A charming field venue with owners that couldn’t do more to help their couples on their wedding days
Kate and Will (‘Willow’) Bicknell host six to eight weddings a year from their farm. They work with couples to create their vision, with thoughtful touches and a whole lot of effort to ensure the day goes without a hitch, be that escorting elderly guests, timekeeping for the band or ferrying belongings to the campsite. We talk to Will.
When did you start your venue business and what is its history?
We started the wedding and outside events side of our business in 2012. Church Farm was a much larger working dairy and arable farm originally, though has progressively shrunk in size with each owner. It was a horticultural nursery for a time then was sold to the previous owners, a wonderful couple – Jane and Mick O’Cock (Brigadier O’Cock to give him his official title). They had lived here for over 30 years and had come to the decision to move to somewhere smaller and more manageable. Kate and I moved here in 2004.
Tell us about your location and site
We are in a charming village called Kington Langley, situated just outside the town of Chippenham, between Bath and Swindon. Although it’s a beautiful village surrounded by countryside we are only a couple of miles from junction 17 of the M4 so it is very good for access – Bristol’s 30 minutes away, with a great airport, London is under two hours (under an hour by train from Chippenham).
The farm is 10 acres in total so we are lucky to have a large main field we use for the marquees and main reception area. There are smaller meadows that we use for camping with one of the shepherds huts, and brides are welcome to use our own private garden for welcome drinks or speeches. We have a totally separate driveway for the wedding guests with a beautiful old cow byre building that we have restored to house the garden machinery. It also has covered space with tables and water etc. for the florists to work in.
The ‘Kings Meadow’ field (named as a horse harness buckle was discovered there by some metal detectorists emblazoned with the three lions of Richard the Lion Heart) has a central area and ‘activity areas’ that we mow regularly so the grass is lush. We leave the rest of the meadow to grow tall with grasses and wild flowers. There is a magical copse with a number of paths mown to it where many of our couples have a blessing.
The Willow Meadow is about an acre divided into three ‘rooms’ – one for the rowdier guest campers, one for the early to bed and guests with children, and one with our charming living van (like a shepherds hut but better!) where the bride and groom may spend their wedding night.
We have recently restored a second shepherds hut and are currently making furniture for it (and arguing about what colours it should be painted!) that will be available as more accommodation this season – although it has been used to serve drinks from in our garden on a number of occasions.
Four years ago we planted a living willow temple which now is looking amazing and some of our brides have expressed interest in using it for a blessing. A wellness teacher is planning on holding classes there too.
Being fully outdoor, the weather can obviously be a challenge but we have put down hard standing leading to the parking area and there is a separate circular drive for all the services and contractors to get in and out of the field without churning up the grass.
Our biggest challenge is at the end of our season. We cut and bale the field and nowadays, as farm machinery is so large, we have trouble finding contractors with small enough machinery to get through our gates.
What facilities for outdoor functions do you offer?
We do not own our own marquee as we only do six to eight weddings a year and felt that it wasn’t practical. Also every wedding has a different feel and look so we have a shortlist of recommended suppliers – one for tipis, one for traditional rope and pole etc. The same goes for caterers and bands as everyone wants something different so we let couples make their own choices. We prefer them to choose from our list as they are tried, tested and trusted companies.
We have the Willow Meadow for the camping and the two vans/huts for more comfortable accommodation. There is also a cottage on the farm to rent, which most couples take from the Wednesday or Thursday before their wedding to use as a base, to get changed in, and then finally usually end up leaving their parents in on the final clear up day on Sunday.
We have a deep freeze in the cow byre for ice and also a very large fridge for chilling the drinks ready for the wedding day. We run the bottles etc. down to the marquee on the morning of the big event rather than risk leaving them in a marquee overnight in the middle of a field! We now have three phase power in the field which means we don’t need a generator – much more cost effective and quiet! We do have a back up generator however for power cuts although we haven’t had any to date.
