The castle looked magnificent in the sunshine. The bride wore a gown with a long train, scattered with tiny rosebuds and sparkling sequins. The guests had arrived on a vintage bus. The press was welcomed, not kept behind barriers - but then there was only one reporter.
This was not the much-hyped wedding of the England footballer Ashley Cole and the pop star Cheryl Tweedy. That grand event took place somewhere else yesterday - the true location a mystery until the last minute thanks to a clever bluff by the couple that sent the paparazzi to a stately home where nothing was happening. But as photographers and reporters scratched their heads in Berkshire, another lavish wedding really was taking place in a castle, further north in Yorkshire.
Natalie Pike and Stephen Atkinson were following a new trend for celebrity-inspired nuptials that has seen the average price of a wedding rise £4,000 in the last year to nearly £20,000. Their ceremony at Allerton Castle cost £30,000. "We are over the budget," admitted Natalie, 26, an accountant from Scunthorpe. "But then again, most people are over their budget."
Influenced by the ostentatious weddings of David and Victoria Beckham or Jordan and Peter Andre, even couples with uncelestial budgets are saving up for a bit of bling on their big day. The meringue wedding dress, symbol of Eighties excess, is back in fashion. Stretch limos are taking the place of Rolls-Royces. White doves are the must-have accessory this summer, even for young lovers marrying in the local parish church.
"People want more than the usual three-course sit-down meal in a bog standard marquee," said Marc Sharer, a partner at Taste wedding planners. "They want a taste of the life that the new celebrity footballers and their crowd experience."
A couple asked him for a mirrored dancefloor after seeing one at the party thrown by the Beckhams before the World Cup. Other recent wedding requests have included a bar made of 2m-thick blocks of ice with the names of the couple engraved on it, and a Yo-Sushi style conveyor belt for a rice and raw fish supper.
This summer, 230,000 couples are expected to marry in Britain, spending nearly £4 billion. The cost of a wedding is typically three times more than people expect. The good news for fathers is that 80 per cent of couples now pay for their own event. But 20 per cent go into debt.
The Atkinson betrothal took place inside the Great Hall at Allerton Castle. "We wanted a big do, and we both fell in love with the place," said Stephen, 37. "We wanted to do our own thing, but people are definitely influenced these days by celebrities. They want to be seen to be keeping up with the Joneses."
The press could not keep up with the Coles yesterday. The footballer's wedding - dubbed by some as the tackiest of the year - had been expected to take place at Highclere Castle in Berkshire. Rights had been sold to OK! magazine for £1m and there was much talk of tasteful little details such as a monogrammed diamante coat for Buster, the bride's pet chihuahuh. However, reporters found the gates wide open and a marquee being dismantled. A security guard claimed the couple had cancelled months ago but asked the castle owner, the Earl of Carnarvon, not to tell anyone.
Highclere was the venue for Jordan's lavish pink wedding last year - around the time Cheryl Tweedy was insisting: "We're not going to do a mag deal. We just want it to be a quiet affair with everyone we love there."
They did their best. The couple did sign a magazine contract after all, but guests received a confidentiality clause to sign along with the suede wedding invitations. Late yesterday afternoon, it emerged that the fixture had been switched to Wrotham Hall, a Palladian mansion in Hertfordshire close to Barnet, where Arsenal were playing a friendly match. Ashley Cole might have been expected to keep away from the team, since he had told that day's Sun that Arsenal had used him as a "scapegoat" in a row with rivals Chelsea. The England player is thought to be about to join David Beckham at Real Madrid. But team-mates attended the ceremony. The wedding took place in front of 100 guests at a private chapel on the 2,500-acre estate.
A huge screen prevented photographers capturing the bride's arrival in a white horse-drawn carriage with blacked-out windows. Her cream gown was trimmed with crystals. Her vehicle was restrained compared to the pink glass carriage in which Jordan arrived for her wedding before six doves flew from the folds of her dress. The carriage has gone on to star in other, non-celebrity nuptials, including those of Carly O'Brien, a 16-year-old from Gloucester who hired it in June. She married in a gown 60ft-wide and weighing25 stone. It cost £25,000. Her sister Crystal said: "She said she wanted a bigger and better wedding than Jordan and she got it."
Additional reporting by Lauren Veevers and Urmee KhanReuse content