This week's 50 Best was compiled with the invaluable help of Sandra Boler, Editor of Brides and Setting Up Home; and Liz Sexton, director of Alternative Occasions, the only wedding co-ordinator to offer a free venue-finding service; contact her on 01932 872115 for details of all the venues listed here.
Social butterflies with bountiful friends will find Fennes the perfect place for a civil-wedding ceremony. A Georgian country house set in 100 acres of parkland, just 60 minutes from London, it boasts both grand and intimate ceremony options: the drawing room, with views over the water garden, suits ceremonies for around 30 people; while the silk-lined pavilion can seat up to 200. "It's very rural," says Liz Sexton, "ideal for large or small, traditional or non-traditional, formal or informal."
Where: Bocking, Braintree, Essex (01376 324555). How much: prices vary dramatically according to needs, but in June, reckon on around pounds 3,500 for weekdays, pounds 6,500 for weekends for exclusive hire, including all food & drink.
ONE WHITEHALL PLACE
Indulge princess pretentions at One Whitehall Place, whose sweeping marble staircase - the largest unsupported example in Europe - is perfect for grand entrances and bouquet tossing. The first stone was laid here in 1884 by William Gladstone, whose eponymous library makes a glorious arena for a reception. Liz Sexton commends the venue for "impeccable service and excellent food. It really does make you feel special." A further, reassuring plus: One Whitehall Place is the proud winner of several "loo of the year" awards.
Where: Westminster, SW1 (0171-839 3344).
How much: room hire from pounds 1,500; menus from pounds 48.
An excellent style pedigree - fashion editor of American Vogue, design director of Ralph Lauren - stood 49-year-old Vera Wang in good stead when she launched her own line in 1990. Her wedding gowns have found fans among contemporary fashion icons, who cherish her unique style: dynamic, clean shapes, often full skirts with low-waisted bodices, in sumptuous silks and satins. "She designed Uma Thurman's wedding dress, and is the choice of Posh Spice's wedding to David Beckham this July," reveals Sandra Boler.
Where: The Wedding Shop, 171 Fulham Rd, SW3 (0171-838 0171).
How much: from pounds 2,700.
For an adrenalin stag to sort the hombres from the chicos, Pamplona's Festival of San Fermin (aka Running of the Bulls; 7-14 July) is the ultimate trip. For his brother's stag, architect Vince hired a minibus for the 2hr drive from Bilbao to Pamplona, before a fiesta night of drinking and dancing that ended at dawn with a starter pistol. "The atmosphere was electric," recalls Vince. "You find yourself racing down the street in a state of absolute terror as bulls come tearing after you." They recovered on a nearby beach before flying home.
Where: Pamplona, Spain (tourist office: 0171-486 8077). How much: flight from pounds 80 ("go": 0845 605 4321); 2-day car hire pounds 175 (Budget: 0845 606 0608).
"Straightforward shotguns take about three days, but you should leave a week," advises printer Michael Morris on ordering invites. "Straight- forward" is the classic folded A4 card with thermo-graphed script. Michael recommends professional printers over in-store stationery services, which are "less creative in terms of price, materials or design". Other tips: reduce costs by suppling orders-of-service on disc; reflect wedding themes (eg colour) in the stationery; read proofs carefully ("do not skim over your own name"); for the RSVP, omit phone numbers, as unwritten acceptances are easily mislaid.
Where: Oasis Printing, 50 Greyhound Rd, W14 (0800 018 5512); or try Yellow Pages.
How much: from pounds 83 for 100 invites inc VAT.
PAVILION AND PENTHOUSE AT THE DORCHESTER
These two fabulous rooms, hired as a pair, were the surprising choice of Sylvester Stallone for his wedding in 1997. The silk-lined Pavilion seats 40 or 50 for a ceremony, and the Penthouse a maximum of 20. "The Penthouse is very ornate, with candelabra built around birds in gilded cages, and the fireplace designed like a pagan altar," recalls Liz Sexton. After the ceremony, take a stroll around your own private roof garden. For unadulterated glamour, this tops them all.