Living in a village we are very conscious of disturbing our neighbours so we now employ a wonderful sound engineer to set up some specialist speaker equipment that not only limits the level of sound but is also very directional, so while the music is loud on the dance floor you can still hear yourself think (and speak) on the surrounding tables. This keeps the older generation, the council environmental officer and our neighbours happy!
What services do you offer?
Although we technically are just providing the venue, so that whoever hires it can pretty much do whatever they like to it, we do help with the logistics and coordination of the various other people providing services. We take delivery of the booze, store props and furniture, and run things back and forth from the cottage or cow byre to the field, marquee, copse or camping area.
We have a number of garden games and are adding larger, more ‘fair ground’ type games this year.
There are always two or more of us on site during the set up, on the day and during the breakdown and clear up. We marshal the parking and direct guests off the main road into the private drive and down to the parking. We provide, fill up and light the fire pits and continue to top them up throughout the event. We also provide and put up signs to loos, camping and parking etc.
The Willow Meadow is ideal for pitching tents and we have had up to 35 in that one space. We help drive the campers’ luggage from the car park across to the campsite in our John Deere Gator, a sort of all terrain vehicle with a brilliant tipping load area in the back. It’s also used to ferry the more elderly or infirm from the car park to the copse for blessings, and Kate uses it on the Sunday morning to deliver and serve her wonderful fresh coffee and pastries to the hungover guests!
The complete service we offer is so varied – whether the problem is missing hairspray, toppling wedding cakes, forgotten corkscrews, migraines or flat batteries in cameras, Kate and I will do our utmost to solve it.
Describe how you researched and sourced your structures
We started the business encouraged by a friend who had a vintage marquee company and wanted to photograph her marquee in our field. We used her marquees for a few weddings but really people come to us because they can put up whatever they like so we’ve had everything from tipis to big tops.
Having been doing this for six years now we have a few suppliers that we recommend as they do all that they promise they will and are good, reliable people to work with.
We have planted a wonderful willow temple and 100 metres worth of willow tunnels for the children to play in. This is harvested annually to provide material for the creative courses we also organise on the farm.
How do you work with your customers to make their event unique?
Every event at Church Farm seems to be totally different – we really do offer our clients a blank canvas to do whatever they would like, our only restriction is that music finishes by 11.30pm. Other than that we are very flexible; you can even start setting up as early as Wednesday so there’s plenty of time for a couple to decorate or build their vision. The last wedding we had was like a mini Glastonbury with lights on poles and flags, fires etc. You name it they had it, and they really did need the three days to set up – not many venues give their guests so much flexibility and freedom.
How do you publicise yourself?
Mainly through our website and social media – Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook. We are also registered with two wedding websites.
How would you describe your ‘style’ or unique selling point?
Kate and I are as much of our USP as anything, though we can’t take all the credit as everybody involved goes towards making Church Farm a beautiful, magical, calm, fun place to be. We are relaxed and welcoming, but also efficient, professional, well organised and have a huge attention to detail. We have a “no problem/ can do” attitude and if you can’t find it, we will!
The fact that the farm is a blank canvas for people to do exactly as they want to (within the bounds of decency!) is also very unusual. The grounds are well cared for but still with lots of wild, natural elements, and we have a strong environmental and ecological ethos behind what we do, with recycling and sustainability high on the list.
What challenges have you faced?
The main challenge is weather, or at least the problems it creates. Our first wedding was in October 2012 and it had rained non-stop for weeks. At that stage we didn’t have any hard standing or a separate drive for vehicles so we had to bring all the marquee lorries and caterers a very long way around the field to prevent the main reception area from getting turned into a scene from the Somme! It took three hours just to get the loo trailer in place as we had to move it on sheets of plywood like ancient Egyptians moving a large rock! We decided to bite the bullet and pay for the circular drive we have now and there hasn’t been a problem since.
When we started we were also trying to help couples save money and learned that not having some things done properly was just false economy. For example, one couple’s catering tent (their own cheap one from B&Q) blew away as they didn’t want to pay for a company to put one up; we ended up putting up our own one to save the day but now we know better.
