Memories are made of this

After 20 years of love and laughter, a blessing, a civil partnership and two kids, Noel and Steve got married surrounded by their friends and family. Steve tells their story. Photography by Jenny Smith

We met 20 years ago during ‘freshers’ week’ at Hertfordshire University, and within a month were going out with each other. There was an instant attraction and neither knew if the other was gay! However, I lived on a floor of girls, all of whom were trainee teachers and were on the same course as Noel. I instantly made it clear to all of them I was gay and fancied him, even naming a friend’s huge cuddly toy duck after him. It wasn’t long before the girls and I infiltrated the flat where Noel was living and we got together soon afterwards.

Our last wedding was actually our third!

This is because way back in 1998, three years after we first got together, we had a blessing at the university. Gay marriage in any form was not legal then, but our friend’s stepdad was a vicar who was more than happy to officiate and we held it in the student union bar surrounded by our friends. We then had our civil partnership in January 2007, and then this one marking the conversion from civil partnership to marriage – 17 years to the day of our first blessing and 20 years since we first met!

I first proposed to Noel at the start of our second year of university, just after our first summer apart. There was no ring then and it was in our bedroom of a shared student house. This time around it was at a dinner after several years bringing up our adopted children. We had finally managed an intimate dinner in a nice pub and this time Noel asked me – we had been thinking about having a joint 40th birthday party, but he took it to another level and joined the two celebrations together.

Our venue was driven by the date, as we wanted our wedding to be on the same day as our blessing had been.

We phoned several places we liked with ‘Are you available for 27 June?’ as our first question. Thankfully Brampton Grange was available, which suited our needs perfectly as we had decided to combine both the wedding and our 40th birthday parties.

The venue needed to look suitable for a wedding, but spacious enough for a large party after the ceremony. Because it was a combined event, we shifted the traditional timings of the day – with the ceremony starting at 5pm and no distinction between day and evening guests. The main point was to bring together all the different groups of friends and family from across our 20 years together. We also wanted it to be less formal and more about celebrating and having a good time.

The colour theme was grey and orange, with a slight accent of dark blue. Most of the venue was dressed with fairy lights and lanterns, in themed colours, hanging from the high ceilings.

We both wore matching grey three-piece suits with bright orange ties and white shirts. Our son wore the same while our daughter wore a dark blue dress with orange flowers in her hair and an orange bouquet.

A playlist of several songs that have meaning for us was played as people arrived for our ceremony. We walked down the aisle to How Long Will I Love You by Ellie Goulding. Neither of us have our dads, so we walked down the aisle with our mums and sisters. Our children started the procession walking arm in arm, followed by me and then by Noel. We both gave our mums and sisters a kiss on the cheek as they left us at the ‘alter’.

The ceremony started at 5pm and was an adapted form of a civil renewal of vows. There were two readings, one from each of our children. Our daughter read May the road rise up to meet you, which was part of our civil ceremony, and our son a poem by DH Lawrence, which was read out at our original blessing. Noel’s younger sister sang How Long Will I Love You, while our sister in law played the song on the piano.

We made a speech as the final part of the ceremony – it was about our journey to that point and thanked the various friends and family who had supported us along the way. We were surprised at the end with two additional speeches written by our children, both of whom proved to be very sentimental when talking about their dads and our family – they charmed the entire crowd. We finished with a slide show of old pictures of all of our friends and family from when we met them.

Because we wanted some clear differences between each section of the evening, we had the venue lit so that the overall mood and tone of the spaces could be changed. The ceremony was lit with a warm glow, which changed to moving spotlights during the band and ceilidh dance. The lighting changed again to a deep blue ‘nightclub’ for the disco at the end. We also kept the seating area lit with a soft glow, which created two completely different atmospheres.

There was a buffet for guests after the ceremony while pictures were being taken, and then the ceilidh band started the evening at 7pm. To start the ceilidh dance, Noel, Debs (our daughter) and his younger sister Trish performed an Irish reel to Lord of the Dance.

This was a great way to involve all the guests, young and old, as the caller was down and in among the crowd getting people into groups and overcoming any shyness. Then at 9pm, the DJ took over – the lights changed, the tempo increased and our guests began to move to our favourite dance music.

They had a great time. We had used social media to keep guests informed of what the plans were and our growing excitement as we approached the day. What was nice was they were all the same sort of people: up for a laugh. There was no holding back on the dance floor – which is something a lot of them commented on.

A lot of people enjoyed seeing old friends from university or different places we had worked, a lot of fun was had with the photobooth we set up – but nearly everyone we have spoken to since was amazed by our children’s speeches.

It can be so stressful trying to organise such an event – even if you have people helping you. You get to the point where you just want the day to arrive! But in the end, it was amazing.

It was great seeing all of our friends and family in one place. The venue worked really well and everyone enjoyed themselves, which is what we had worried about the most. However, despite the two previous ones, it was a lovely wedding where we got to devote ourselves to each other again 20 years on since we first met.

Our advice to other couples is to realise that you will spend most of your night apart trying to talk to everyone there!

Plan out the whole event so that there isn’t a lot of dead time between the ceremony and the evening – going straight through from 5pm meant that everyone got involved straight-away and kept a real party mood going throughout the night.

Chill out – it will inevitably be alright on the night!