Dine Alfresco This National Picnic Month!

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Us British love nothing more than a bit of sun – because let’s face it, we don’t get an awful lot of it! As soon as the warmer weather arrives we are in the garden releasing the patio furniture from its winter hibernation so we can enjoy our morning cuppa listening to the birds tweeting away, or share a family meal as the sun sets with a glass of something chilled. Essentially, there is something special about dining outside, and that is why July is National Picnic Month. 

Picnics have come a long way from the humble soggy sandwich! In this month’s feature we find out about the history of picnics, look at some of Yorkshire’s favourite picnic spots, and have some suggestions of what to pack in your hamper.

Picnics Of The Past

Historically, picnics were an activity of the wealthy only. They first became popular in medieval times when hunting grew as a sport among the nobility. Rather than travelling all the way back to their castle or country home, food would be brought to the men in the forest or wherever they may be tracking their prey that day. Venison was high on the menu as was other vast amounts of meat. This was to differentiate themselves from the peasants, whose diet mostly consisted of bread and ale. The medieval lords also had a sweet tooth and they enjoyed custard rolls, enriched dough called manchet bread, and other desserts sweetened with honey. This would all be served at the same time as the main dishes as there was no such thing as eating courses back then.

Only the wealthy had the time and resources to enjoy an expensive and elaborate meal outdoors which would be served by the household staff while they relaxed on the lawns or enjoyed a game of croquet. Peasants and the working class often ate outdoors anyway as they worked in the fields, so this was more a case of grabbing a quick bite for sustenance rather than a leisurely lunch. 

The French had a different way to enjoy a picnic, and as many aristocrats fled to England during the French Revolution, they brought their customs with them. In 1801, a group founded the ‘Pic-Nic Society’ in London. Rather than being an outdoor event, these picnics were held indoors in hired rooms, and every member was required to bring a dish and six bottles of wine! It was reported in The Times that these were rambunctious affairs where each member tried to outdo the others in both luxury and entertainment. There was singing, dancing, gambling but above all an amateur play. Despite the lack of an orchestra pit and professional actors, these events became so popular that the owner of the Drury Lane theatre became worried over how much business he was losing to the Pic Nics. It was around this time that the more genteel outdoor picnics of the English started appearing in literature, including Jane Austin’s Emma from 1816 in which a vivid portrait of a rustic picnic box on Box Hill is portrayed. 

As the Victorian period arrived and the middle class appeared, picnics became more common place as holding garden parties was popular among the bored and wealthy. They were very much carnivorous affairs as Mrs Beeton’s famous Book of Household Management published in 1861 outlines her ‘bill of fare for a picnic for 40 persons’ which included a joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, 2 ribs of lamb, 2 shoulders of lamb and much more meat including duck. Also on the menu were fresh pies such as veal or pigeon. In addition to all this there would be sandwiches – also filled with meat, although cheese was popular too often grated and mixed with cream or chopped nuts. According to Mrs Beeton, no Victorian picnic was complete without sweet treats too, with baskets filled to the brim with fruit turnovers, cheesecakes, steamed puddings, and blancmanges! All this was washed down with bottles of ale, ginger-beer, and lemonade, and of course plenty of tea.

Outdoor picnics also became popular in the USA, but in many countries the indoor version prevailed right up to the early 20th century. The development of new modes of transport over the previous couple of decades had made the countryside within reach to more of the general population, and specialist picnic baskets began to be produced for mass market. Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, written in 1908 reflects the popularity of the picnic when Mole begins to get hungry after messing around in boats all morning and asks Ratty what is in the wicker luncheon basket.  

‘There’s cold chicken inside it’, replied the Rat briefly: ‘coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeef- pickledgherkinssaladfrench- rollscresssandwichespotted- meatgingerbeerlemonadesoda- water –’

‘O stop, stop!’ cried the Mole in ecstasies. ‘This is too much!’

‘Do you really think so?’ enquired the Rat seriously. ‘It’s only what I always take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I’m a mean beast and cut it very fine!’

The picnic has never really declined in popularity, proving to be an enjoyable activity that has stood the test of time. Enid Blyton even said, “I don’t know why, but the meals we have on picnics taste so much better than the ones we have indoors.” Picnic food went through a bit of a bleak period where it seemed to consist of soggy sandwiches and a packet of crisps, but they are once again becoming more of a luxurious affair, although still a cheaper option than eating at a restaurant or café. 

Where To Picnic
In Yorkshire?

The local park always has, and probably always will be a great spot for a picnic. A popular choice for families with young children, a picnic in the park provides a sense of occasion and excitement, whilst providing an affordable way to entertain the kids on a nice day. 

Popular parks to picnic in Leeds include Roundhay Park, Middleton Park and Temple Newsam. The sheer size of Roundhay Park means that you can always find the perfect spot be it a quiet shady position under a tree, or near the bustling playgrounds for the kids. Temple Newsam always has plenty of events on through the year so many enjoy a picnic whilst listening to live music. 

In York, Dean’s Park offers great views of York Minster, and is ideal for avoiding the midday sun, with the imposing building offering plenty of shade. Museum Gardens provides loads of benches and grassy areas, and Rowntree Park has a skate park and play areas for the kids. 

Harrogate also has plenty of parks to enjoy a picnic in with Valley Gardens, The Stray and Killinghall Moor Country Park all offering something for all the family including relaxing spots, play areas and wildlife. 