Where: The Dorchester, W1 (0171-629 8888). How much: venue hire from pounds 675, menus from pounds 56 lunch, pounds 62 dinner.
NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
Age before beauty: if you're grand enough to hold your reception here, prepare to be upstaged by the exhibits. "Sweep down the staircase from under the Gothic arches and dine around the dinosaur. Available from 7.30pm, this venue," says Liz Sexton, "is spectacular and versatile. Various lighting techniques make it look different every time." For regulars on the Chelsea church circuit, a reception at the Museum, a stone's throw from Holy Trinity Brompton and St Luke's, will see that your wedding reception is assured a place in history.
Where: Cromwell Rd, SW7 (0171-938 8934). How much: venue hire from pounds 7,000, menus from pounds 35.
Simple but dramatic designs have earned Neil Cunningham a die-hard fashion following. "He doesn't go in for frills and fancy things, and uses wonderful materials," explains one fan. Sandra Boler recalls that "Ffion Hague chose him to design her figure-hugging, bias-cut wedding dress. He also designed Darcey Bussell's stunning high-necked wedding dress." If you feel stylish enough to walk in the footsteps of a prima ballerina, make tracks to Liberty, where his Ready to Wed collection extends to alternative styles, such as trouser suits.
Where: 28 Sackville St, W1 (0171-437 5793); Liberty, W1 (0171-734 1234).
How much: from pounds 2,000.
Sprawling on a rug with a gourmet spread is a tempting proposition. Add fine music and weather, and you have the recipe for a wonderfully high-brow hen night. "Genteel," recalls PR Sarah of her picnic at a Kenwood House open-air concert. "It's a good way of getting everyone together, especially if they're not the sort of girls who would would go completely mad." Bring your own food, or order a luxury hamper; and do take taxis, as parking can be diabolical.
Where: Hampstead, NW3 (0171-973 3434).
How much: tickets from pounds 9; Fortnum & Mason hampers (0171-465 8666) from pounds 38 a head.
Tips from picture-pro Guy Hills: "Don't let the photographer take over. Tell him to take a lot of film, reportage style. To keep costs down, ask him for the films and get the processing done yourself." He recommends fashion or portrait photographers over wedding specialists. "Get lots of shots on a cheaper camera of people arriving. Use a better camera for 15 minutes of posed pictures after the ceremony and 30 minutes at the reception. Then take candid pics pretty much all night." Leaving disposable cameras on tables is a cheap-and-cheerful option.
Where: call Assoc of Photographers (0171-739 3631). How much: from around pounds 330 a day. 11
If you're plagued by paparazzi, consider Naworth, in Cumbria. "This castle is ideal for celebrities or anyone who really wants to get away from it all," says Liz Sexton. Dating from 1335, it has just one entrance opening onto a courtyard that may be covered by a marquee. A maximum of 200 guests can witness you exchange vows in the timbered and tapestry- hung Great Hall, or 75 in the lead-windowed Library. Spiral staircases will make bouquet-tossing an interesting event, after which you can disappear up a turret to the four-poster bridal suite for a fairytale finale.
Where: Brampton, Cumbria (016977 3229).
How much: bridal chamber & Great Hall from pounds 2,000 plus VAT & pounds 250 for the Library for ceremonies; menus from pounds 25.
If you can wait till 6pm, when it closes to the public, London's Design Museum makes a stylish party venue. "It's ultra modern and striking," says Liz Sexton, "a very different setting for a contemporary reception." Greet guests in the chic marbled entrance hall before dining in the gallery, among an array of 20th-century design classics, from phones to furniture. With floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Thames, the only concern you'll have is that the view may steal your limelight.
Where: London SE1 (0171-403 6933).
How much: venue hire from pounds 2,500, menus from pounds 35.
Ulrika Jonsson and Caron Keating are just two glamorous exponents of Phillipa Lepley's wedding dresses. Winner of the Glamour Couture Award at the 1999 British Bridal Awards, her designs feature exquisite embroidery and beadwork for creations to be coveted. "She has a superb eye for detail," says Sandra Boler, who describes Phillipa's trademark styles as classic Empire-line dresses with beaded necklines and grand, full-skirted gowns. Some A-line styles are included in her new ready-to-wear Signature collection, which brings her brand of chic to a wider crop of brides.