What are your plans for next season?
We have changed the layout slightly where we mow the paths and have made them slightly wider. They might not be quite so romantic as narrow tracks through the long grass, it is definitely more practical once the guests have a had a few drinks and are trying to find their way back to their tent, the loo or a taxi waiting for them!
We’re making more garden games and also clearing an area in a strip of woodland, laying hedges and creating areas for smaller events or activities as we hope to be doing more corporate days here during the week.
Describe your average day mid-season
No day is average – it’s all down to the couple and how organised they are – but basically on a wedding day it goes like this:
- 6-7am – up and out to open gates and check the signs are out. Hang the Church Farm wedding sign above the gate and private drive. Set/check the electrics and supplies for the band and caterer etc.
- 8-10am – help move anything out of the marquee into the games or blessing area. Direct the loo trailer etc.
- 11-12pm – deliver drinks etc. to the marquee for the caterer. Take delivery of the last gifts, flowers, wedding cake etc. Take camping guests’ tents etc. to the Willow Meadow
- 12-1pm – help set up the sound system/lights/band
- 1-2pm – depending on the actual wedding time, three of us with walks talkies direct guests into the private drive and down to the parking, and help elderly guests to the copse or garden
- 3-4pm – on call for anything – issues with power, first aid, bored children etc.
- 5-6pm – check sound volumes for speeches and band, professional sound check if needed. Fill fire pits and lighting depending on time of year
- 7-9pm – check and fill up fire pits, put out fairy lights and lanterns to guide people to the car park
- 9-11.30pm – remind the band that they’ve got to stop at 11.30pm and need to play the last dance
- 12-2am – help guests leave by torch or walk them (depending what state they’re in!), help with taxis, car parking, caterers and band dismantling and leaving
- 2am – final walk round, clearing marquee of anything valuable that’s been left behind, check the campsite, close and lock gates etc.
- Then a very early start the next day for Kate to make breakfast for campers.
What do you enjoy about the business?
It’s hard work but we enjoy it, only doing six to eight weddings a year means they are all special to us. If we did them every weekend it would lose its charm! It also provides us with enough income to justify the upkeep; it has meant we could afford to landscape the front garden, work on the woodland and buy the tools and equipment to make the work easier. It’s also bought the shepherds huts and paid to restore the cottage and other outbuildings.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
We do offer the camping side, but in tents or the huts, but mainly when it’s during a wedding. We hope to do more independent of the weddings but both Kate and I have full time jobs doing other things so it’s difficult enough doing just the events we do at the moment.
We plan to do more corporate type events during the day for smaller parties; something creative and gentle – more art, cookery, yoga and wellness than clay pigeon shooting and quad bikes!
What are you most proud of?
Creating and building on what was already a beautiful home and being able to share that with our clients, guests and visitors; helping people have a truly magical and wonderful day or event; helping create amazing happy memories. We are also providing more and more habitats for wildlife with bat boxes, owl boxes, wild flower meadows, a small stream, piles of logs, and laid hedges. Consequently we see an abundance of bats, foxes, badgers, rabbits, hedgehogs, snakes (only grass snakes but that’s a good sign of a well kept, fertile environment), newts, frogs; the list is ever expanding.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Don’t be desperate to try and do something completely different – most things have been tried before by someone so being totally original is quite tricky. Whatever you decide to do, do it well. It’s the old adage of: “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly”. That doesn’t mean it has to be expensive or elaborate, just with care and professionalism – keep it simple and good quality.
Find a good reliable team of staff or suppliers – people as dedicated as you are in delivering a brilliant service or product. Don’t make your self indispensable – ensure there are other people who can do your job if you are taken ill or can’t be on site for whatever reason.
Deal with any issues quickly and efficiently, don’t point blame or complain (at least not until after the event), just sort it out and let your clients enjoy themselves.
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Wiltshire, SN15 5NN