Just a week before the big day Keeba Critchlow had always dreamed about was due to take place, the country went into lockdown – and she was forced to make the biggest decision of her life.
‘I think we’re going to have to postpone the wedding’ is not what you want to hear your fiancé say just a few days before the celebration you’ve spent almost a year planning is due to take place. Even though I knew it was the right decision, I couldn’t help but cry – the dream day I’d put so much effort into was crumbling and we were powerless to stop it.
That was on 16 March. Our wedding date was the 23rd, a day that we had been counting down to since it was set a few weeks after our engagement in April last year. We’d found the perfect venue: Achnagairn Castle in the Highlands, a few miles from Inverness in my native Scotland. Almost 90 guests were due to join us from all over the world, I had a beautiful dress, my fiancé Ben had hired a kilt to change into for the evening ceilidh, all the suppliers were fully paid and I’d even knitted a shawl for my goddaughter, our flower girl, to wear.
And now none of it was going to happen.
The situation with coronavirus had been deteriorating for a few weeks and I’d been trying not to despair as more and more guests started pulling out, either as a result of travel problems or being in a high-risk category. Even my mum, stepdad, stepbrother and his partner now wouldn’t be able to join us, having been put on lockdown in France where they live. That was the worst moment: I’d dreamed of my wedding day my whole life and the thought that people so important to me wouldn’t be there as I walked down the aisle was devastating. Still, my head and heart were set on the wedding happening as planned. Even when my bridesmaid sent me a message saying, ‘I don’t think your wedding will be able to go ahead,’ it didn’t cross my mind that she might be right. How could she be when I’d spent most of the past year obsessing about every aspect of it? Every night I’d go to sleep picturing different parts of the day: Ben’s reaction to seeing me in my dress, what might be said in the speeches and toasts, dancing surrounded by all the people we love most… Surely it couldn’t all be snatched away so close to the big day?
The final straw was Boris Johnson’s first daily coronavirus briefing on 16 March. We realised it was irresponsible of us to carry on as planned: not only would the remaining guests be at increased risk of coming into contact with the virus through travelling and being gathered together in one place, but it was also an increased risk to the people of the Highlands (at the time of our decision, there were just two confirmed cases in that region of Scotland). Thankfully our venue was wonderful and agreed to let us decide on a new date – next January, for a celebration with family and friends. That was the most worrying call to make as we knew our wedding insurance would not pay out if it was our decision to postpone so the financial loss would have run to thousands of pounds. Then it was a case of informing our other suppliers and sending a message to our guests. Having spent much of the previous fortnight in a tearful daze, once the decision had been made I found myself totally calm – which was lucky because dealing with the logistical fallout demanded all my mental capacity.
In the midst of all this, Ben was also trying to revise and sit his end of medical school exams so, knowing that the legal paperwork was in place and having no idea what the future would hold, we made the decision to fly to Scotland from London as planned and get married anyway.
We had booked a humanist celebrant, Jenny Shepherd (who can legally marry people in Scotland), to conduct the ceremony for us, and asked her if she would be willing to still marry us using a shortened version of the planned script and in another location. To further reduce the risk, we decided to have our new scaled-down wedding (just us, our celebrant, my dad Bill and stepmum Gwyneth as our witnesses) outside. Unlike in England and Wales, you do not need to be under a fixed, licensed structure to get legally married in Scotland. As we’re both from coastal areas, we wanted to get married by water. So the day after we arrived in Scotland we went on a scouting mission for a location.
Our favourite was Loch Morlich in the Cairngorms National Park – surrounded by snow-capped mountains and forest, it’s a large lake complete with a sandy beach. Although we’d intended to still get married on our original date, Monday 23 March, with the situation changing so quickly Jenny suggested bringing it forward to Saturday 21st, leaving us less than a day to get permission from the landowner, notify the register office and collect our marriage schedule from them before they closed at 4.30pm. It wasn’t until we were clutching that all-important piece of paper that it felt as though it really was going to happen.