Where: 494 Fulham Rd, SW6 (0171-386 0927)
How much: pounds 1,400-pounds 2,000 for her Signature collection; from pounds 2,700 made- to-measure.
If you're going to get the hump on your stag night, make it a memorable one. Somerset is the unusual location for a spot of camel trekking, declared "just the job" by Rough Guide editor Al. Neil McEllan's "really affectionate" beasts will brave most weather to take you on a trail of Bridgewater Bay, pausing for a picnic lunch, and later for a barbeque, before you bed down in a converted chapel for the night. This stag is not for speed freaks - camels travel at around 2mph - and will pacify edgy fiancees: the only birds you'll be eyeing up here are of an ornothological kind, in the sanctuary en route.
Where: Bridgewater Camel Company (01278 733186). How much: half-day pounds 39; overnight pounds 99 (inc tents & three meals plus some alcohol).
"Many places are licensed for weddings, but few have organs, and if you don't have live music, it can wreck the atmosphere," says quartet- violinist Claire Jackson, for whom minstrels' galleries are a second home. She chats to clients to get a feel for the mood they want to create: "People often want their favourite tune: Lakme's Flower Duet [aka the BA ad] is lovely for signing the register; we've even arranged Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day'." While quartets are perfect with drinks and dinner, she suggests a jazz or "big band" for later: "Glen Miller's great for getting everyone dancing."
Where: Bainsfield String Quartet (01703 772274); Ian James Band (01420 561250), playing everything from jazz to rock'n'roll. How much: string quartet from pounds 320 for 3hrs; seven-piece band from pounds 700 for 4hrs.
KENSINGTON ROOF GARDENS
Standing amid shoppers on Kensington High Street, it's hard to imagine that 100ft up, atop BHS, is a 1.5 acre paradise. Built in 1938, the Roof Gardens revolve around three themes: a formal Spanish garden with fountains; a Tudor garden with roses and a walkway; and a woodland or English garden, with streams, ducks, and, most surreal of all, flamingoes. Make your vows in the elegant clubhouse, before receiving guests in the grounds, which accommodate 200 for dinner or 500 for buffets or barbeques. "The ultimate themed venue," says Liz Sexton. "The Gardens in the past have been transformed into Rick's Bar from Casablanca and into a traditional fairground."
Where: 99 Kensington High St, W8 (0171-937 7994).
How much: pounds 4,500 inc venue hire & minimum spend on food & drink.
POLHAWN FORT, CORNWALL
One of the UK's more intriguing venues, Grade II-listed Polhawn Fort would suit faintly eccentric couples with a penchant for the sea. Available for exclusive let, it offers a multitude of choices: arrange your own catering and wine, or use their recommendation; dine on the cliff-edge lawn, or in a cosy brick room; laze on the private beach or by an open fire... The only thing you should be sure of is which of up to 100 guests you want to spend your wedding weekend with: so spectacular and secluded is the setting - on Cornwall's unspoilt Rame peninsular - that you'll want to hole up here for the forseeable future.
Where: Rame Torpoint, Cornwall (01752 822864); sleeps 20 comfortably.
How much: summer weekends from pounds 3,325.
"It was Amanda Wakeley who started the really wonderful slipper satin, soft ruche, column dress," recalls Sandra Boler. Though her simple signature style has found enduring fans among a more sophisticated clientele, Amanda has included some ravishing new features in her recent collections: ostrich feathers and fur trims lend a luxury twist, while princess-line dresses with matching coats are a nod to the more contemporary bride.
Where: 80 Fulham Rd, SW3 (0171-590 9105); Harrods (0171-730 1234).
How much: off-the-peg pounds 1,800-pounds 2,500; made-to-measure pounds 2,000-pounds 5,000.
For artistic types, an afternoon painting pottery will be sure-fire success. Many art cafes have large tables or private rooms for parties, providing a range of ceramic pieces and glazes plus expert advice. Soft refreshments may be supplemented with your own food and alcohol (corkage charged), which helps to disperse inhibitions and make creative juices flow. "We had a marvellous time," says teacher Nona. "I got all my friends to paint a cup for me, so that I could stare at their mugs every morning for the rest of my married life."
