artists really love putting things on there as they can let their artistic imagination run wild. It was quite interesting talking to the salesperson about the security aspects of karting huge amounts of high explosive around the country and setting it off in weather conditions that might be beautiful but, in this country, can also be dire. There are huge amounts of safety regulations, knowledge and training that go into running a business like that. I did ask her if they did demolition work on the side. I'm not sure that she was very amused. Probably she's heard it too often!

The string quartet was set up in the location it would normally occupy for the first part of the drinks reception, opposite the double doors that the bride and groom make their exit from the Gothic room, where the civil ceremony takes place, (I suppose I should refer to it as the recessional one is being formal).

I had a table set up to one side with a TV screen showing all the other kinds of music that we have provided for weddings, anniversaries, parties and dinners at Eastnor Castle. It would be impractical to have several music groups of different kinds playing around the castle at the same time, not only because of the costs of arranging musicians to play during the wedding fair, but because the acoustics of the castle are so good that the music group can be heard throughout the building. The best location from which music is transmitted around the castle, is when the string quartet playing in the great Hall. The hall is immensely high and a high balcony at one end connects to the bedrooms and other rooms on the upper floor, so that music cannot only be heard at the foot of the stairs and in the octagon room, but also in the upper floors. The dining room where the wedding breakfast takes place is a bit cut off from the rest of the building, so music can't be heard there and any musicians have to be in the room itself or in the area adjoining the room (where there is a magnificent stuffed horse with a night in full armour mounted on it). Music can also be heard faintly in the Gothic room, the civil ceremony room.

So as I said, it isn't possible to have more than one live music group playing in the castle at any one moment, although it is quite common to have several musicians playing in succession, perhaps a string quartet for the wedding reception and drink ceremony, a classical guitarist perhaps during the meal, and then in the evening a jazz band or jazz pianist (there's an excellent grand piano in the great Hall) or barn dance band or ceilidh band, or perhaps a pop band. (We don't get involved with discos, but I know that they often have discos in the evening.)