The day of the wedding was perfect: crisp, clear and sunny. But instead of the wedding morning I’d imagined – my bridesmaids and family gathered in the bridal suite sipping champagne while we had our hair and make-up done – I applied my own make-up while drinking tea in my dad’s living room as Ben took a few of those classic ‘getting ready’ pictures on his mobile (Gwyneth generously let me steal her hair appointment so I could still feel a bit pampered). Then I helped Ben figure out how to put on a kilt (he’s English!) before banishing him from the room so I could get into my dress.
Having put so much thought into all aspects of my appearance as a bride, I decided I wanted to look as different as possible for my new ceremony so I could wear my original outfit for next year’s celebration. I changed into my substitute wedding dress – lent to me last minute by a very sweet friend – then, wanting to still have some element of surprise for Ben, covered up in an enormous coat. Being a traditionalist, I was keen to stick to the old rhyme and wear something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue (I decided that a sixpence in my shoe was probably a step too far, however), so with a pair of old earrings, a new wedding ring ready in its box, a borrowed dress and a pair of blue heels, we were ready to go. Although it wasn’t the wedding I’d pictured for so long, as we prepared to set off, I realised that wasn’t what mattered. The important thing was that Ben and I were about to get married.
Loch Morlich was over an hour’s drive away from my dad’s house in Elgin, Moray, so I offered to be chauffeur and the four of us piled into the car we’d hired. It was quite a squeeze with a folding table, camping chairs, a picnic hamper, bouquets and buttonholes (to save them going to waste, our wedding florist had made up what we needed as all our flowers and greenery had already been delivered to her). Ellie, the daughter of family friends, kindly volunteered to come to take photographs for us so that our missing guests would still feel part of the day.
We couldn’t help but laugh at the unexpected turn of events as we all gathered in the car park. Having sent everyone off to set up on the beach with the table and chairs – Jenny had brought a tablecloth and bright pink bluetooth speaker – I took a moment to gather my thoughts, change into my heels and trade the big coat for a stole before meeting my dad at the edge of the sand and embarking on what felt like the world’s longest aisle walk. With the sound of Pachelbel’s ‘Canon’ drifting towards us, and ignoring my dad’s good-natured complaints about how cold it was, I made my way towards the water’s edge where Ben stood waiting.
The ceremony itself was short but perfectly formed and, after our planned traditional Celtic handfast (the origin of the phrase ‘tying the knot’), it was time to say our vows and exchange rings. Tears of joy joined the wind-induced streaming when Jenny announced that we were now husband and wife. And it wasn’t just our little group feeling emotional either; a family having a picnic further down the beach told us it had made their day to see us get married, especially at such an uncertain time, and a couple of old English sheepdogs appeared equally happy for us as, tails wagging, they came over to say hello. We had planned to toast our marriage with a bottle of champagne on the beach, but the chilly wind changed our minds and we instead decamped to the car where we clinked glasses to shouts of congratulations and a smattering of applause from passing walkers.
Then it was time for the hour and a half drive back to Ellie’s parents’ house who had offered to prepare a wedding breakfast for us. The reception was wonderful: they had decorated their house with bunting and greeted us with a confetti shower before serving a delicious meal washed down with, naturally, more champagne. Although there was none of the pre-meal canapés, speeches or live music we had planned, our little reception had the same warm, relaxed atmosphere that we’d hoped to achieve at the castle. Ellie’s mum Carey had been tasked with making our original wedding cake and we were delighted to see a smaller version waiting for us at their house. We cut it together, with my mum and stepdad watching from France over video chat.
Afterwards, Carey’s husband Mark put on some music and Ben and I had our first dance in their kitchen to Frank Sinatra. I even had a brief dance with my dad, something that would not have happened at the original wedding as he hates being the centre of attention.
We woke up the following morning so happy; so glad that we had gone ahead with the wedding, and grateful to all the wonderful people who had made it such a perfect day at short notice. After all, it was put together in little more than 48 hours – and done in the nick of time, too. Later that day, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that wedding celebrations should no longer take place and the day after that, our original wedding day, the UK was officially put on lockdown and weddings banned.
It may not have been what we’d planned, and although we are looking forward to the celebration with family and friends next year, we know now that it’s the marriage – making that legally binding commitment to the person you love – that really matters. Everything else is just the icing on the (wedding) cake.