Where: Creative Cafe, Muswell Hill, London N10 (0181-444 4333) & other London locations; or home visits (quotes on 0181-994 4800). How much: pounds 3 studio fee plus pounds 1-pounds 35 per item.
"Most people start with the season or their favourite flowers," says famed florist Paula Pryke. "There's no set rule. I had someone last year who'd had their colour chart done - that was a challenge." She recommends getting all bridal flowers made up, but if you must go it alone, attend a course, and keep your floral arrangements simple. Remember that, "flowers are best in season" - and cheaper, too. On the day itself, keep them out of direct sunlight; to preserve, "hang them in an airing cupboard, and keep your fingers crossed!"
Where: Paula Pryke, Flower School, Cynthia St, N1 (0171-837 7373). How much: bouquets & button holes from pounds 200; plus church & reception venue, from pounds 500; one-day flower course about pounds 175.
Grand dames will adore Ramster, a stately home set in a picturesque village just 1hr 30min from London. "This is very popular with our clients, and one of the most striking ceremony rooms on offer in this area," says Liz Sexton. The Drawing Room, seating up to 130, makes a solemn venue for exchanging vows, after which, receive guests in the peaceful courtyard garden - a glorious backdrop for photographs and pre-dinner drinks. For a grand feast, the Jacobean Long Hall, complete with minstrels' gallery and beams, is all you'll need for a historic day.
Where: Chiddingfold, Surrey (01428 654167).
How much: venue hire around pounds 1,350 inc Drawing Room; menus from pounds 20-pounds 30.
Upmarket eccentrics will adore this venue: a private island in the Thames, accessible only by boat. Liz Sexton recommends couples have their ceremony downriver (try Danesfield House: 01628 891010), then drinks on a paddle steamer en route to the island (call Hobbs & Sons: 01491 572035). The little temple, a frescoed folly built in 1771 as a fishing lodge, holds 40 for dinner, but a marquee on the back lawn will increase capacity to 150. Ideal for theming, recalls Liz Sexton, "it's an incredibly picturesque setting; wonderful at night when surrounded by torches under a starlit sky."
Where: Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire ( 01491 572153).
How much: venue hire pounds 1,000, menus from pounds 26. 23
Minor royals and celebrities get dressed by British couture duo Antonia Robinson and Anna Valentine. MTV's Shana Golding praises them as a "small outfit offering a really personalised treatment". Her wedding dress - an elegant, minimalist gown with detachable lace coat/train, was the result of months of enjoyable collaboration involving sketches, swatches and sensitive discussion. According to Sandra Boler, Robinson Valentine are ones to watch out for: "They favour clean-cut designs, particularly column dresses, using rich fabrics and embroidery." With patronage by the likes of Sheherazade Bentley, wearing Robinson Valentine for her marriage to Zac Goldsmith later this month, their future seems assured.
Where: Mills Yard, Hugon Road, SW6 (0171-384 1476).
How much: from pounds 3,500.
PAINTBALLING & TANK DRIVING
If talk of fonts, flowers and poncy food is driving you insane, harness your rage with a paintball session. This tried-and-tested method of bonding with your mates is "brilliant," says lawyer Will. "It's little boys' games, but with an element of danger. There's a strict safety procedure, but once you're out there you forget all the rules - diving into bushes, jumping in the mud and doing heroic runs." More mature males may prefer tank driving: "Fantastic," says barrister Jeremy, on a high after a session in a Chieftain and an armoured personnel carrier, in which he "zoomed around at top speed". He emerged plastered - in mud. All good, clean fun.
Where: Adventure Sports, Norfolk (01926 491948). How much: around pounds 30 a head for half a day's paint-balling, plus pounds 180 per group for 1hr's tank driving.
