The art of the great Bri­tish pic­nic

There is noth­ing like lay­ing out a blan­ket for a long and lan­guorous lunch on a warm summer’s day. Gregory Holyoake looks into the tra­di­tion and Katy Bir­chall asks lead­ing chefs to re­veal their per­fect pic­nic

Country Life Every Week - - Opinion -

Alice was be­gin­ning to get very tired of sit­ting by her sis­ter on the bank, and of hav­ing noth­ing to do’: thus be­gins one of the best-loved classics of chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, the story first told by the Rev charles Dodg­son (lewis car­roll) on a row­ing ex­pe­di­tion along the River Thames one sul­try summer’s day in July 1862. The party com­prised Dodg­son, who rowed bow, the Rev Robinson Duck­worth, row­ing stroke, and the three lid­dell sis­ters—lo­rina, Alice and edith—daugh­ters of the Dean of christ church, Oxford.

The friends had trav­elled three miles up­river from Folly Bridge, Oxford, to the ham­let of God­stow and Dodg­son be­gan im­pro­vis­ing the story over the shoul­ders of his com­pan­ions in their hired gig, con­tin­u­ing un­der the shade of hayricks by the river­side. ‘We had tea on the bank there,’ he con­fided in his di­ary, ‘on which oc­ca­sion i told them the fairy­tale of “Alice’s Ad­ven­tures Un­der Ground”.’

Alice, later Mrs Har­g­reaves, re­mem­bered vividly that ‘blaz­ing af­ter­noon with the heat haze shim­mer­ing over the mead­ows’. Alas, me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal ob­ser­va­tions for the Rad­cliffe Ob­ser­va­tory, Oxford, con­firm the day was ac­tu­ally over­cast with rain in the early af­ter­noon. No mat­ter, to the friends present, their rec­ol­lec­tion was that it was a ‘golden af­ter­noon’.

Tea by the river, lunch on the lawn: any men­tion of past pic­nics, whether in the coun­try or at the sea­side, in­vari­ably con­jures up images of warm summer sun­shine. in re­al­ity, how­ever, in­stances of eat­ing out of doors for ne­ces­sity rather than plea­sure have rarely been recorded.

izaak Wal­ton de­scribes a scant meal in his cel­e­bra­tion of fish­ing The Com­pleat An­gler, when in­ter­locu­tors—pis­ca­tor, a tu­tor, and Ve­na­tor, his pupil—steal a break­fast be­side the River lea, con­sist­ing of ‘a piece of pow­dered beef and one or two radishes’. The pair con­sumes it greed­ily in the hour be­fore dawn, one of the most promis­ing mo­ments of the day for fish­er­men.

Sa­muel Pepys, chief Sec­re­tary to the Navy, liked to travel by barge down river with his friends to­wards Gravesend to view ships of the Royal Navy an­chored along the Thames es­tu­ary, where they par­tic­i­pated in a shared meal that might have in­cluded Ken­tish cher­ries, cheese­cake and neat’s [beef] tongue ac­com­pa­nied by a quan­tity of ale.

The word ‘pic­nic’, de­not­ing a so­cial event in which din­ers con­trib­ute to­wards a shared meal, may de­rive from the French piquenique—pique mean­ing to pick or chose and nique re­fer­ring to trivia. in 1801, col Henry Gre­ville in­vited his friends to a the­atri­cal per­for­mance, but, to lessen the ex­pense, he pro­posed that his guests should send ahead an ap­petis­ing dish. Plates were tick­eted and lots drawn to de­cide who should be served a ran­dom dish for this in­no­va­tive ‘pic-nic’

sup­per. Thus, the word en­tered the English lan­guage, al­though it was slow to ac­quire the mod­ern mean­ing of a meal taken purely for plea­sure out of doors.

Wil­liam and Dorothy Wordsworth were keen par­tak­ers of rus­tic meals when they ex­plored the moun­tain scenery of their beloved Lake District. The sib­lings were in­vet­er­ate pic­nick­ers—whether in scorch­ing sum­mers or bit­ter win­ters—at which they might be joined by lit­er­ary friends Sir Wal­ter Scott or Sa­muel Tay­lor Co­leridge. Dorothy’s let­ter to a friend in 1808 men­tions a pic­nic for 19 peo­ple on Gras­mere Is­land, dis­rupted by a thun­der­storm. She was her­self puz­zled by ref­er­ence to the word pic­nic, as it was then quite new.

By the mid 19th cen­tury, pic­nics were firmly es­tab­lished. Queen Vic­to­ria, when in res­i­dence at Bal­moral, fre­quently rode a pony, es­corted by her manser­vant John Brown, to join Prince Al­bert for lunch in the re­mote hills. The Prince Con­sort would take a break from deer stalk­ing and re­lax with his ghillies in one of the way­side en­camp­ments. Her Majesty painstak­ingly recorded de­tails of these re­mote ex­cur­sions in her notebook, Jour­nal of Our Life in

the High­lands. Pic­nic over, Vic­to­ria would

sketch the breath­tak­ing scenery; ‘so wild, so soli­tary’.

In Mrs Bee­ton’s Book of House­hold

Man­age­ment, first pub­lished in 1861, Lon­don jour­nal­ist Is­abella Bee­ton—the undis­puted au­thor­ity on Vic­to­rian cater­ing—rec­om­mended a bill of fare for a pic­nic for 40 per­sons aimed at the av­er­age mid­dle-class host­ess. Her sug­gested menu com­prised ‘a joint of cold boiled beef, 2 ribs of lamb, 2 shoul­ders of lamb, 4 roast fowls, 2 roast ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 2 veal and ham pies, 2 pi­geon pies, 6 medium sized lob­sters, 1 piece of col­lared calf’s head’ and her choice of pud­ding for

a summer’s day, sur­pris­ingly, in­cluded ‘1 large Christ­mas pud­ding’, which, she in­sisted, ‘must be good’.

