Image credit: Natalie Stevenson Photography
Any wedding venue can ramp up the romance. Ravishing looks à la Downton Abbey always help, as do pictures of newlyweds gazing into each other’s eyes, against a backdrop of flower-filled meadows. Gushing descriptions on the website lure you in. Few, though, have such a palpable sense of romance – such a stirring back-story – as Notley Abbey, a honey-coloured retreat on the Oxfordshire-Buckinghamshire border: Notley Abbey does romance without even trying.
It was here, in the years following the end of the second world war, that stars of stage and screen Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh made their home. Larry and Viv, as they’re affectionately known by biographers and fans, found in Notley Abbey a setting worthy of their enduring – and sometimes tempestuous – romance, and fell as hopelessly in love with it as they were with each other. It’s easy to see why.
“Oh, the hundreds of times my beloved Larry and I have wandered here in wonder and grateful amazement at the beauty all around us—the feeling that we were a little responsible for creating it too made it all so doubly dear”.
So said Vivien in a letter to Olivier’s son, Tarquin, in 1960, referring to the grounds they had spent endless happy hours planting and tending. This was their sanctuary – the place they could be themselves, away from the glare of the spotlight. Fellow Hollywood stars came here to be themselves, too, at the couple’s legendary parties (indeed, there’s a striking portrait of Marilyn Monroe in one of the bedrooms she stayed in). This year, eighty years after Larry and Viv moved in, Notley Abbey feels every bit as special; a magical otherworld tucked away at the end of a long, tree-lined driveway, waiting to play its part in today’s great love stories.
Harper Weddings, the family-run company that owns the house, plans a series of special offers during 2024 to mark the anniversary. It’s one more compelling reason for couples to visit and feel the magic for themselves. In winter, there’s an almost ethereal beauty to the place (and crackling fires lend a cosy cheer to the characterful ground floor rooms). Spring brings the green canopy of the tree-lined drive, and the vibrant lilac of the wisteria-clad walled garden behind the house (even the nook in the wall is licensed – handy for al fresco ceremonies). At any time of year, the possibilities for spirited celebration are endless – Notley Abbey is entirely and exclusively yours for twenty-four hours, giving you the run of the house (and nine beautiful bedrooms for the ultimate sleepover).
With exclusive use comes the reassuring expertise of Harper’s twenty-five years in the business (that’s a lot of happy couples). Whether you’re picturing an A-list arrival by helicopter, landing on the riverside lawn to the applause of your assembled guests, or cavorting to big band swing beneath the chandeliers of the showpiece Monks’ Refectory, it’ll be meticulously planned and executed with aplomb. Who said wedding planning had to be stressful?
And so to the numbers. The Monks’ Refectory, where the abbey’s Augustine monks ate their meals and drank home brew (who knew?) easily hosts up to 164 guests for a ceremony or 250 for an evening reception, with huge doors opening onto a courtyard festooned with fairy lights. For more intimate ceremonies, the oak-beamed Abbot’s Hall hosts up to 100. Outside, on summer afternoons, the walled garden hosts up to 164. And where helicopters descend, fireworks shoot into the night sky should your heart desire – a fitting finale to your celebration (before stealing away to the Notley Suite). Larry and Viv, we think, would approve.