We are sitting in the sunshine planning the menu. The wedding is in July and the bride will walk down the freshly mown aisle between the nuttery and the row of walnut trees. The vows will be said in the gazebo, which, in summer, is a haven of wisteria-covered shade. When the couple has been pronounced husband and wife, the guests will drink sparkling Wyken Moonshine in the rose garden before coming into the barn at twilight for the wedding breakfast.
The bridegroom is our head gardener Alan and the bride is Emma. As is the way of things, they have been living for several years in the cottage at the bottom of the drive. It was in that cottage that their daughter, Betty, not yet a year old, was born, the first baby born here on this farm in 50 years.
Despite dozens of requests each week, we don’t do weddings at Wyken. In order to get married here, you have to work here. You could say it’s a perk, my way of encouraging marriage, a gentle suggestion that vows made in front of family and friends mean something greater than signatures on a joint mortgage.
Emma is the most relaxed bride-to-be I’ve ever known. The menu-salmon pan-smoked over vine prunings, followed by rack of our Shetland lamb and ending with a pavlova of summer fruit-takes 10 minutes to plan. After the wedding breakfast, there will be dancing in the grain store, which will be converted into a ballroom of banners and fairy lights. The flowers will come from the wildflower meadows, and the wine from Wyken. A country wedding that could be straight out of Lark Rise to Candleford.
In her book Much Depends on Dinner, the classical scholar Margaret Visser distinguishes between the ephemeral plants that thrive outside of marriage -endive, succory, purslane and lettuce-and tells how the unmarried Adonis was gored by a wild boar in a lettuce bed where his lover Aphrodite had hidden him. The plants of marriage, however, were the cereals, ‘which men raise by the sweat of their brow: cultivated plants, civilised, balanced and domestic: wheat, barley’.
I don’t expect politicians to read Lettuce: The Vicissitudes of Salad while brainstorming over policies on marriage, but only by dissecting the whos, the whats and the wherefores of the way we are, can you come up with policies that relate to how people really live. Of course, marriage is a good thing, and stable families save the economy billions in money and in troubling chaos. But a tax benefit that comes to £3 a week makes marriage look silly, makes it seem like it’s worth no more than a bag of pre-washed yuppie lettuce.
So what can governments do to strengthen the ties that bind? I’d suggest concentrating on all the things that make people feel at ease in this life. Tackle deficits so that the economy is strong enough to grow and provide jobs, because people with jobs are happier and more stable. Re-establish building codes that require rooms to be humane sizes so that families aren’t squeezed into homes the size of rabbit hutches.
Revitalise-and create -parks so that families can get out together. Fix the schools so that the next generation can learn how to read, write, think and believe that they have a future worth having.
Although traditional in many ways-on her left hand is the emerald engagement ring he produced when he proposed-Emma and Alan don’t want a wedding cake. They think the archaic edifice is an expensive waste. That decision provides a clue to how marriage might survive. Let go of the myths (cake under the pillow; happily ever after) and plant the long-lasting seeds of kindness, patience and fun. Like real agriculture, marriage is what human beings are meant for.
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