Once an event in its own right, a chance to enjoy sunshine and scenery, the British picnic has become a competitive feast attached to entertainment. Jeremy Musson advocates a return to simple pleasures
The British picnic was once a simple affair and an event in itself. The competitive, elaborate feasts of today are now attached to other entertainments, rather than to simply enjoy the outdoors. Jeremy Musson advocates the return of the proper British picnic.
The sun is shining so roll out the picnic blanket. Follow our picnicking suggestions and learn how to get involved with National Picnic Week.
THE BRITISH PICNIC
Picnicking is one of the most British of pastimes. Ratty’s phenomenal repast for his boat trip, described in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), readily evokes the easy leisure associated with the Edwardian devotion to pleasure. Mole asks Ratty about the large wicker basket that he heaves aboard his rowing boat. “There’s cold chicken inside it,” replies Ratty, “coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater–.” In Grahame’s immortal scene, the content of the picnic hamper has become one delicious mouthful in itself.
That little scene catches something of the British spirit. The Edwardians seized any excuse to bundle out into the country and frolic in fields and rivers, nude bathing and drinking champagne in meadows at dawn. They revelled in the tented luxury of outdoor feasts at cricket matches and regattas. The increasing availability of the motorcar made picnicking easier. Even as later-20th-century children we were often hauled out for picnics the moment the sun started to shine: excursions up such and such a hill to see the view, into woods to hear birdsong or to the riverbank to swim or mess about on boats.
The contents of the hampers were not necessarily anything fancy. The foodstuffs were certainly (as with Ratty’s) to be eaten cold, with fingers, and perhaps accompanied by soup or tea from a flask. Food itself was not really the focus of the picnic; what mattered was being in that wood, by that river or the sea, or on that moor.
Today, it seems that we think of picnics as things to take to special events whereas not so long ago the picnic was the event. Even the elaborate Regency picnic described in Jane Austen’s Emma, where we can well imagine the liveried servants and hampers of delicacies they are carrying up Box Hill, the point of the excursion was to enjoy the famous view and beauties of the landscape.
Now it would be appalling humbug not to recognise the indolent pleasures of the “opera”-level picnic (table, chairs, ice buckets for the wine) or the race meeting “tailgate buffet”, as the late AA Gill famously dubbed them. They are a great treat in themselves and also descend from the culture of the Indian summer of Edwardian England. But they derive their principal pleasures from the associated sport or entertainment to which they are attached and can demand a level of planning, purchasing and equipment more terrifying even than the humble dinner party now made daunting by the world of the trophy cookbook. It is time to recapture the joys of the “picnic proper” in the country – simple and fun, an alfresco meal that is more about the encounter with nature than anything else. There is a magic to the picnic that can be planned in a moment. Sausages and boiled eggs, apples and chocolate biscuits used to be thrown into the car as sustenance for an often damp point-to-point. To a small boy in the open air on a muddy Hampshire field, these simple things seemed a feast. In pre-teen years, my best friend’s military father used to drive out to woods by a lake and, under his stern command, we would collect wood and build a fire on which we would heat a modest can of rice pudding – and feel like heroes of the wild.
Of course, the picnic proper doesn’t have to be that simple but it should not be too elaborate, either. It should be about being out in the open air, looking out on nature and enjoying freedom from the tyranny of the indoors – and technology. Evelyn Waugh caught the magic of the lightly planned picnic when Lord Sebastian Flyte calls on his Oxford friend, Charles Ryder, in Brideshead Revisited (1945): “I’ve got a motor-car and a basket of strawberries and a bottle of Château Peyraguey – which isn’t a wine you’ve ever tasted, so don’t pretend. It’s heaven with strawberries.” They seek some shade and find “a sheep-cropped knoll under a clump of elms”, where they ate the strawberries, drank the wine and looked up at the trees.
Perhaps the “picnic proper” should always be a shared event between friends or other families. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of the picnic points to it originally being a “social entertainment in which each person present contributed a share of the provisions”.
No one is suggesting a return to the picnic for 40 persons (although Mrs Beeton gave tips for such a number, with enough roast meat to feed a regiment and a formidable battery of cucumbers). But this year divide your picnic efforts. By all means indulge in the splendid alfresco buffet but also think of the “picnic proper” and – in the spirit of Ratty and Lord Sebastian – meet with friends to share a simple meal to be eaten cold, at short notice, when the sun is shining, on a hill, in some remote field or wood with a view, and let nature and the sky speak to you, in delicious summer idleness.