Theo and I had been planning a handfasting ceremony even before our 'official' wedding which took place on a beach in Barbados in November 1999. That was a beautiful ceremony which we'll always treasure, but the service was Anglican and meant nothing to either of us, even if we did like the idea of it being carried out by a local woman vicar, Bev the Rev. Various ideas for the handfasting were considered and fell by the wayside. Finally, we decided to hold it in a natural clearing in an ancient wood near Guildford which we were familiar with from an outdoor party the previous summer and we settled on the end of the longest day of the year as a suitable time to do it.
By the time we got to Wednesday, everything was pretty much sorted. Most of what we needed was packed away or on the list of last minute items. This was possibly a bad idea as it left us little to actually do. By the time I returned from picking up our hire car at London Bridge, Theo was bouncing around the flat unable to sit down. This was, we decided, payback for our totally stress-free wedding on the beach. A few big hugs brought us back on track and we finished the preparations.
Bart and Nic arrived together, soon followed by Mikey - a full party. We packed the car - accompanied by questions about what we were doing from one of the local children: going to get married seemed to be a satisfactory answer - and set off in plenty of time.
We were first to arrive at the site at 7.30pm. After a couple of days of intermittent heavy rain and gusty winds, the weather gods seemed to be smiling on us by providing a fine and reasonably calm evening. We made the short walk up to the site to check everything was as it should be and to greet the enormous beech tree whose canopy is responsible for maintaining the clearing. I marked out the circle in the leaf debris and started clearing loose twigs and wood from within it. From this point, any nervousness about whether it was all going to work were gone: I knew we could make it happen.
When we returned to the car park, Caz and Steve were just arriving followed by Steve Alientigger. With the core crew gathered and soon to be joined by Barclay and Wendy, we started ferrying supplies up to the clearing and making the final decisions about the positioning of the facilities. The altar was to go behind a large fallen bough directly underneath the tree, facing south. The refreshments and shelter were to go on the edge of the clearing facing the tree and altar with the PA and van to their right, on the eastern edge of the clearing. Finally the toilet pit and tent were to go just beyond the north-east corner of the clearing, downhill and downwind of the rest of the facilities.
Having settled all that, Steve and I went back down to the car park and set off in his car to see if he could get up to the site using the access track. The recent rain had made one section impassible for a car and I started to have doubts as to whether the sound system's van would be able to make it, even with better ground clearance.
When we got back to the car park, there was an unknown vehicle but it turned out to be a couple who were there for an evening walk in the wood and a few snuggles. We left them to it and they left us to our business too. Meanwhile, things were taking shape up in the clearing. Steve Alientigger was setting up the lights, Caz was starting to set up the refreshments and shelter as supplies were carried from the car, and the decor crew led by Mikey with full harness and safety gear were starting to adorn the clearing and tree with a variety of sparkly objects. Mark, our good friend and local assistant, and his friend Lucy arrived with supplies of water; they pitched in to help with the decor.
Meanwhile, the sound system had arrived. I headed back down to the car park to show them how to get to the access track, meeting Theo, who had been on car park duty, on the way - we agreed that she'd go back to the clearing and continue directing operations with Bart taking over in the car park. With Al at the wheel, we drove to the forest track which looked like it would allow vehicle access to the site. Despite my numerous warnings that it might be a good idea to stop and consider the possibilities, we ploughed straight into the worst section of mud and ruts and inevitably got stuck. I gathered the rest of the J10 crew, pausing for a few minutes to strike some sparks while helping to dig a toilet hole, and we spent half an hour trying to get through the mud to no avail. Reinforcements were dragged in and with about a dozen people pushing and bouncing and Steve at the wheel, we finally got through: it had taken about an hour in total.
