How to up your picnic game this summer

'It's about infusing a classic English summertime activity with effortless charm and a colourful twist,' says founder of the brand BALU London
From stylish hampers to chic blankets, here's everything you need for the perfect picnic - John Lewis

At last, the summer seems to be here. With sunnier days, and potentially a heatwave on the cards, it’s time to start planning picnics: surely the most laid back way to socialise with friends on a weekend afternoon. But how to do it in style and comfort, and avoid it all looking a bit of a mess?

“It’s about infusing a classic English summertime activity with effortless charm and a colourful twist, without sacrificing style for practicality – but not forgetting the latter,” says Anna Vail, founder of homeware brand BALU London, which sells colourful, picnic-appropriate tableware.

How much effort you put in depends, of course, on the time you have to prepare – and how far you have to go. Frieda Gormley, co-founder of homeware company House of Hackney, says she loves nothing more than setting up a picnic at the bottom of her Cornish garden. “This time of year is so special,” she says; “as the days grow longer, we can spend long evenings in the garden, so I love to throw together a picnic.”

For Ned Corbett-Winder, founder of gift company Not Another Bill, which sells picnicware and outdoor games, a relaxed picnic outing means “nailing the prep ahead of time, so that you can be ready to go the moment the weather looks good.” His tip is to have a picnic basket ready to go, packed with a blanket and a few store-cupboard nibbles such as Perello olives and Torres truffle crisps – then fine-tuning the details on the day.

How to elevate your picnic

If you don’t have to carry things too far, pack everything up in a couple of wooden crates (or even plastic storage boxes), advises Gormley; then, when you empty everything out, you can flip them over, cover the crate in fabric and create a makeshift table. For a more traditional alternative, take a basket, such as Toast’s Veta Vera Grass Picnic Basket (£79), or John Lewis’s Lisbon hamper, which comes packed with ceramic plates, plastic glasses and cutlery (currently on sale at £56).

Left to right: Lisbon hamper by John Lewis; Veta Vera Grass Picnic Basket by Toast
Left to right: Lisbon hamper by John Lewis; Veta Vera Grass Picnic Basket by Toast

A foldaway table and chairs really elevate the picnic game – and save sore knees. “I’d much rather have a deckchair than sit on the ground, but it depends on how many people you need to seat,” says Louise Jackson, founder of the ethical homeware brand The Jacksons. Try some simple, easy-to-carry director’s chairs in a neutral stone canvas (on sale at £29.99 from mountainwarehouse.com) or a striped camping stool (£7.50 from ikea.com).

Left to right: Chair by Mountain Warehouse; Striped camping stool by IKEA
Left to right: Chair by Mountain Warehouse; Striped camping stool by IKEA

If you’re sitting on the floor, Gormley says, “An abundance of cushions adds some drama,” as well as comfort. Gather up any from home, or go for some outdoor ones, such as Izabela Peters’ striped garden cushions in a range of colours (£20.99) or Graham & Green’s luxurious, rollable seat mats, which act as bench cushions too (£55).

Striped garden cushion by Izabela Peters
Striped garden cushion by Izabela Peters
rollable seat mats
Rollable seat mat by Graham & Green

Picnic-scaping with style

For Gormley, “A picnic is all about the setting. I keep the food simple and rustic and throw myself into the decoration.” How lavish you can go depends on how much you’re able to carry, but a blanket, a tablecloth or a large piece of fabric is an essential base layer: try the internet-cult buy, The Everything Picnic Blanket, which is spill-resistant, comes with pegs to hold it in place and a secret zip pocket for valuables, and rolls up into a chic carrying strap (currently on sale for £95; partnerinwine.co.uk/).

blanket
The Everything Picnic Blanket by Partner in Wine

“If it’s practical, I bring china and glassware from the house to make it feel a bit luxurious,” says Gormley. “I absolutely love vintage Bordallo Pinheiro cabbage plates, and these are great for sharing dishes.”

Jackson agrees – even if the destination is further afield than the garden. “I never travel light when it comes to picnics,” she says. “I raid our cupboards for sturdy plates and glasses and wrap them up in cotton tablecloths and napkins to protect them.” Balu London has some fetching, heavy bottomed glasses that won’t blow away in the wind (£80; balulondon.co.uk), while for those who prefer to travel light, John Lewis has some green-striped plastic tumblers (£4) and multi coloured stackable plastic wine glasses (£12 for four).

glasses
Left to right: Green ripple wine glasses by Balu London; Green-striped plastic tumblers by John Lewis
picnic
Multi-coloured stackable plastic wine glasses by John Lewis

Rebecca Udall, whose colourful tablecloths would make chic picnic blankets, likes to squeeze some serveware into her picnic basket: “Packing something lightweight is an easy way to bring all the food together to make it look cohesive,” she says

For less heavy lifting (and washing up), the fashion editor and ceramicist Deborah Brett says, “I’m a huge fan of the paper or bamboo plates from Meri Meri. They’re super-practical and have the prettiest floral sprigs or scalloped edges, and they also do the chicest bunting and decorations, should you wish to really pull out all the stops.”

Corbett-Winder says that for him, “Linen napkins are the MPV of picnics: gorgeous to look at, but also useful for sticky fingers and spillages” (from £12; notanotherbill.com).

Linen napkin by Not Another Bill, Bamboo plate by Meri Meri
Linen napkin by Not Another Bill, Bamboo plate by Meri Meri

Pimping up the food and drinks

“I like to put all my prepped food into large biscuit tins, and use smaller tins for things like butter and olive oil,” says Jackson. “I’ll also bring a bread knife and wooden board for breads, as well as a bunch of fresh herbs grabbed from the garden to garnish cocktails and salads.”

Food writer Melissa Hemsley says, “If you collect reusable jars, as I do (to my partner’s annoyance), you’re the one laughing now as they are ideal for transporting your picnic salads, dips, cream for your strawberries, whipped feta or whipped cottage cheese (which seems to be the new whipped feta).”

On a similarly practical note, Udall puts a zip bag of ice cubes in her cool bag to use in chilled drinks, then zip bags come in handy later on for tidying up used plates and cutlery.

The finishing touches

“Don’t forget to pack a selection of games to keep the kids entertained,” Corbett-Winder advises. “Mine loved a classic bat and ball set on a recent trip to Cornwall.” It’s not just kids who need entertaining – consider packing a croquet or quoits set to work off a bit of a post-lunch slump (£88; croquetengland.org.uk).

Finally, this is Britain, and rain is never off the cards: no matter the weather, don’t forget to pack a few umbrellas; just make them cheerful, such as the new floral umbrella designed by artist Tattie Isles for Kurt Geiger (£59; kurtgeiger.com).