If you're drowning under a morass of suggestions from well-meaning relatives, a wedding co-ordinator is a heaven-sent creature. They cut through the emotional stress of satisfying all parties, and lift you to the dizzy heights of clarity about what you want for your wedding. Liz Sexton, above, of Alternative Occasions, offers a free consultation to build up a profile of the client, discussing individual style, possible themes and venues (a choice of 6,000) - even how to personalise your civil-marriage ceremony. Whatever your budget, a wedding co-ordinator will give you a perfect package and, more importantly, peace of mind.
Where: Alternative Occasions (01932 872115); find other co-ordinators in wedding mags. How much: free venue-finding service, then prices according to package, eg tailored civil ceremonies from pounds 99.
The last remaining part of a village wiped out by the Black Death, this ancient Norman church was rescued from terminal decline by chartered surveyor Doug Chapman, who bought it in 1992 for pounds 67,000. On the end of a ley line, with a sarsen stone buried within its foundations, the place exudes a rare feeling of tranquillity. Liz Sexton was struck by its simplicity: "The only light is provided by candles and braziers, and straw and leaves scented with herbs cover the floor. An incredibly peaceful location; a very special place." Suitable for blessings - even pagan ceremonies - Dode is a rare gem.
Where: a remote spot on the North Downs, nr Gillingham in Kent (01622 734205); more info from Alternative Occasions (01932 872115).
How much: venue hire by negotiation.
A reception in this extraordinary museum is sure to set hearts aflutter. The exhibitions of exquisite fans set the tone for what Liz Sexton regards as "one of the most elegant places for a small party in London". At the back of the Georgian house, a fan- shaped Japanese-style garden provides a genteel backdrop for photographs, while a stunning conservatory can hold 30 guests for dinner, or 80 for a cocktail reception.
Where: 10 & 12 Crooms Hill, SE10 (0181-305 1441)
How much: venue hire from pounds 350 for the Orangery, pounds 750 for the whole museum.
Classic elegance and romantic flair characterise Catherine Rayner's dresses. Designer of the Year at the 1998 British Bridal Awards, she is a favourite of Sandra Boler: "Her dresses tend to be full skirted rather than slimline, with very fitted bodices cut to give a flattering shape. They are always beautifully finished, often with a bustle." If you can't afford her price tag, take a trip to the Museum of Costume in Bath, where a Catherine Rayner creation - voted Dress of the Year in 1995 - numbers among the exhibits.
Where: Dickens & Jones, W1 (0171-734 7070), & other leading stores around the country.
How much: from pounds 1,600 (both ready-to-wear & made-to-measure).
Make a date with Ireland for a cosy weekend with an equine twist. "We hired an enormous, sprawling farmhouse 2hrs south of Dublin, and flew over on a cheap-and-cheerful flight," recalls marketing manager Alice. Irish charm came courtesy of the local farmer: "He couldn't believe he had a group of girls from London staying in his farmhouse. He wanted to show us off at the local disco, and had his photo taken with us!" They arranged some pony trekking in the glorious surrounding countryside, and spent a day at the races - not your Ascot affair: "It was quite a rustic course, but we all dressed up." For horse-mad brides-to-be, this hen weekend's a winner.
Where: Irish Country Cottages (00 353 1 285 8608).
How much: flights from pounds 60 with Ryanair (0541 569569).
Rapunzel locks are not the only option: a little care can transform the limpest barnet into a glossy crown. Up to three months before The Day, visit your hairdresser for a bonding brainstorm. Consider styles: oval faces suit anything, but for round faces, go for height; long or heart-shaped faces, something with volume; oblong, longer styles with a fringe; square, soft curves. Discuss your gown and headdress, and perhaps a colour for extra shine, and take photos for future reference. If you've fine hair or are wearing it up, wash it the day before your wedding for better control. And on the date itself? A hair session is essential for stress-relief, and considerably healthier than a valium.
Where: try Toni & Guy (0171-831 9149).
How much: pounds 160 inc make-up.
Peacocks, carpets of flowers and a Japanese Garden combine to make Holland Park an exquisite spot. Set in the midst of such natural splendour, the Orangery makes a gorgeous venue for a smaller wedding. "The acoustics are almost cathedral-like," says Liz Sexton, "making this a fabulous setting for a vow-exchanging ceremony or live [non-amplified] music." As for the food, she pronounces contract caterers Bovingdon's "excellent". A word of warning: private, this is not. Wedding parties make prime viewing for promenading locals, and guests must use the park loos, but if you have to tangle with your subjects, be reassured that Holland Park's grand catchment area means you'll be mingling in style.
