From Brenda in Hove: Picnics, more or less

“There are few things so pleasant as a picnic eaten in perfect comfort.” W. Somerset Maughan

Namaqualand daisies by James Gourley

14 June. Lockdown restrictions are easing here in the UK. So when I went for my usual walk around our park today, I was interested to note the differences this occasioned – especially as it is a Sunday. There was much that was very different. Teenagers, in particular, seemed to have embraced their freedom with a vengeance – especially the boys: riding their bikes and skateboards as fast as they could manage on the tarred path; having riotous games of basketball; having football games; and generally hanging out with their friends with no heed at all for social distancing. I suppose they have read about their odds of getting the virus and even the longer odds of dying from it. I felt very sympathetic towards them. Lockdown must have been very difficult for youngsters that age.

There were also more people in the park than has been usual – many of them picnicking. Picnics seem to me to be the ideal way of meeting your friends when social distancing is required, and they are seeing a resurgence. But I have to say that either none of them today seem to have had much experience of picnics or they were all very unimaginative. If a picnic is to be enjoyed there needs to be some sense of occasion to the affair.  

I have been spoilt in this department. One of my very best picnics was at Glyndebourne during the opera season. I have a generous friend who does the spoiling. One year, he ordered everything it was possible to order for a picnic during the interval. He had a table (no less) with six chairs, draped in damask, cut-glass wine glasses, silver cutlery, champagne on  ice, and an excellent three course menu served by a waiter. Somerset Maughan would have approved!  

Another standard-setting picnic years ago was in South Africa on a trip to see the Namaqualand daisies which come out once a year for about three weeks and are as spectacular as anyone could wish for. We and a group of friends had booked out a very small boutique hotel near a place called Velorenvlei (the name translated from Afrikaans means ‘lonely marsh’ describing an estuarine marsh on the Atlantic coast and a bird lovers’ paradise). We had left the booking to our friends in the Cape and left the arrangements to them as well.

We didn’t realize that one of the hotel’s claim to fame was its cuisine. One of the arrangements made was that the hotel pack us a picnic basket for a day out to one of the nature reserves in the area. When we arrived at the reserve we picked out a suitable place to have our picnic and set about opening the three massive hampers that the hotel had furnished. The most astonishing things came out of those three hampers. All the ingredients for a three course meal (including, I seem to remember, ostrich eggs) – complete with a printed menu for each of us! Damask cloths on the lawn, beautiful crockery, silver cutlery, you-name-it, even silver cigar cutters.

One of our party used to write the wine guide to South African wines every year and he had brought us just the right wine for every course (in an ice-packed hamper). I can’t drink wine so it was wasted on me – as was the conversation discussing the merits and demerits of every wine. At first, it was hilarious – again Somerset Maughan would have approved – but then we found that the reserve was on the tourist trail and we had settled ourselves very near to where all the tour buses parked. Dozens and dozens of people from all over the world who had come to see the daisies (!) were absolutely amazed to find this decadent scene of South Africans having a serious picnic. Out came the cameras and we were the subjects of an untold number of photographs. So embarrassing. How were they to know that none of us, before or since, had ever had such a picnic?

Moving on, we are planning to have some picnics of our own in the near future with much missed friends and family. They might not meet Somerset Maughan’s standards but they won’t descend to the minimalist fare seen in the park today!