The simplicity of a registry office wedding is unparalleled. There is something romantic about its straightforward efficacy and its intimacy. For my fiancé and I, our civil wedding in December initially felt like a legal requirement before our larger religious wedding in France next summer, but we very quickly learnt just how chic and special this 'requirement' would feel. Along the way, we also discovered how costly, confusing and stressful planning one can be, too.
So, here is your ultimate checklist for planning a civil wedding – whether its your 'part one' to a larger affair, or a delicious main act.
Establish your timeline
You're engaged! Congratulations! By now you might have discovered that planning a wedding is the hangover you get after the giddy drunk joy of the proposal. Putting together a civil wedding may seem like a much simpler affair than a grand venue or religious ceremony, and in many ways it is (it is also, according to research from Bridebook’s 2022 UK Wedding Report, less than half as costly), though it comes with its own special list of requirements.
For a start, you need to figure out when you would like to get hitched and work backwards from there, ensuring that you have at least 6 weeks of space between now and then. This may sound obvious, but for anyone eager for a short engagement, know that you need to give notice 28 days before your wedding date, and getting to give notice is itself not always straightforward.
Find the right venue for you
The first thing to know, is that you are not bound by your direct locale when it comes to registry offices. Your local registry office is where you will give notice (more on this later) but you can get married in whichever town, council or borough you like. The important thing to do here is shop around. Prices of registry offices vary dramatically, and often fluctuate according to size of room, day and even time of day.
There are also 'approved venues' – not just town halls and registry offices – and these are frequently listed on the same site as the council or borough you are looking at. Many of these include stunning historic buildings or more eccentric spaces, and these locales are now greatly expanding thanks to shifting legislation that allows couples to legally marry outdoors (as long as the space is within a certain distance of an approved venue). My top tip here would be to check what is included in the price. While town halls and registry offices offer a fixed fee that covers everything on the day, many other spaces will charge venue hire and registrar fee separately, and these can escalate wildly.
Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork
Once you know where you want to get married, giving notice is your next step. You need to do this at the registry office local to where you live (if you live separately, you will need to give notice separately, but time it so that you are both giving notice at around the same time, and at least 28 days before the wedding date). You need to have lived at this location for at least seven days before giving notice.
You will book an appointment at your local registry office and pay the fee – £35 per person – and, when you give notice, you’ll need to include details of the location where (though not necessarily when) you intend to wed. Then there is the paperwork. You must bring with you proof of your name, date of birth and nationality (either passports or national identity cards – and they must be up to date – or your birth certificate). You’ll also need proof of your home address (a valid driving licence, bank statement, utilities or council tax bill, or tenancy agreement works well) and, if divorced or widowed, the ‘decree absolute’ or ‘final order’, or the death certificate of your former spouse.
At your appointment, you will also be briefly interviewed (not as scary as it sounds!) and then your marriage must take place no more than 12 months later, but no sooner than 16 working days, from that date on which you gave notice.
Know your wedding aesthetic
Once all the stuffy paperwork and form filling is completed, you can get to the fun stuff. Know early on what your wedding style will be and what the determining factors are. For us, everything stemmed from two things: the location and the season. The former meant we wanted everything to be within a certain radius – handy unless you are providing transport for guests, which can form part of the day's fun – while the latter meant we wanted to keep the feeling wintery and festive.
We chose Camden Town Hall as our ceremony venue. It has the perfect blend of everything we were looking for: a North London location (as I was raised there), an affordable price and gorgeous interiors. A large marble staircase in a recently renovated listed building? Yes please. We were also hugely impressed with the team, whose friendliness in the planning stages was an accurate indication of how incredible they were on the day itself.
We opted for Booking Office 1869 as our drinks reception venue, right across the road from Camden Town Hall. Its gothic architecture and warm stylings – especially decked out for Christmas – made it the perfect blend of elegant and seasonal. We preordered champagne, delicious cocktails and mocktails, which were waiting for us on arrival in a semi-private area. This made the whole event run beautifully smoothly, as the first thing I wanted when I left the town hall was a glass of champagne – and one was swiftly thrust in my grateful hand as soon as I arrived.
A festive feel was what determined our lunch venue too: a private room at our favourite pub, The Holly Bush, which was decked out for the season with Christmas trimmings and candles. The historic pub is nestled in the heart of Hampstead, and is replete with log fires, eccentric decorations and an old-world, snugly feel. It also balanced out the grandeur of our drinks reception, making the day feel more relaxed and low key.
Make it personal
As with any wedding, it is important to make the day your own as much as possible. Within your ceremony, you can choose from a range of legally approved scripts, but you can also write your own vows and include your own readings and music, as long as they are secular.
Putting your own stamp on the day also stems out into other details. It could be decorating the room you marry in – which most venues allow you to do, within reason – or adding unique flavours to the day. For ours, I hand made our invitations, as we had a small group of fewer than 30 guests, and we also picked the date of my parents wedding anniversary to get married on, to make it feel even more poignant. We also, despite the relaxed vibe we wanted to create on the day, made a seating plan for the lunch, so that everyone could mix and get to know each other better. Your wedding is, after all, a merging of your family and friends, not just you.
If your civil ceremony is a 'part one' to a bigger day, try and make it as distinct as possible. For me, this meant wearing a chic trouser suit – very different from the full-length gown and veil I will wear next June – and adding little details to mark the day out. One of these was having my maid of honour give me away, so that my moment with my father at our church ceremony will feel extra special. Try and make as many small changes like this as possible, so that your legal wedding is not just a dress rehearsal for a bigger event, but has its own identity.
Have a wedding night
Many couples plan their civil ceremony in the town, village or city they live in. But however low-key you wish your nuptials to be, don't just head back home afterwards. We certainly felt it would be a downer to head back to our flat after such a magical day, and so booked a night at a chic boutique hotel. For us, that was Henry's Townhouse in Marylebone, which fit the bill as it's styled as a luxury London guest house (it is in fact the historical home of Henry Austen, brother of Jane). We stayed in a room with a four-poster bed and roll-top bath – the ideal combination for a wedding night.
Pick a spot which suits the style of your day – be that a grand five-star behemoth or a charming pub with rooms – and ensure that it's not too far away from the last stop of your day. Then, you can kick back, relax and raise a glass to your married life together in style.
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