Where: Holland Park, W8 (0171-361 2225).
How much: venue hire from pounds 600, menus from pounds 60 for a full sit-down meal.
GLEN HOUSE, PEEBLESSHIRE
Built in 1852 for the Tennant family, this imposing 22-bedroomed Scottish pile has entertained luminaries from Asquith to Oscar Wilde, and makes a grand reception venue. Its 5,000 acres of wood- and moorland, centred on a loch, are idyllic for fishing, shooting, strolling... and tying the knot. As Liz Sexton reminds us: "Scottish laws allow you to marry anywhere - where better than your own private home for the day, with a ceremony in the garden, on a mountain, or beside a loch?" (see www.weddingguide.co.uk for legal requirements). Glen House is within easy reach of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle airports - but with a place like this, who needs a honeymoon?
Where: Innerleithen, Peeblesshire (01896 830210).
How much: pounds 2,000 per 24 hours plus VAT.
Winner of this year's British Bridal Award, popular young designer Tracy Connop has an eclectic collection to suit all brides. "Tracy has no preferred style of dress, but her designs would suit anything from a traditional white wedding to a more informal civil ceremony or wedding abroad," explains Sandra Boler. "She takes a modern, original approach to design, and uses a wide range of different fabrics." Lace or embroidery add a traditional feel to contemporary designs, while her wonderful bodices can be relied on for support.
Where: at Selfridges, W1 (0171-629 1234); & other leading stores around the country.
How much: from pounds 699 to around pounds 1,500.
For groups with mixed tastes, Amsterdam is ideal. Rough Guide author Matthew Teller suggests the "colourful", cheap hotel Hans Brinker, on Kerkstraat, for a lads' weekend: "the place is advertised with 'before' (clean-cut chap) and 'after' (hollow cheeks, heavy lids, etc) pics." As for bars, "the Bulldog, on Leidesplein [main square], is the biggest and best-known, but more endearing is Mazzo, with great music and a relaxed atmosphere, and the Melkweg (bar-cafe-club-cinema), just off Leidesplein. The red-light district is obviously full of prime stag-night material, not least the Banana Bar and Casa Rosso." You have been warned!
Where: The Netherlands (tourist info: 0891 200277); or consult the Rough Guide to Amsterdam (pounds 8.99). How much: easyJet (0870 600 0000) pounds 70.50. 35
Weddings are a great excuse for pampering, but plan treatments carefully. Three months beforehand, use a deep-cleansing mask, and introduce regular foot-scrubs, hand cream and exfoliation into your routine. Get used to skin-brushing before bathing to improve circulation and skin tone, and try to exercise three times a week. Six weeks before The Day, visit a salon for eyebrow shaping, and again the day before for a leg wax, manicure and pedicure. Start each day with drops of lemon juice in hot water, followed by at least six glasses of water and four portions of fruit. And don't forget: the best treatment of all is sleep.
Where: beauty salons, or try the Day Spa Escape at the Berkeley, SW1 (0171-201 1699). How much: pounds 50 a day.
Smart fillies will swoon for the Regency splendour of Goodwood House. Designed by James Wyatt in 1771, it is, according to Liz Sexton, "the most beautifully maintained stately home I have encountered." Exchange vows in the silk-lined Yellow Room, then dine and dance beneath Van Dycks in the ballroom. Musician Claire Jackson recalls a wedding here where "the bride was late because she had an interview with Hello! magazine". Whether or not you're in the star-spangled league, an army of staff is at your disposal for a seamless event.
Where: Chichester, Sussex (01243 774107).
How much: venue hire from pounds 2,500, menus from pounds 46.
For the ultimate in romance, Liz Sexton suggests Eastnor, in the Cotswolds. "This castle has everything - a pretty village church at the end of the drive, battlements, stunning interior, fabuous grounds, and it's reasonably priced compared to its competitors." Licensed for civil ceremonies, Liz considers it ideal for weekend weddings - with four-poster beds making a fitting end to a fairytale day.
