The pic­nic proper, re­vis­ited

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 Field - - COMMENT -

Pic­nick­ing is one of the most Bri­tish of pas­times. Ratty’s phe­nom­e­nal repast for his boat trip, de­scribed in ken­neth gra­hame’s

The Win­dow 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, “cold tongue cold ham cold beef pick led gherkins salad french rolls cress sand­widg es pot ted meat gin­ger beer lemon­ade soda wa­ter –.” 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.

The point of the elab­o­rate Re­gency pic­nic de­scribed in Emma was to en­joy the view

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