Both D. H. Lawrence and Eve­lyn Waugh fea­ture bliss­ful pic­nics in two of their best­known nov­els. In Women in Love, sis­ters Gu­drun and Ur­sula swim in the nude, dance them­selves dry and rel­ish aro­matic tea, cu­cum­ber and caviar sand­wiches and cakes.

Brideshead Re­vis­ited sees Charles Ry­der and Se­bas­tian Flyte drive to the Wilt­shire coun­try­side in a bor­rowed two-seater Mor­risCow­ley to en­joy straw­ber­ries and wine on ‘a sheep-cropped knoll un­der a clump of elms’. The so­cial eti­quette of a pic­nic is skil­fully used in Jane Austen’s Emma to give a chas­ten­ing les­son to her epony­mous heroine.

The evo­lu­tion of the English pic­nic is also re­flected in the paint­ings of the Old Masters. Zoffany’s Mr and Mrs David Gar­rick Tak­ing Tea (1762) presents the ac­tor-man­ager par­tak­ing of this ex­pen­sive bev­er­age on his man­i­cured Thame­side lawn with all the trap­pings of in­door com­fort, in­clud­ing a tea ta­ble and arm­chair, in ev­i­dence. Mor­land’s The An­glers’ Repast (1790) de­picts an el­e­gant fish­ing party about to in­dulge in a meal in a leafy, river­side glade. A young gal­lant re­clines on the grass to carve a chicken and the ladies take their seats on chairs, ready to dine from sil­ver plates.

A true pic­nic, which is eaten on the ground, is en­cap­su­lated in Tis­sot’s Holy­day (1876), pop­u­larly known as The Pic­nic. The set­ting is the late-au­tumn gar­den of the artist’s Lon­don home at 17, Grove End Road, St John’s Wood. El­e­gant fig­ures are warmly wrapped as they re­lax be­neath a with­ered chest­nut, the yel­low­ing leaves of which frame the can­vas. Fo­cus is upon the lady pour­ing tea for a young man loung­ing and a se­cond lady, the artist’s mis­tress Kath­leen New­ton, averts her gaze. A cou­ple dis­ports among the cast-iron colon­nade of the cir­cu­lar lily pond and an el­derly chap­er­one dozes.

The cen­tre­piece is a plain table­cloth spread for a sparse meal com­posed of sliced cold meats, a choice wal­nut or fruit cake and pur­ple and white grapes. A tea tray holds a sil­ver ket­tle and a Chi­nese blue-and-white cube teapot has, omi­nously, a ser­pent han­dle. At the time, this charm­ing paint­ing was dis­missed by Os­car Wilde for its ‘painfully ac­cu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of mod­ern soda wa­ter bot­tles’.

The ad­vent of the au­to­mo­bile at the turn of the cen­tury saw depart­ment stores sell­ing lux­ury mo­tor, river, lun­cheon and tea bas­kets, equipped with bone china and sil­ver cut­lery and filled with dainty del­i­ca­cies. Later, fam­i­ly­owned mo­tor cars en­cour­aged trips to the coun­try­side, with a well-stocked ham­per lodged in the lug­gage rack.

Our own Royal Fam­ily loves to host in­for­mal meals out of doors. When­ever the Queen Mother stayed at Birkhall in Aberdeen­shire, she rel­ished salmon-fish­ing ex­pe­di­tions on the River Dee, ac­com­pa­nied by pic­nics, re­gard­less of high wind or deep snow, taken at the school­room by Glen Gairn or the lodge at Loch Cal­later. Gen­er­ous fare in­cluded game or chicken pie, cold lamb cut­lets and baked pota­toes wrapped in foil.

In­deed, Princess Mar­garet’s wed­ding gift to her sis­ter Princess El­iz­abeth, when she mar­ried The Duke of Ed­in­burgh in 1947, was a lux­ury pic­nic ham­per for two, com­plete with spirit burner and square teapot. The Queen ap­par­ently made good use of it on summer hol­i­days in Scot­land and in­for­mal photographs from the early 1960s re­veal the royal cou­ple with their chil­dren, loung­ing on tar­tan rugs sur­rounded by cor­gis, af­ter a pic­nic on the lawn of Bal­moral Cas­tle.

Last summer, The Queen hosted a grand pic­nic in St James’s Park to cel­e­brate her pa­tron­age of 600 char­i­ties and or­gan­i­sa­tions on her 90th birth­day. Thou­sands of in­vited guests en­joyed a clas­sic lunch from pic­nic ham­pers at ta­bles po­si­tioned all along The Mall and, al­though the day it­self was damp and driz­zly, pick­nick­ers donned plas­tic macs and pon­chos to en­sure they, too, would have per­sonal me­mories of a truly golden af­ter­noon.

‘Our own Royal Fam­ily loves to host in­for­mal meals out of doors

Hav­ing a pic­nic in the sun has long been ro­man­ti­cised in paint­ings and lit­er­a­ture, but the preva­lence of ants is of­ten over­looked

Golden af­ter­noons: Se­bas­tian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) and Charles Ry­der (Matthew Goode) in the 2008 film adap­ta­tion of Brideshead Re­vis­ited

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