From that point on, we were behind schedule and events started to blur. With the sound system on its way to a rapidly darkening clearing desperately in need of the generators they'd brought, I headed back to the car park to round up any new arrivals and found Mark, who'd brought Rob, Becks and Kirsty from the station, and a taxi containing Ruth and Felix, who hadn't been able to fit in the car at the station. Sorry! I left Mark to guide them to the clearing as another car was arriving. It was John who'd intended to arrive before nightfall, but late as ever. We, or rather John, had a bumpy wheelchair ride up to the clearing, which was now lit and looking gorgeous. Everything was in full swing. The PA was set up and being tested, tea was being served and the party was starting to happen. Theo and I spent a few minutes with Barclay and Wendy, our priest and priestess, to make sure we all understood the mechanics of the ceremony - who stood where, who did what when. We had hoped to have enough time to run through the ceremony in its entirety but there were too many other things to do.
My next job, assisted by Theo, was to set up the altar. White linen altar cloths; a three compartment wooden bowl with water and salt, representing the elements water and earth, in two of the compartments and fruits of the season, strawberries and raspberries, in the third; two white church candles; red, white and black candles each in a small star-shaped holder to represent the Triple Goddess - the maiden or Red Goddess symbolising birth and growth, the mother or White Goddess symbolising love, and the Crone or Black Goddess symbolising death and divination; bowls containing incense sticks scented with daisy essence; the handfasting cord, woven by Theo using thread from a treasured sarong; a willow wand for the rings; symbolic gifts to be exchanged at the end of the ceremony - we'd chosen two small hearts, Theo's gift to me made from snowflake obsidian and mine to her made from rose quartz; two of the wine bottles for the celebration to come; and a space along the front for the sword which Barclay was still wearing. And, most important of all, a cue card for the sections of the ceremony which involved Theo or myself saying anything more involved than "It is". At this point, Mike and Tim arrived carrying two huge freestanding bouquets of flowers for the altar table and two even huger bouquets to go in front of the altar. I put these into position, stepped back, and was awed at how beautiful it looked.
Now all that was missing from the altar - apart from the wedding rings which would be placed on the willow wand just before the ceremony started - was the carrot cake that Sean had baked to a secret New Zealand recipe. This was hardly surprising as Sean was missing too, as were a few others, and it was already after 11.30pm. On the way back down to the car park - a journey I seem to have made several dozen times but I still kept getting lost in the dark - I met first Sean and Ting, who had come together on bikes, and then Greg and Caz, Greg braving the woods at the height of the hay fever season. I arrived at the car park just in time to greet John - everybody's Techno Grandad - soon to be followed by Bernie, clutching a bottle of champagne which replaced one of the bottles of wine on the altar. My mental checklist of the people we were expecting now had a tick against every name.
Back at the clearing, I found Theo already changed into her wedding outfit - a pair of black silk wraparound trousers, a simple top in orange and yellow flame tones with a gold trim, a black raw silk jacket, and a red scarf fulfilling the tradition that the bride wears something scarlet and something veil-like. I was directed to Mark's tent where my own outfit was laid out - a black silk wraparound skirt made from sari material, a black Cyberdog top with white tribal motif, and a black silk Chinese high-collared jacket copied from a turn of the century design. We were, of course, going to be married barefoot and a team was clearing the floor in front of the altar of any sharp objects, though they warned us that there were still lots of nut cases in the area. We already knew, we'd drawn up the invitations.
We had a few minutes to chat to our guests and make sure everything was in place, then it was time to get married. We gave our rings to Barclay to be placed on the willow wand and then went off to sit just outside the clearing while the first part of the ceremony, the consecration of the circle, took place. This was our first quiet moment in five hours and we used the time to clear our heads and focus on what we were about to do. A few minutes later, Mikey - performing the rôle of usher - came to take us to the circle. We waited at the back of the crowd of guests, who were all inside the circle, until the ceremony started and we were invited to approach.
