Is Norfolk out of love with weddings?

Victoria NichollsAlthough some happy couples might have made the decision on Valentine's Day to tie the knot, new statistics reveal the number of weddings has hit rock bottom since records began nearly 150 years ago.Victoria Nicholls

Although some happy couples might have made the decision on Valentine's Day to tie the knot, new statistics reveal the number of weddings has hit rock bottom since records began nearly 150 years ago.

Victoria Nicholls explores whether our romance with the dream wedding has died and why those of us who are still taking the plunge are opting for stately homes over churches.

It is supposed to be the happiest day of our lives, the one occasion when our friends and family gather to wish us well, shower us with confetti and help us celebrate the start of a new adventure in life.

But despite the fairytale appeal of a wedding, marriages have been in decline over recent decades.

New figures from the Office for National Statistics show the provisional number of marriages registered in England and Wales in 2008 are at their lowest rate since they were first calculated in 1862.

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The figures for 2008, the latest to be published, also reveal that religious marriages accounted for just one third of all weddings. So has our romance with a dream wedding day died?

Rev Adrian Bell, from Fakenham Parish Church, said he was seeing the opposite trend, adding that he performed 25 weddings last year.

He said: 'We have doubled the number of weddings we have done in 10 years and a lot of it is because we have a very good marriage team.'

He said the parish was finding ways to attract couples to marry in church, including minimising the fee to �320 to make it affordable for younger couples, taking adverts out, and even holding a Valentine's service on Sunday especially for people who married or were preparing to marry in the church.

Mr Bell said the Bishop of Norwich recently brought together the clergy of 19 parishes together in a bid to encourage them to promote marriage in church, adding: 'This is going to mean an awful lot of difference to the Norwich diocese - we're going to have an awful lot more church weddings.'

Rev John Beauchamp, rector of St Michael's and St Luke's churches in Beccles, said he was seeing a similar trend.

He said: 'It's nothing like the 50s and 60s when there would be two, three or four weddings in the church every Saturday through the summer, but in 2010 I've got more weddings in St Michael's than we've had in one year for maybe 10 years.'

With about 20 weddings already booked for this year, he added: 'In a town like Beccles there are still quite a lot of people who look at the church as a community focus. I think it's something that's had a bit of a resurgence. A little rural community like Beccles tends to buck quite a lot of trends.'

Referring to the national downward rates, he added: 'Partly it's to do with society's acceptance of people living together in a way it didn't even 20 years ago,' he said. 'Now it's not a problem for anyone for a couple to move in together without being married.'

The statistics show more and more couples are opting to hold wedding ceremonies at 'approved premises' such as hotels, stately homes and historic buildings. The increase has coincided with a rise in the number of approved premises being given licences for weddings following their introduction in 1995.

Rob Carr, from the Maids Head Hotel in Norwich, said three years ago it hosted about 10 weddings per year, a figure that has risen to more than 40.

'It's definitely an upward trend because it can all be housed under one roof,' he said. 'Everybody's in the same place all day so it's so much more convenient.'

Ben Gibbins, events manager at Somerleyton Hall, near Lowestoft, said: 'The number of weddings we have has certainly increased. Most of the receptions we do also have the ceremony here, and we also have a lot that just have the ceremony here.

'A lot of people say it's easier. You can have the ceremony in one part and the reception in another.'

The estate hires out rooms in the hall for ceremonies and receptions, with the option of a marquee in the gardens, which can accommodate up to 600 people.

Mr Gibbins added: 'People like the setting - the venue on a hot summer day looks fantastic.'

He said weddings were a large and expanding part of the business, adding that from this year wedding parties could hire out the entire hall for weekends.

As well as revealing the number of marriages taking place, the new figures from the Office for National Statistics show the average age for people tying the knot for the first time has increased by about three years for both men and women over the last decade. In 2008, it stood at 32.1 years for men and 29.9 years for women.

It is estimated a further 1pc of 2008 marriage returns will be received from register offices and the clergy over the next year, allowing final figures to be published in spring 2011.