Coachlines - April 2020

18.04.20 Liveryman Lyn Litchfield

The picnic – a very British institution

When I moved to England about two decades ago, the first British summer social I was invited to was Royal Ascot. Soon after that it was Henley Festival. The idea of going to Ascot or Henley to picnic didn’t spring to my mind at all. I’d like to believe that was because we didn’t have the proper attire to hand at the time, as most of our household belongings had just been shipped in from abroad and were stored in a warehouse while we lived in a temporary rental property in Virginia Water. But the truth was, I didn’t know what the British notion of a picnic really was about. To many people here this revelation must come as a shock. Well, truth usually is.

Before making England my new home, going for picnic wasn’t as common among adults in any of the other countries I had lived and worked in. The nearest experience to a picnic I had prior to what I witnessed at the car park of Royal Ascot perhaps was bringing a lunch box to a school outing. I was sufficiently perplexed by what I saw around me after stepping out of our car in my wide rimmed green blue shaded hat. Those elegant men and women in their fineries – top hat, morning coat, high heels, long dresses – all sat on unfolded chairs or stood around at the back of their cars with Champagne flutes in their hands and elaborate amounts of dishes on a table clothed tabletop of some sorts, happily drinking, eating and chatting. The car park wasn’t even posh, in fact it was rather dusty. A couple of weeks later when we went to Henley Festival, it was more or less the same thing. The major difference was that the car park wasn’t dusty in Henley but muddy. Some of the ladies in their long evening dresses were wearing wellington boots. Nevertheless the Champagne was chilled and the well-prepared variety of food made it look mouth-watering for an onlooker like me.

Liveryman Lyn Litchfield enjoying a solitary picnic

Liveryman Lyn Litchfield enjoying a solitary picnic in her garden

I was too new to the country to be surprised. Back then, everything to me was rather new. It’s not that I hadn’t seen the world before. Quite the opposite in fact. However, Britain was different. Even when it comes to the most common thing, Brits seem to have a different approach towards it. I was like a new born child, a thirsty sponge, I accepted everything as it was, and took everything to heart. I simply lived. That entire summer came and went like a lovely nice long summer night’s dream. Staying in Virginia Water meant that we had easy access to Windsor Great Park. So we went to see the polo matches being played there and of course everybody was picnicking on the lawn. All shapes and colours of gazebos were lined up.

By the time we moved into our own house in the Surrey Hills and got all our possessions out of storage, including a couple of our classic cars from the car storage company, I realised that we didn’t actually have a proper picnic set. The other missing items were a Barbour jacket and wellington boots. You can guess what I got from my husband during my first Christmas in England. When I unwrapped the gift paper under the Christmas tree one of my sisters-in-law let out a light cheer: “Oh wow, you are going to become a real English girl!”

The MG is brought out of the garage

The MG is brought out of the garage for a picnic in Lyn’s garden

I’m not sure how, what and when the transformation in me took place, neither do I realise how much I have got used to every aspect of English country living. Then one Easter we invited some friends from Spain to join our family picnic at Blenheim Palace on a chilly mid-March day. We saw a group of American tourists filming us from a polite enough distance and I said “how interesting” (a very English expression!), “why would they film us instead of the magnificent Palace opposite?” Maria, my Spanish friend looked at me and said, “Lyn, you have become so English! Which people from any other nation would come out to picnic on such a cold March day? And you are surprised that they are filming you!”

Have I really become very English? Nah. Never. I have always denied it whenever my friends made this claim. On this Easter Sunday, after staying at home for almost three weeks as the result of the COVID-19 outbreak, we decided it was time for a picnic! Choosing which car to take for this special occasion wasn’t hard, as the winding road and uneven surface of our terraced garden helped with the elimination process. This 1974 MGB won the outing opportunity. My husband took her out of the garage, and I prepared the picnic. I couldn’t make any cucumber sandwiches nor smoked salmon with caviar & sour cream blinis because we had none of these in our rather empty fridge due to the lockdown. We couldn’t get any new home delivery slots and we couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination claim that we needed to go to the shop for these “essentials”. So we had Champagne, toasted almonds and an apple instead. Happy, healthy and cheerful! Not to mention the warm sunshine above and around us! Would we have wished for anything more? Nah!

When I send these picnic shots to a few of my friends both locally and around the world, I have received almost the same question back: “Are you still saying you haven’t become very English?”