The ceremony we'd chosen to use is fairly short and simple. It's based on a common Wiccan interpretation of the handfasting rite with a few sections replaced by parts of other handfasting rites that we preferred. First, the elements are invited to join from the four points of the compass, then the couple are asked if it is their intention to be wed. The priest and priestess hold forth the wand containing the wings while the bride asks the Triple Goddess to bless the union and the groom asks the Horned God to do likewise. The two unlit candles are lit by the bride and groom after they've spoken their piece so that the black, white and red candles representing the Triple Goddess are all burning. The bride and groom place their hands over the rings on the willow wand while the priestess says what I consider to be the core of the rite: "Above you are the stars, Below you are the stones, ...". The bride and groom are asked in turn if they wish to be joined to the other. The groom takes his bride's ring from the wand, passes it to her, and she places it on her fingers, starting at the thumb and ending at the ring finger, while pledging her troth in the name of the Triple Goddess. The bride then takes the groom's ring, passes it to him and he does likewise. The bride and groom then join hands and the priestess binds them with the handfasting cord and asks the gods to look favourably on the union. Finally, the priest declares the bride and groom to be married.
And that was substantially how it happened in practice. Barclay and Wendy handled their rôles as priest and priestess admirably. The only slight hitch came when Theo had to speak her first line and we realised that the cue card was still on the altar. As is our habit, the rest of the world disappears when Theo and I are deeply involved with each other; this time however we took Barclay and Wendy with us. The only time I was aware that we had an audience was when Theo was having a little difficulty getting enough light on the cue card to be able to read it and Sean shone his torch onto it to assist. Lighting the candles, the part of the ceremony which had worried us for purely practical reasons, went perfectly; nobody dropped a ring or fluffed a line; and Theo and I just about remembered how to put out hands together in a way suitable to be bound. We snatched a kiss between the handbinding and the priest's final declaration of marriage - a combination of overeagerness and forgetting that the ceremony wasn't quite complete - and then when we got to the point where a kiss was appropriate, we embraced and hugged each other as if we'd been apart for weeks.
Let the revels begin!
Mikey started off the celebration by playing his first ever DJ set using a selection of tunes, some of them mandated by Theo and I, from my collection. Meanwhile we were being congratulated, photographed and given lovely gifts by our friends. We set Sean and Nic the task of keeping people supplied with wine and cakes and everybody eased into the night's party. There was a slight hitch as Mikey reached a crucial part of the set - one of the generators stopped working. A bout of group tree-hugging, and swift action by the crew, sorted that out and there were no more technical problems for the rest of the night. Ting followed Mikey on the decks, taking the opportunity to explore the fluffier end of her collection, and then it was a switch to CDs as Bart put together a wonderful set of trance anthems. Then it was back to vinyl as Barclay, wearing his Dark Angel hat, took us on a journey of psychedelic trance.
Theo and I took a short nap during Bart's set - I'm not sure either of us really slept but we just needed to relax and be together for a while. We emerged to find that a little light rain was falling so some of the lights were temporarily unplugged and a tarpaulin was stretched over the DJ, unfortunately meaning it was impossible to see Barclay at work. By this point it was starting to get light so Theo and I gathered Mikey up and went for a short walk to a point overlooking the valley we were above and discussed life, the universe, and how much we loved each other. We met Mark on the way back to the clearing and lost Mikey to another wander. Walks through the woods became a popular pursuit after dawn, the most intrepid being Rob and Rob's mission to scale the Victorian UFO (in reality, a water pumping station of some kind surrounded by cast iron railings) and to point at things with sticks.
Since we wanted to be away before any daytime users of the woods arrived, Theo and I started the process of clearing up to a soundtrack provided by the J10 DJs. Others soon joined us in taking down decor, picking up rubbish and returning the clearing to its normal condition. Mikey and Mark did a wonderful job of taking down decor - tree climbing was probably not their first choice of entertainment by six o'clock in the morning. They were however topped by Reuben who got about two-thirds of the way up the tree, and lived to tell the tale. Eventually we had to wake up those who were in tents that needed to be cleared away - their stretches and tooth brushing marked the end of a wonderful night. By seven everything was packed away and most things had been taken back to the cars; by seven thirty, everybody who remained was down in the car park, sorting out lifts and making extended farewells. Reuben's car decided it hadn't liked being out in a damp wood for the night and refused to start. After being pushed almost to the point on the road where we would have had a real problem, it finally fired and we could all leave.