To truly experience the pleasures of a summer picnic, step away from the car
Your car has no place at the picnic blanket, says Sara Maitland.
It is picnic time again. Perhaps because our summers are short and unreliable, perhaps because exercise makes me hungrier, perhaps because of memories of happy childhood adventures – but for whatever reason, I love eating out of doors.
The OED defines ‘picnic’ as “an occasion when a packed meal is eaten outdoors, especially during an outing to the countryside”. The English language demonstrates that it is a pleasurable event by using the negative metaphor ‘no picnic’ to describe events that are not enjoyable.
Despite the British fondness for picnics, it was originally a French word, ‘pique-nique’, introduced in Britain in 1748 by Lord Chesterfield in a letter, although it did not become common in the UK until after 1800, when urbanisation made trips into the countryside a new sort of treat, and when the Romantic Movement encouraged a new enthusiasm for both the outdoors and informality.
The word may be new (newish) but the activity is far more ancient. In 1528, the monks of Butley Abbey in Suffolk were visited by the Queen of France. They took her to Staverton Thicks – still one of the most magical ancient oak woods in England – where they ate a meal sub quercubus (under the oak trees) cum Joco et Ludo (literally, with fun and games). The monk-chronicler even records that it was all satis
jucundis (great fun). Now that sounds like a picnic to me.
But please note, they had their picnic under the oak trees, not in a lay-by on the road, nearer to their car than to any tree. I am totally mystified by this bizarre British habit. We pack our food in hampers and we drive – probably at some expense of both time and money – into the sunny, lovely countryside, often heading to notably beautiful places. And then we park, usually right beside the road, and eat our food there. After that we get back in our cars and drive home. Some famous beauty spots, I discover, even provide picnic tables in their car parks! It does seem very odd to choose to eat in one of the most polluted areas in the whole countryside – with other cars coming and going in low gears. It seems even worse than getting sand in your sandwiches, which is always a hazard with beach picnics. Of course there are the frail, the elderly and the disabled, for whom such a picnic is not simply a joy but possibly the best or only way that they can access the countryside and it will make them happy and be good for them. There will be hurried people on long journeys, who just want a little break and something to eat. But that does not explain a couple with three young children sitting around a rug less than 20m from their car, arranged so that all the children are facing away from the view towards the vehicle. No wonder they grow up complaining that the countryside is boring.
Be bold. Stop beside a gate into a grassy field (check for bulls if you need to) or where a little path leads down to a lakeside or deep into a wood. Leave any very heavy picnic gear in the boot and walk at least until you cannot see the road or the car. Then look for a lovely place to settle down and eat. One day soon you may find the perfect picnic spot – on the top of a high hill with the huge green view below you or on a deserted beach with little islands dancing out on the sea. And I bet it will be much more satis jucundis than the lay-by. Have your say What do you think about the issues raised here? Write to the address on page 3 or email email@example.com
Sara Maitland is a writer who lives in Dumfries and Galloway. Her works include A Book of Silence and Gossip from the Forest.