If you fancy somewhere a little different to the park, here are some other popular places to spread out your blanket and enjoy a feast in the sun:

Bolton Abbey – Skipton

Bolton Abbey has long since been a place for us Yorkshire folk to head to on a warm day. There are scenic walks a plenty, the ancient abbey ruins for the history buffs, and the River Wharf providing a tranquil backdrop for your picnic. The river runs shallow at the abbey, so is ideal for the kids to splash around in and cool off – with adult supervision of course! There are also the famous steppingstones to jump across. 

Yorkshire Sculpture Park – Wakefield

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield is a world of wonder for children and adults alike. The 500 acres of countryside is dotted with over 100 world class sculptures and installations to discover from the traditional to the weird and wonderful, by a diverse group of artists ranging from local creatives to famous names such as Damien Hurst. Let your imagination run wild and choose a picnic spot near your favourite piece!

Castle Howard – York

Castle Howard has gardens, lakes, and fountains to explore, well worth the entrance fee. It feels peaceful which is just what you need for a picnic and there are plenty of picturesque spots to choose from. The Skelf Adventure Playground will keep the kids occupied and there are always events running so you could time your visit to coincide with those too.

Brimham Rocks – Harrogate

Brimham Rocks is a fabulous place to explore. Take a walksthrough the dramatic heather moorland and clamber over the giant rock formations which were created by an immense river dating back to before the dinosaurs! Brimham Rocks is also a bird watcher’s paradise, so see which species you can spot whilst eating your picnic in this ancient setting.

Sheepwash – Osmotherley

If you fancy a really rustic spot to enjoy your picnic, then Sheepwash must be one of your top choices. Located on the Cod Beck, which flows into Cod Beck Reservoir, Sheepwash is a popular picnic spot with many. Once a watering place on the ancient drovers’ road over the moors to Yarm and the River Tees, it is a perfect position to enjoy some lunch in a scenic, tranquil yet wild place. You can dangle your feet in the stream or watch the fish swim by in the clear, shallow water.


Knaresborough offers several options for a picnic spot. After a wander around the little town and a relaxing ride on the rowing boats, set your hamper down on the riverbank and let the kids have a paddle. Mother Shipton’s Cave is a beautiful spot with shaded woodland areas, and the castle ruins set up on top of the cliff give a fantastic view over the town and riverside.

The Great Yorkshire Coast

There are far too many beauty spots along our coast to name them all, and most of us have a favourite tried and tested destination when heading for the seaside. Scarborough, Bridlington and Filey all offer the gorgeous sandy beaches along with amusements that the kids all love, there is Robin Hood’s Bay great for rock-pooling and Flamborough Head which is fantastic for spotting our coastal wildlife. If fish and chips are not your thing, then it has long since been tradition to pack a picnic to eat on the beach or the clifftops. In recent years though, the seagulls have become far more aggressive and adept at stealing food right out of your hand, so dining alfresco at the coast is no longer for the faint-hearted. If you do choose to take a picnic, we recommend finding a quiet spot away from the beach and slightly further inland where the pesky birds are less likely to be hovering. And nobody wants a sandy sandwich anyway!

What to Pack in Your Picnic

The most important thing to remember when making a picnic is to create a delicious yet easy spread. Food that stands up to the journey, simple to eat but packs a powerful punch of flavour! Also, don’t forget plastic cups and cutlery – try to choose re-usable ones that can be taken home and washed so that your picnic has less impact on the environment than disposables. Ice packs are an ideal way to keep your food cool and fresh, especially on a hot day, and you will need a pretty blanket to sit on too. Here are some suggestions on what delights to pack in your hamper or cool bag today – unless of course you want to go all Victorian with several joints of meat!

Why not start with some appetisers which require no utensils such as a charcuterie board. Mediterranean selections of salamis and other cured sausages with a few varieties of cheese and some roasted peppers and olives make a great choice for finger food. Paired with some hunks of crusty bread torn from the baguette, these are the perfect nibbles to get you started. Crudites of peppers, carrots, and cucumber along with a dip such as hummus work well too.

For main courses, pies and quiches work well, as do mini pizzas. These are all firmer than sandwiches so less likely to get squashed or soggy on the journey. If you do prefer a sandwich, choose firmer bread. A rustic sourdough for example will hold up better – and filling it with drier ingredients such as sliced meat or cheese will work better than egg mayo or tuna. You can always take some chutneys, sauces, or other fillings in small Tupperware pots to add once you are ready to eat. To accompany your main courses, a salad can be prepared at home and easily transported in an airtight container. 

For dessert – how about a traditional English cream tea? Fruit scones, and little pots of cream and jam are easy to pack, and they can be served with fresh strawberries. Other great options are things like brownies and flapjacks – less likely to crumble enroute than a cake or bun. 

Don’t forget your drinks too! A thermos of tea would go down well with a cream scone, and bottles of water, sparkling or still can be garnished with slices of citrus fruit. Of course, you could also mix up a cocktail or mocktail at home and serve in pretty plastic glasses once you are there. For a really special, romantic occasion, a bottle of prosecco or champagne will do very nicely!

Whatever you choose to eat, or wherever you go, make the most of the great British summer while it lasts, and enjoy a delicious meal alfresco!

Most Popular Picnic Foods

Despite all these mouthwatering ideas, a recent poll showed that the most popular foods to take on a picnic remain the more traditional ones. 

Here is the UK’s top 10 picnic foods;

1. Sandwiches 

2. Crisps 

3. Sausage rolls

4. Cherry tomatoes

5. Pork pies

6. Scotch eggs

7. Scones

8. Slices of cheese e.g. cheddar, halloumi

9. Cocktail sausages

10. Fruit such as watermelon or strawberries

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