The Great British Picnic

Summer has finally joined us and what better summer activity than going for a picnic? But did you know where the tradition of picnics came from?

As I watched the skies darkening last Sunday I was hastily doing a mental note of how many family members I could fit round the dining room table to enjoy the picnic lunch I had planned for the local park. My mother commented on my lack of dedication to the great outdoors and that she had many memories of taking a picnic trip and doggedly sitting by the open car boot ‘enjoying’ it in the rain.

This reminded me of various outdoor theatre performances where I have hunkered down under an umbrella to do just the same.

It made me think about the origins of the nation’s obsession with packing up the contents of their larders and transporting it out into the wilderness to consume amongst the wasps, ants and inevitable rain drops. What is it that fascinates us about eating ‘outdoors’?

It seems that the term picnic derives from a wholly indoors affair.

As Gilles Ménage’s Dictionnaire etymologique de la langue françoise (1694) describes a ‘pique-nique’ as a dinner, to which each guest has contributed a share. Favoured by the aristocracy they really took off in the 18th century and were held in homes and hired rooms.

So this hints at the tradition of people all bringing a dish to contribute to an indoor gathering (how many sausage rolls!!?) but not why we associate the term with checked rugs and willow hampers.

It seems the French Revolution had its part to play. Having fled their country many French aristocrats settled in London and in 1801, 200 of them founded the ‘Pic Nic Society’. The Times reported that the gatherings were extravagant and raucous. Held in hired rooms they required each member to bring a dish and six bottles of wine and always included a theatrical performance as entertainment.

Soon after we see the term ‘picnic’ being used in the middling classes to describe events more in tune with what we are familiar with today. Could this be simply then that they had picked up the fashionable French phrase and applied it to their own practices?

In 1808, Dorothy Wordsworth noted in a letter to a friend that she had ‘picnicked’ with 18 others on Grasmere Island, though she declared that she did not know the origins of the word.  By 1816 Jane Austin was including rustic picnics in her literary works, with reference to one on Box Hill in Emma.

Over in France, although they did shift into the pastimes of the lower classes, they remained very much ‘indoor’ affairs, and retained the public opinion of rather wicked, and unruly gatherings.

This may explain where the term comes from, but still does not shed any real light on why they decamped to the great outdoors. Was it the shift in class, to those whose homes would not be able to accommodate large numbers? Or something else?

The early years of the 19th century saw the tradition of the outdoor picnic really take hold for all classes in England and America. This can largely be put down to the changes brought about by social change and the increase in transport options.

Social reform meant that people had more ‘leisure’ time. Bicycles, railways, buses and cars all opened up the possibility of travelling into the countryside to enjoy a little bit of the rural idyll for a day. What could be more fun than to pack your lunch and take it with you to enjoy ‘al fresco’?

It is ironic, in my opinion, that this simple pastime became such a special treat. Some took just a blanket, a flask and a pack of sandwiches, and others elaborate hampers, chairs and parasols. The countryside workers of the time must have found it very curious as to why their urban cousins were suddenly coming out of the towns to enjoy what they had done on a daily basis for centuries.

Take a look at Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters, from 1565. To me herewith lies the origins of the Great British picnic, the workers in the fields enjoying some simple fare, a brief rest and each other’s good company.

Whatever the true reason, the picnic is here to stay. Now, where did I put my Tupperware…?

Tessa Lovell, Visitor Experience Manager