Picnicking at Bourne Mill, Victorian style

Nothing can beat an al fresco feast © National Trust

Nothing can beat an al fresco feast

Do you remember when summer was all about having picnics? When you would spend a day stretched out on a blanket in a warm breeze, your toes in the grass, a cool-box full of potato salad, cherry tomatoes and ham sandwiches beside you, perhaps even a ball to throw for the dog?

Picnics are one of the greatest ways to enjoy a summer’s day, not least because they can be put together at very little cost. However, this hasn’t always been the case. When picnics first became popular it was among the English landed gentry, and they were very lavish affairs.

The word picnic was first seen printed in English in the early 1800s. It appears in Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, when the characters plan a big outing to Box Hill in Surrey. On the Jane Austen website, Laura Boyle describes how a traditional picnic was enough to feed a small army. She quotes from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management:


A joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, 2 ribs of lamb, 2 shoulders of lamb, 4 roast fowls, 2 roast ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 2 veal-and-ham pies, 2 pigeon pies, 6 medium-sized lobsters, 1 piece of collared calf’s head, 18 lettuces, 6 baskets of salad, 6 cucumbers…

…2 dozen fruit turnovers, 4 dozen cheesecakes, 2 cold cabinet puddings in moulds, 2 blancmanges in moulds, a few jam puffs, 1 large cold plum-pudding (this must be good), a few baskets of fresh fruit, 3 dozen plain biscuits, a piece of cheese, 6 lbs of butter (this, of course, includes the butter for tea), 4 quartern loaves of household broad, 3 dozen rolls, 6 loaves of tin bread (for tea), 2 plain plum cakes, 2 pound cakes, 2 sponge cakes…

…3 dozen quart bottles of ale, packed in hampers; ginger-beer, soda-water, and lemonade, of each 2 dozen bottles; 6 bottles of sherry, 6 bottles of claret, champagne à discrétion, and any other light wine that may be preferred, and 2 bottles of brandy.”

It’s likely that picnic feasts like this were had at Bourne Mill in Essex, the 16th century water mill that was built by Thomas Lucas for the express purpose of having huge parties with his aristocratic friends. This beautiful mill is set by a tranquil pond, with a swathe of grass perfect for picnicking. Sitting there today you can imagine Sir Thomas’s aristocratic ancestors on an 18th century summer afternoon, surrounded by a picnic of epic proportions.

Though our picnics today are far more modest, they can still be just as memorable as these grand picnics would have been. This summer, why not plan your own scaled-down Victorian-style picnic at Bourne Mill? Bring a cake or two, some cold roast beef, a basket of fruit and, most importantly of all, your favourite people.