When Ursula Holden Gill and Keith Donnelly decided to get married they knew they didn’t want to have a traditional wedding ceremony. Ursula, who you may recognise as Alice Dingle from Emmerdale, is now a professional storyteller and met Keith, a musician, at Whitby Festival in 2011. After two years of dating they decided it was time to take the next step and Ursula explains why for them, a handfasting was the perfect option.
“We wanted to tie the knot but do it on our own way. We’d both been married before and we had significant scars. When we married before we thought we were marrying for life so we were quite dubious of making those bog standard, lawful promises that already held a lot of sadness as we’d broken them despite our best intention to keep them.
“We wanted a ceremony that would bring our family and friends together and for it to be a celebration of love and a big ‘knees-up’ to celebrate us meeting in the middle of our lives when we were least expecting to find love. We’d both come through quite a bit of adversity, heartache and pain and found the love of our lives in each other.”
Ursula has been a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids since 2010 whose traditional form of marriage ceremony is handfasting. However Ursula explains that when she researched handfastings she learnt that they pre-dated and highly influenced the traditional wedding ceremony, she and Keith decided it was definitely the type of ceremony for them:
“Couples would go to one of the Elders in the village and the Elder would perform a ceremony that would involve binding their hands, hence the word handfasting,” Ursula enthuses, “that meant that in the presence of the community the pair were a couple and that could only be broken if another ceremony was performed where the hands were unbound. Our ancestors believed that none of us could promise forever as we change and life changes and so the traditional promise was made for a year a day. The couple would then be asked if they wanted to renew it.”
Our ancestors believed that none of us could promise forever as we change and life changes
And as two people who had been married before this really resonated with Keith and Ursula:
“It was very much us. It’s a spiritual connection and union. It’s of love. It was for each other, for friends and family to see that we’re a couple so that even when we are apart (which we are quite a lot as he might be performing at one end of the country and I’ll be at another) we’re tied. It felt really right.”
As the handfasting highly influenced the traditional wedding ceremony there are some elements that still remain the same including the exchanging of rings which the couple made themselves.
“Keith made mine, and I made his. We actually welded and melded the metal so it feels very wholesome, true and solid,” Ursula beams, “the connection the rings brought meant a lot. It stands as a symbol and we wear our rings all the time. Even when we’re apart… we’re a couple.
Ursula and Keith’s handfasting took place in May 2013 in The Nutclough Wood in Hebden Bridge. Urusla, who has lived in Hebden Bridge since 2005 admits that she had a great personal connection to the wood and in some ways allowed her Mother (who sadly passed away in 2011, a few months before she met Keith) to be present at her marriage.
“My Mum’s ashes are scattered in that wood and all my animals that have passed away too. It’s a very special place,” Ursula smiles.
But what does Ursula remember of the day?
“It was overwhelming and so beautiful to see everyone who I cared about! We expected maybe seventy people but two hundred turned up! We were all stood around the wood – it was like an amphitheatre with the Druids in the middle. We loved it. It felt absolutely magical.”
But there was one thing they hadn’t bargained for! Rain! Thankfully, the couple had booked the Heptonstall Bowling Club in case it rained and also a vintage bus to take the guests up.
“Always have a contingency plan!” Ursula chuckles, “Even if you’re getting married in summer!”
Ursula is now training to be a celebrant for handfastings and will soon be hosting ceremonies for other couples who want to get married in their own way too.