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This Britain

Fewer people marrying than any time for a century

Marriage rates in England and Wales have fallen to their lowest level since records began in 1862.

The biggest drop was in register office weddings as couples fell out of love with town hall ceremonies.

Church weddings also continued to decline with a 3.1 per cent drop in religious ceremonies, which now account for only a third of all marriages.

However, there was a surge in ceremonies taking place in stately homes, luxury hotels, historic buildings or other quirky settings.

For the first time fewer than one in 50 single women got married in 2008. There were 232,990 weddings in England and Wales, 35,000 fewer than a decade earlier and almost 120,00 fewer than in 1981, Office for National Statistics figures showed.

The figures highlight how marriage has fallen out of favour over the decades. From a peak in 1940, when 426,1000 young couples - reluctant to wait while World War II made the future uncertain - married for the first time, just 147,130 marriages in 2008 involved two partners who had not been previously married. Fewer than two-thirds of weddings were first marriages for both partners. At more than one in six ceremonies, both partners had been previously married, and at a further one in five, one of the bride or groom had been previously married.

People are also now tying the knot later in life, with the average age of marriage increasing to 36.5 for men and 33.8 for women, a rise of 5.5 and 4.5 years respectively over the last decade.

Even those marrying for the first time are waiting longer to do so - the average age in 2008 was 32.1 for men and 29.9 for women, around three years older than the average bridge and groom in 1998.

Jill Kirby, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, said the fall was worrying because of the strong link between marriage and family stability.

She said cohabitation was increasingly common but was not as durable as marriage.

"We are ending up with more fragile families and more children exposed to the risk of break up. Public policy needs to support and encourage marriage," she said.

"Otherwise we shall just see more family break up, which is bad for children and bad for society."

Dave Percival, Coordinator of National Marriage Week, said: "Living together and marriage are increasingly seen as the same by the public, yet the outcomes are radically different. Two thirds of all the first marriages in 2008 can be expected to last a lifetime. Less than 10 per cent of cohabiting relationships last even to their tenth anniversary."

Peter Taylor-Gooby, professor of social policy at Kent University, said: "People are becoming more discerning about marriage and I think that's associated with the long term changes in the position of women. Increasingly women are able to command incomes that enable them to live more independent lives. They do not have to get married so they are more careful and discriminating about it and I think that is no bad thing."

Amanda Sherlock, of Giles Sherlock wedding planners, said the shift towards quirky and historic venues reflected couples' desire to celebrate their wedding over several days.

She said: "People want to go away and have a whole weekend of celebrations. So many brides say to me that they don't want it to be just one day and want to have time to talk to their guests. It is hopefully the only time people will get married so they want to make a big an affair of it as possible."

Zoe McKeown of Cherish Wedding Planning in Cambridge said: "Couples' dream venue is now somewhere where all their friends and family can stay for a weekend and not have to worry about transport."

The Church of England said marriage was now seen as the crown of a relationship rather than a gateway to adulthood.

A spokesman said: "We have found that marriage is regarded as a serious commitment and something people aspire to, even those already living together.

"Making a positive public decision to a committed, life-long relationship changes behaviour - especially for men. "We have found that men coming for weddings are as interested in their relationship and the quality of it as in the day itself."

Perfect day comes at a price

When Germaine Shaheedee, 29, got married she wanted to do it in style. She also wanted an event which would cater for both her Catholic and her husband’s Muslim families. In the end she spent more than £150,000 and had two ceremonies – one at Eltham Palace followed by a celebration for 450 people at The Dorchester hotel.

She said “My family is Catholic and my husband is Muslim. I am not really associated with the church in the way I was as a child but I did want that chunky cathedral feel at the wedding. That could only really be achieved in a stately home or a palace.

“Once I saw the Great Hall at Eltham Palace I knew it was the perfect place.”

The wedding, organised by Amanda Sherlock of Giles Sherlock wedding planners, saw Germaine, an events organiser, and her businessman husband Jay, 34, get married in a civil ceremony for 180 guests in the Great Hall at Eltham Palace followed by traditional English afternoon tea and crochet on the lawn.

She said: “I wanted a really traditional English white wedding. A lot of my husband’s family had never been to one before and I wanted them to see what it was like.

“Then we drove back to central London and I did a Bollywood costume change into all this red, gold and lots of jewellery and we had the most colourful flamboyant wedding at The Dorchester for 450 guests.”

“I don’t think we would have considered getting married in a register office. I think they they are a bit dated. People are spending more on their weddings now and waiting longer to get married. People are saving up and just want to have the perfect day.”