A dual site venue in Kent with a romantic history and some quirky touches.
Family owned and run, Preston Court offers two distinctly different options for wedding, party and business event clients. Preston Court itself is home to an eclectic range of spaces and features including a Victorian carousel, while the newer The Wilderness venue in the grounds of the estate has an enchanted woodland vibe. We talk to owner/operator Anna List Brain.
When did you start your venue business and what is its history?
Preston Court is set in a secluded private estate in Kent. Surrounded by ornamental lakes and gardens, it has some unique and eclectic features including a 17th century barnyard, beautiful vintage mechanical organs, carousel rides and steam engines, as well as a unique, magical moated island known as ‘Juliana’s Island’.
The site has a romantic history and was once home to a 12th Century medieval palace owned by the wealthiest woman in England at the time. Known as the ‘Infanta of Kent’, Juliana de Leybourne once owned many manors in the county but Preston Court was her favourite residence and the remains of it still lie scattered beneath the grounds. In fact, if you look carefully into the lake near to Juliana’s Island you will see the remains of some flint foundations.
We are a family owned and run business and we have been holding weddings and events here since 2008 under the banner of Peacock Events. We launched the sister business, The Wilderness, in the grounds of the estate in 2017 for those looking for a more boho experience.
Tell us about your location and site
The estate includes a farm and St Mildred’s Church, which has ancient origins, stretching back to pre-Roman times. According to legend, in around AD700 St Mildred allowed her deer to run wild across the countryside and wherever they were found drinking water she built a church. Those same natural springs still flow and are all around Preston Court gardens, feeding into the lakes.
Around the estate you’ll see many animals and birds, from peacocks, guinea fowl and swans, to horses, sheep and cows, while further out there are beautiful bluebell woods and a wetland nature reserve stretching to nearly 600 acres.
We have three licensed places to take wedding vows – the garden on Juliana’s Island, inside the Kent Barn, or at St Mildred’s church for traditional Christian weddings (both Church of England and Roman Catholic).
The Wilderness site is separate and has been marketed as such. It offers a more back to nature experience in a gorgeous green valley. It has a lake, woodland and incredible views over the water meadows and beyond. It is a paradise full of wild birds, butterflies, foxgloves, magical oak trees and meadow flowers. We have two separate licensed areas on the site for legally binding civil ceremonies and partnerships. Guests arrive by vintage or modern coaches so as to keep the impact on the small country lanes and surrounding farm lands to a minimum.
What facilities for outdoor functions do you offer?
At the Preston Court site, we have a flexible LED lighting system, numerous power supply points and luxury toilet facilities. It works as well for conferences and events as it does for weddings.
The Kent Barn, the larger of our two barns, is suitable for groups of 50 to 120 people for seated events, and up to 200 standing. It is home to two impressive Dutch dance hall organs. These fill each end of the barn and make a fabulous vintage backdrop, one being in romantic Victorian style, the other stylish Art Deco. Outside sits a three-abreast Victorian carousel!
The smaller Lodge Barn contains a licensed bar with a coffee machine and a large wood burning stove making it a handy place for small, informal meetings of up to 50 standing. The terrace outside extends capacity to 100 standing.
The large gravel barnyard can accommodate exhibitions, games and activities, while the many acres of surrounding fields and woodland are available for more physical team building activities.
Dotted around the farmyards and barns are all kinds of antique traction engines and steam locomotives. Part of The Steam Museum collection, these form a unique backdrop to add another dimension to celebrations.
Flowing around the house, the garden includes a water garden with little spring-fed streams. These feed into the two lakes, around the front lawn and Juliana’s Island. The lakes have recently been dredged of mud for the first time in 150 years, and the garden is constantly being improved.
At the Wilderness site, there is a beautiful cabin with a raised platform overlooking the lake which is extended with a large canvas tent to offer a covered seating space for up to 120 guests. On the other side of the lake stands the ‘Boatzebo’ for outdoor ceremonies. Over into Blue Belle Wood stands our huge three hat kata tipis and a cute Champagne Shack which is a fully stocked bar too.
We also have the most magical original wooden shepherds hut, built circa 1910 in Shaftesbury by John Farris. We were lucky enough to find it while exploring the Great Dorset Steam Fair. It makes the perfect retreat and private dressing room for the bride and groom on their wedding day. Think boho festival!
For on-site accommodation there are two beautiful glamping areas – a meadow with 10 tents and a woodland glade with a further seven tents – run by another family member.
What services do you offer?
We have seven accredited caterers all serving seasonal and the most locally grown food. We have a specialist vegan caterer too for those looking for specifically vegan offerings. Our other six companies range hugely in what they offer – they can do elaborate BBQs, sharing platters, grazing tables, feasting menus and even add drama with impromptu performers.
Describe how you researched and sourced your structures
At the Wilderness site, all our structures are temporary and hand made locally, apart from the tipis. My husband Francis is an architect and has been brilliant in creating the spaces. The chestnut wood used was carefully selected and felled from woodlands at Preston Court farm by our own woodmen.
We host weddings at this site from late May to early October, and never more than two in any given week. Our protection of the land and continued conservation is paramount. The designs were and continue to be conceived in house as our carpenters and creative team work together bringing collective ideas to life.
How do you work with your customers to make their events unique?
For weddings, each couple that we meet are such unique individuals that they themselves are the most important inspiration for the event. The Wilderness site is perfect for those with a passion for the outdoors and anyone looking for a dog friendly, laid back day. We work together recommending suppliers that we feel match their personalities.
We are equally creative with our business event clients and enjoy collaborating with those that are after something a little bit different.
How do you publicise yourself?
Through social media and the main wedding sites such as Hitched, Bridebook and CoCo Wedding Venues, plus smaller independent wedding search engines for quirky and outdoor spaces.
How would you describe your ‘style’ or unique selling point?
For Preston Court: romantic, quirky, vintage. For The Wilderness: rustic, nature-led, open air, festival vibe.
What challenges have you faced?
At The Wilderness, creating a space that is temporary without impacting on the environment has certainly been a challenge.
What are your plans for next season?
We have been growing the business at The Wilderness steadily and will look to host 20 celebrations in 2020. Each year we are inspired to add little touches of handmade décor and new designs to the woodland clearing where the tipis live and water meadow beyond.
Describe your average day mid-season
For weddings, we begin the day before, spending it with the couple who often bring along their most creative friends and family to personalise the spaces for their big day. On the day of the wedding/event, caterers arrive around 9am with florists and other suppliers to finish dressing or begin cooking for the day.
It’s a long day but very rewarding to have been part of a couples’ journey from first viewing to booking then planning their wedding with us.
What do you enjoy about the business and why?
Working from field to woodland to our lovely barnyard and main office up at Preston Court. Meeting people at their happiest, helping bring alive their dreams of how to express themselves through creative hospitality and make memories for not just them but their family and friends.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
Another family member has two glamping sites on the estate. We also host filming, photoshoots, corporate events and family parties.
Preston Court and The Wilderness
Kent CT3 1DH