When Alison Campbell caught a flight from London’s Heathrow airport at the weekend to join Darren Clarke in the Bahamas, the pair’s friends assumed they were simply squeezing in a well-earned sunshine break ahead of the Irish Open in June.
Darren had come straight from a less than successful Masters at Augusta in the US, while model agency boss Alison was last spotted in Belfast at the end of last week looking rather distracted as she exited the city’s Victoria Square shopping complex.
Easter seemed like the ideal time for the couple to recharge their batteries ahead of the Irish Open in June in Portrush, when there will be huge pressure on local man Darren to lift the trophy.
Now, of course, thanks to Darren’s Tweeted photograph of Wednesday’s romantic ceremony on the beach at Abaco where they have home, we know exactly why Alison may have been looking a little harrassed as she dashed through the city.
“She was popping something into a bag and seemed in a hurry,” said the eyewitness, adding with a smile: “Perhaps it was something blue ...”
Indeed, such was the ring of secrecy surrounding the nuptials of one of Ulster’s most high-profile couples that even most of their closest acquaintances from the worlds of sport and fashion hadn’t an inkling the ceremony was about to take place.
One of Alison’s business colleagues freely admitted to the Belfast Telegraph that Alison hadn’t let slip a single clue about her exciting plans.
But we can reveal that hush-hush preparations were underway for some time, with Alison letting leading local fashion designer Una Rodden into her secret when she commissioned her to make her strapless above-the-knee ivory coloured wedding dress.
“Alison came to us around six weeks ago and asked us to design her wedding dress,” revealed Una. “She is a very stylish woman and so she had quite fixed ideas about what she wanted the dress to be like. She’s a beautiful tall woman, which always makes it easier when making a dress.
“I was told it was going to be abroad, somewhere hot and would be quite low-key. Alison knew the basic shape of the dress she wanted, but I was able to advise her on the fabrics and structure of it.
“Her dress was lined with linen to keep her cool in the heat and then a lightweight silk gauze was pleated and draped over the top.”
Una also revealed that Alison already knew that her groom would be in smart white shorts. “Because Darren was wearing shorts she didn't want anything too over the top or structured. And although the dress sounds quite straightforward to make, all the pleats were hand sewn so it was time-consuming to make.
“We knew when the wedding would be and where, but I didn't really press her for any more details. Confidentiality is really the nature of our business, so I didn't find it hard keeping it all a secret just because they are celebrities.
“I haven't spoken to Alison yet, but from the photos she looked great and I wish her and Darren all the luck in the world.”
Plans were also under way for months to ensure Darren and Alison’s family could join them for a wedding that may have been taking place under a hot Carribean sun thousands of miles away but nevertheless remained a private family affair — a priority for bride and groom.
Consequently they made their vows in front of a small group that included Darren’s sons from his first marriage, Tyrone (14) and Conor (11).
Also looking on were both sets of parents — Godfrey and Hetty Clarke and Jim and Helen Smyth — as well as Darren’s sister Andrea and her family.
It’s unclear whether Alison’s sons, Stuart (23), now working in the States, and Philip (19), a student, were present for the ceremony but it’s known both are thrilled their mother has found love again.
Interestingly, too, while Darren and Alison could have commanded a hefty fee from one of the celebrity magazines for coverage of their wedding, they chose not to do so — underlining how much they wanted to keep their special day to themselves and family.
Indeed, the only celebrity known to have been in attendance is fellow Portrush man and golfer Grame McDowell and his girlfriend Kristen Stape. Then again, as the man who first introduced Darren to Alison, he could hardly have been left of the short invitation list.
It is, of course, a second wedding for both Darren (43) and Alison (50). The golfer’s first wife, Heather, lost a brave battle against breast cancer in August 2006, while the former Miss Northern Ireland split from from her businessman husband Arthur Campbell in 2004.
Darren and Alison have much in common, not least the fact both hail from Co Tyrone. They also share many winning attributes — both are personable, down-to-earth and great fun. Consequently, the news they were dating delighted all those who knew them and hoped each would seize this second chance at happiness.
Indeed, such is the affection towards the pair that even good friends who had been kept out of the wedding loop, only wanted to send them their best wishes after that picture was Tweeted.
Trevor Kane (53), who owns The Bayview Hotel in Portballintrae, knows the couple well and thought the wedding would be sooner rather than later. “We had our suspicions that they were going to get married very soon,” he said. “I had spoken to his mum before he left for the Masters and there were hints it was going to happen.
