Picnicking. How odd that a climate such as ours, so unsuited to al fresco eating, should have spawned such an ubiquitous national pastime. But, here we are again, on a hot July Saturday, saying "Wouldn't it be nice to have a picnic..." and rooting around in cupboards for long-forgotten travel rugs, old Thermos flasks and Tupperware boxes that still have lids.
There is another way, however. Thermos flasks, plates and coolbags have all become desirable items, stylish as well as practical. And you can now acquire from most department stores and supermarkets, jewel-like plastic goblets in state-of-the-art colours, designer plates and cutlery and chill-bags so stylish that they could double as handbags. Here we list the best:
The new Thermos range includes streamlined black lunch boxes (pounds 14.99) to bright weekend cool-bags (from pounds 5.25) and massive portable chests (from pounds 79.99), (stockists, 01277 213404). Try their Cooler collection (lunch boxes, sacks, totes and backpacks, from pounds 14.99 to pounds 19.99, all in simple colours and styles) and the Vacuumware which includes a stainless-steel food flask (pounds 29.99), designed to keep food hot for up to six hours. It's unbreakable, easy to clean and includes four separate microwaveable containers so that you have a whole meal in one package.
Graham & Green (0171-727 4594) produces a thermal-lined picnic backpack in black that includes plastic wine glasses, plates and cutlery for two people, for pounds 49.50. They also do dish-washer-proof, faux-bamboo-handled knives, forks and spoons (pounds 44.25 for 16 pieces).
Health-conscious picnickers may prefer to roam free, armed only with a Quicksilver water-carrier (pounds 19.75, 0171-836 6352 for stockists). Or, if this is too expensive, buy one of the new Vittel sports water bottles (65p, Sainsbury), sturdy enough to be thrown straight in a bag rather than strapped to the waist.
The latest catalogue from Kitschen Sync Ltd (0171-652 1070) includes a ready-to-go picnic set, pounds 20, as well as a picnic basket, pounds 12.50, which can be filled with funky accessories: jelly pitchers, pounds 14.50, beakers, pounds 3.50, a tray of ice-lolly moulds, pounds 2, and coloured flasks, pounds 4 each. Allders (stockists 0181-681 5232) have produced a range of ice-cream-coloured bottle openers (pounds 2) and corkscrews (pounds 3) and simple melamine picnicware (from pounds 2.50 for plates and mugs).
Traditional picnic baskets don't come much classier than those stocked by Arding and Hobbs (0171- 228 8877) and Divertimenti Mail Order (0181- 246 4300). A fully equipped Arding and Hobbs basket costs from pounds 57.99 to pounds 125. For pounds 109.95 it is possible to buy the empty basket from Divertimenti and fill it with accessories such as anodised Cassi cups (pounds 5 each) and salad servers (pounds 12 per pair) from Bombay Duck (0181-749 7000), or Conran's blue plastic tableware, all pounds 1.29. (0171-589 7401).
Cheap and cheerful picnic sets are to be found in Woolworth's, and range from pounds 9.99 for the 20-piece basket (green, top left), to pounds 24.99 for the 20-piece fruits design. Call 01706 862 789.
Argos stocks a range of baskets, accessories and coolboxes from pounds 6.99.
Ocean mail order (orderline: 0870 8484 840) sells chic woven baskets (pounds 29.95 for two, left).
Alternatively, Habitat's seagrass wine-carrier and straw bag are a snip at pounds 2.95 and pounds 12 respectively (right; for details call 0845 601 0740). To guard against the British weather, invest in a reversible waterproof/tartan rug, pounds 39.99 from the National Trust (orderline 0117 988 4747), and for warding off wasps, pack a Citronella or Mediterranean range insect-repellent candle or garden flare, 99p to pounds 5.95 from Price's, 110 York Road, SW11 (0171-801 2030).
Now all you need to worry about is whether your accessories match, and for this look no further than the ranges at Next (orderline 0845 600 7000) and Homebase (call 0645 801 800 for nearest store).
Alternatively, leave the details in the hands of the experts and order one of a range of pre-packed picnics (pounds 38-pounds 140) from Fortnum and Mason (0171-465 8666, giving 24 hours notice; taxi delivery within the Greater London area).