That Friday afternoon could have been heavy. My assignation – a church wedding in the heartlands of Surrey. The journey there took less time than expected thanks to an easy platform change and an early connection. I arrived at Dorking to be met by the bridegroom’s mother. There were three other invitees at the station and all of us squeezed into the awaiting car. In the chatter I discovered that the ceremony was to start at 2.30, not the 1.30 in my invite. My initial reservations resurfaced. Then we arrived at an idyllic village green. Gloom lifted, replaced by moments of surreal pleasure.
The tiny church, with its modest steeple and wood-clad walls, sat tucked behind trees at the side of the green as it would have for some 700 years. An usher asked me quietly whether I was ‘with the bride or the groom’. I was directed to the bride’s side on the left of the aisle and sat down at a pew at the back. At this point I discovered that I was one of only four white people on the bride’s side, and that the majority were in their traditional Zimbabwean colours if not robes. I felt proud to be invited. To the right of the aisle was middle England.
All fell silent. The bride (radiant) entered the church and a crescendo of joyous ululation from the left rocked the walls. Any idea that this was going to be a hushed and sanctimonious affair was quickly dismissed. Things quietened, the service began, and instead of a hymn we were next treated to some beautifully harmonious singing by five women from the left. Soon it was time for the vows and when the bride said ‘I will’ and then ‘I do’, ululations again exploded – the ancient oak beams would not have known what had hit them.
But there was more to come. The vicar, seemingly a little shaken, announced that he and the newly-weds would retire to an ante room to sign the necessary forms. With no apparent prompting, a lone voice on the left started to sing. Seconds later the side joined in, harmonics and all, then stood up as one (me included) and began to sway in the pews. Space was at a premium and movement hampered, so we burst into the aisle to dance more freely. Here was uninhibited celebration. The song finished, seats were reclaimed, but with no sign of the trio, another voice on the left struck up. This time movement into the isle was instantaneous and as if from nowhere, drums appeared. A woman in her seventies was handed a set and the rhythm section got going with gusto. It was a riotous, joyous moment.
The trio reappeared, the couple glowed, and like naughty children the congregation fell silent and crept back to their seats. Then, as husband and wife walked towards the door at the back of the church, ululation began again and continued till they were out of sight.
I don’t think I will forget the unrestrained joy of this wedding. Perhaps such celebration goes on in the Surrey countryside most weekends – it was certainly a first for me.