“But Darren always plays his cards quite close to his chest, so when I asked him if it was true he smirked as if to say ‘Watch this space.’
“They have a house in the Bahamas and for Darren it is where he can go get some peace and quiet, so it was the perfect setting for their wedding. They enjoy the privacy and that is why they probably went away, but I am sure there will be a few parties when they get home. We will have some Champagne and a Guinness waiting for them.”
He said that Darren had been a regular face at the Bayview for the past seven or eight years since moving back to Northern Ireland. “We have all gotten to know him very well. He is down to earth and always full of banter. He usually brings Alison with him.
“Darren is a great ambassador for Northern Ireland and Alison is a lovely girl. It's great to see them get married. I know his two boys love Alison and they are such a happy family.”
Debbie Armstrong, wife of former Northern Ireland football legend Gerry, only found out about the wedding when we contacted her at her London home late yesterday. And the property developer and ex-model, who has known Alison since she joined her ACA agency 20 years ago at the age of 16, said she was “thrilled” for her good friend.
“I am so pleased to hear their good news,” she said.
“I had dinner with Alison two months ago when I was at home, but there was no mention of a wedding.
“When they got engaged [at Christmas 2010] I didn't think they would get married so soon as there was no talk of immediate plans to set a date. Still, if I’d put money on what the wedding would be like, I would have predicted they would have gone away.
“Gerry and I went away and doing it that way, getting married in private, is their style as well. I haven’t yet seen the photos but Alison would look gorgeous in a bin bag. It will be great when they get home — I am sure they'll have a big get-together.”
Even those who’d heard murmurings on the fashion grapevine that Alison might be about to tie the knot on a tropical island didn’t know where or when.
Tracey Hall, who also runs a major modelling agency in Belfast, said: “I’d heard a rumour that Alison was going to get married soon and on a tropical island but I didn't know they were getting married this week.”
Style expert Tracey also gave full marks to Alison’s Una Rodden gown. “I loved the dress because it was understated and simple,” she said. “But I know Alison likes her bling, though, so I'm sure there will be an occasion when she gets home for a bit of glitz.”
Speaking last February, Darren talked about meeting the second love of his life on that blind date set up Graeme McDowell. “G-Mac is very friendly with one of Alison’s models and both conspired to give me her number,” he explained.
They met over dinner, after Darren had checked out his prospective date on the internet: “I wanted to see what she looked like. I figured if she was a model, she’d be a very nice lady, and I wasn’t wrong.”
Crucially, Alison also quickly formed a close bond with Darren’s two sons from his first marriage. And she has even managed to use her famous diplomacy to cope with her new husband’s (in)famous moods, as Darren himself revealed: “Alison’s worldly wise and well able for me, even my strops. She lets me stew for a while, ignores it really.”
Other friends have been quick to send the new man and wife their best wishes.
Cathy Martin, head of CMPR public relations agency, said: “I’ve known Alison for about 20 years and I'm absolutely delighted for her and Darren. Her dress is beautiful but simple and the white roses she carried were perfect. Darren looked great with his suntan and shorts.”
Pat Jordan, who owns Jourdan on Belfast’s Lisburn Road, where Alison bought her engagement outfit, said: “It's terrific when two people find each other and they look so happy. I think their wedding was a low key solution that was perfect for them.”
“Alison's dress was the perfect choice for a beach wedding. She has been a customer of mine for years. She bought her floor-length white engagement gown here”
Among Darren’s inner circle, his agent Chubby Chandler was on the invite list. But according to Darren’s management company, International Sports Management, few others were in the know. A spokesman said: “The wedding was a very private affair and only a handful of people knew, Chubby being one of them, but everyone at ISM wishes them well.”
Sean T Hughes is honorary secretary of Darren’s first golf club in Dungannon. He, too, was delighted to learn the golfer’s good news: “I’ve known Darren since he was a kid and when you see the couple together, you can tell there’s a sparkle — it was after meeting Alison that Darren won the British Open at Sandwich.
“It’s important for a sportsman, especially for a golfer, to have the right partner, and Darren always says that she’s brought some stability back into his life.”
Belfast-based wedding planner Anthony Miller knew the couple were intending to get married but wanted to keep low key.
He said: “I chatted with Alison a few times about it and she told me they were just going to slip off and get married abroad. They wanted an intimate, romantic wedding.
And Anthony added: “She didn't ask for help with the planning, but then again they didn't need any as they were keeping it simple. I loved that they did it their own way.”
Interviews by Kerry McKittrick, Laura McGarrity and Jane Hardy