Where: Eastnor Castle, Ledbury, Herefordshire (01531-633160).
How much: venue hire from pounds 2,200 a day, menus from pounds 28.
"A really great bridal designer; consistently good," enthuses Sandra Boler about Finnish designer Ritva Westenius. Attention to cut and detail is her stock-in-trade, with trademark features including fitted V-shaped bodices and necklines, corsets, tulle bustles, and a subtle use of embroidery. "Year in, year out, she's chosen for awards," says Sandra; indeed, 1999 saw Ritva lauded at the Bridal Awards for her outstanding contribution to the wedding industry.
Where: 28 Connaught St, W2 (0171-706 0708), & leading stores nationwide.
How much: pounds 1,300-pounds 2,000.
Pre-wedding panic can play havoc with your looks, so combine your hen night with a health haven for a spot of social rejuvenation. Beauty writer Sarah Owen recommends Henlow Grange, Britain's largest health spa and celebrity haunt: "Best friends were all gossiping in the sauna, and everyone was joining in," she laughs. Don fluffy white robes for a host of treatments, stroll through 100 acres of parkland, and fine tune your body in a Sinatra Swing class. You'll be so relaxed after a weekend of pampering that your only concern will be staying vertical for your vows.
Where: Henlow, Beds (01462 811111).
How much: from pounds 165.95 per night, or from pounds 64 for a day package.
Keeping the champagne flowing long enough to satisfy the booziest guests can be pricey. Cost-cutting options include jugs of Pimms (perfect for summer) or margaritas. For weddings in winter or with an eastern-European theme, flavoured vodka shots will warm the cockles of the primmest aunt's heart. Many venues allow you to bring your own alcohol, charging corkage. Milk this opportunity with a shopping trip to France - any excuse - to pick up champagne for as little as pounds 8 a bottle. The Channel Hopper's Shopping Guide (Passport Guide Publications, pounds 5.99) has advice on outlets, brands and special offers.
Where: P&O Stena Line (0990 980980). How much: Dover-Calais day return pounds 40 per car plus pounds 1 per person.
TONE DALE HOUSE
"Very Peter's Friends", is how Liz Sexton describes this Grade II-listed Somerset haven, just 2.5 hours from London. Three rooms, seating a maximum of 60 people, are licensed for weddings: the long, high-ceilinged, darker Hall; the Sitting Room, for smaller gatherings; or the light, airy Long Room. This home-from-home is wonderfully flexible: choose from a selection of caterers, or bring your own - useful for Kosher weddings. With its four acres of grounds and accommodation for 20 guests, Tone Dale House is, according to Liz Sexton, "the ultimate country-house party venue".
Where: Wellington, Somerset (01823 662673). How much: hire from pounds 3,000, menus from pounds 29.
Forget your shabby tourist bateaux mouches, the art-deco Silver Barracuda is in a league of its own. Board the boat in Chelsea Harbour or Cadogan Pier for a five-star cruise to the Thames barrier and back. Recently refitted at a cost of pounds 1million, it boasts seating for 168 dinner guests, plus a dancefloor beneath a sliding roof for al fresco shimmies in sunny weather. With a sister ship, the Silver Sturgeon, for larger parties, a riverboat reception will ensure your married life is launched in style.
Where: Woods River Cruises, SE3 (0171-481 2711).
How much: 4hr charters from pounds 3,000, menus from pounds 27.50 plus VAT.
Coveting a more original look? Then head to Harrods, where gowns by new trendsetter David Fielden have sold like hot cakes in their first three weeks there. "He is apparently an extremely popular designer abroad," says Sandra Boler, who recommends his quirky designs for the bride who wants a modern, alternative look - or even something a little eccentric. "His cut is particularly suited to those with slight figures, but he's a master at working with all shapes of dress, from the full-skirted to column styles."
Where: Harrods (0171-730 1234); the Bridal Room, Herts (01462 432889).
How much: from pounds 955.
A cheap recipe for revelry is an evening in the comfort - and privacy - of your own home. Author Sonya Winner recommends kicking off hen nights with a massage by two male masseurs. "Get them round to give each hen a pummelling." For food, "hire a cook, or get everyone to bring a dish". After dinner, play "pass the parcel, full of rude things". Or simply summon a stripper-gram. Banker Paddy's usefully doubled as a waitress for his stag night, serving up ready-cooked chickens to stags dressed as Asterix characters. Meal times will never be the same again...
Where: home sweet home.
How much: consult Hen Nights by Sonya Winner (Chameleon Bks, pounds 3.99) for more information.
Ensure you get to the church on time with a decent form of transport: as well as eliminating the breakdown factor, a cool car makes an ego-boosting accessory and a great forum for that last-minute father-daughter chat. Test-drive vehicles before booking - airbrushed photos can hide a multitude of sins. As for the style: white taxis cut an urban dash, or go for the personal touch with a model from the year you were born. For transport to the reception, open-topped buses stocked with champagne get receptions off to a memorable start.
Where: London White Taxi Service (0181-958 7928); Original Sightseeing Tours (0181-877 1722).
How much: White Taxis pounds 60 per hr, minimum pounds 90; bus, pounds 325 single journey.
"My clients just stood in awe when they entered the front door," recalls Liz Sexton. "Highclere is what castles are meant to look like." She suggests the Gothic Saloon for wedding photos or ceremonies. "It has a sweeping staircase and a gallery on which musicians often play." Although Highclere has a large capacity, it won't dwarf your day: "it also manages to be intimate, with rich colouring and soft lighting," explains Liz, providing all the ingredients for a fairytale day.
Where: Highclere Castle, nr Newbury, Hampshire (01635 253210).
How much: venue hire from pounds 5,000 plus VAT, menus from pounds 38.50.
THE CONSERVATORY, LONDON SW11
An unlikely street in Battersea hides this jewel of a venue. Wend your way up a steep spiral staircase - infirm and unfit beware - to a rooftop conservatory filled with lush, exotic plants. "This is a unique venue catering for up to
50 people for dinner or a cocktail reception," says Liz Sexton. A small terrace outside increases capacity and gives breathtaking views across the rooftops.
Where: nr Albert Bridge, Ransome's Dock, Battersea, SW11 (0181-874 8505).
How much: venue hire from pounds 500.
Pictured above tending to the dress of Isabella Norman at her marriage to Timothy Knatchbull last year, Samantha Shaw has long been an in-secret of a discerning social set. All this will change when her designs for Sophie Rhys-Jones's wedding are unveiled in a fortnight's time, less than one month after her own marriage! Obviously a cool customer, 30-year-old Samantha describes her style as modern classic, and her main aim "to complement the best of a woman's figure" - for which her background in life drawing and costume design has clearly stood her in good stead.
Where: 32 Oakley St, SW3 (for more info, call 0171-287 4375).
How much: from around pounds 2,000.
Fiancees will love this stag weekend: great for male-bonding; low on creature comforts. Recruits rise at 6am for physical jerks with army instructors (lake dip optional), before a hard day's activities. "These include an assault course, with a zip wire like at the end of the Krypton Factor, raft building, scramble bikes and pitches for five-a-side football," explains Mike Wood, a hen- and stag-party organiser. If they have any energy left after that, then VIP treatment at a Norwich nightclub awaits, before bed in a bunkhouse or army tent. After a day of this, your intended will embrace married life with a vengeance.
Where: call Freedom (0181-445 8687) for great hen & stag ideas nationwide. How much: pounds 110 for two nights.
However broody you felt before the wedding, squalling during a service can put you off kids for life. To make sure they're seen and not heard, give them age-related talking books on personal stereos. Alternatively, enlist the services of a creche company to keep younger guests entertained, nannied - and, more importantly, out from under your Jimmy Choo'd feet. As for food, salmon en croute is unlikely to wash with the under-fives, so consult your caterers. Special menus equal contented kids, and will probably save you money.
Where: Crechendo (0181-675 6611). How much: prices vary, but for a three- hour London wedding with 15 kids, reckon on about about pounds 400.Reuse content