Lumpy ant-hills and sodden grass aren't really the ideal picnic seats. Our panellists unfold a few alternatives
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The Independent Culture
Lying on the grass for a bucolic feast may be all very well for a painting, but conditions for an English dejeuner sur l'herbe are all too often cool and damp. Since eating alfresco grows more and more popular, we took up the challenge to find picnic seats which would be easy to carry, comfortable to use and even provide some fun.


On the testing panel were one expert - professional ergonomist Sheila Hollingworth - and a team of ordinary picnickers including Martin Riebeck, Mort Hudson, Theresa Macey, Nick Raffin, Sally Ann Thorpe and several children.


We held our picnic on London's Hampstead Heath. Since we needed two well placed trees to suspend our hammock, all the seats were carried for at least a mile, during which time their relative weights and portability became glaringly apparent.


pounds 89

This curvy, French fold-up chair of pale blue painted metal and tautly woven plastic mesh might be a hommage to the sort of seats commonly found posited on the gravel of public pleasure gardens in Paris. However, as Mort Hudson pointed out, "far more comfortable" - due in great part to the mesh seat and backrest, making a bouncy and "curiously appealing" formal chair. In a natty design feature, you unfold it by pulling the seat into a horizontal position from the back, rather than allowing it to flop open like a more conventional right-angle deckchair of aluminium tubing. Its proportions were not perfect, though: too high for Sally Ann Thorpe, more suited to a taller than average person such as Mort Hudson or Sheila Hollingworth. The latter regretted that the seat was not deeper from front to back and that the backrest didn't reach her shoulder blades, but perhaps this simply demonstrates how difficult it is to find a proper chair to suit all body types. Overall though the Pascal Mourgue chair is well-finished and its back support doubles as a handle, making it sufficiently portable for our purposes.


pounds 69

From the people who brought us the MacLaren baby buggy, this fold-up chair is one of the easiest seats to carry about. Its frame of exceptionally lightweight tubing opens out to form legs like a silvery coronet, above which two strips of "bright and breezy" (Sally Ann Thorpe) blue-and-white- striped nylon form a seat and backrest. "It certainly scores high on portability," said Nick Raffin, "but its seat is rather like a bucket." Sheila Hollingworth agreed: "Because it's a sling it holds your bottom in a ribbon effect, " she said, "I wouldn't sit in this for more than five minutes. It throws you backwards." The rest of the panel were taken by its interesting design features, including an elastic strip to furl up the nylon and hold it in place like an umbrella. "If only they were wider, the side straps could act as arms," lamented Martin Riebeck. The Gadabout, which is much favoured by fishermen and other sports enthusiasts, was Martin Riebeck's favourite seat, however, and he insisted on using it as a walking stick for most of the day.


pounds 620

"Wonderfully comfortable to carry" and "very safari-like" (Mort Hudson), this traditional-looking, folding wooden stool with canvas side-bag from shooting specialists Holland and Holland proved very popular until the price was mentioned. Crudely turned legs of stained pine were roundly condemned at this point as "pretty naff" by the discerning Nick Raffin. Still, if you have money to burn, the stool turns out to be a good height for everybody, doesn't confuse the issue with any kind of back support and has a broad seat which you can flop on to "with every anticipation of sturdiness" according to Sheila Hollingworth. Its big selling point is the thick, aromatic leather used for the seat, bag trimmings and shoulder strap "definitely for someone with a horse fetish," said Sally Ann Thorpe. The sidebag makes an ideal carrier for an artist's sketchbook, and the shoulder strap, which slides across the seat through brass buckles reminiscent of saddlery, closes it up in a single, decisive gesture. Very Dr Livingstone.


pounds 35

The surprise winner of our survey, this pixie-like stool with a triangular seat of undyed leather and three plain, bleached wooden legs was not the most comfortable of our picnic seats - but the panel appreciated its lightness and the clever way its legs pivot halfway down to close up as a bundle of rods. A long, thin leather strap can be slung over the shoulder, leaving both hands free "which you need to carry the picnic, after all," said Theresa Macey. However, trying to perch on this stool was compared to sitting on a mushroom, and Mort Hudson said it was "no more or less than a milking stool - but so handy." The consensus of the panel was that they would buy the Heal's stool because it represented the best value for money and suited the purpose so well.


pounds 79

Like several of the sample picnic seats brought in for our trial, this inflatable plastic armchair - reminiscent of a Sixties Blow chair - seemed like a brilliant idea until we had to carry it across a field and blow it up. Needless to say, the armchair, which is available in transparent plastic as well as the lurid pea-soup colour shown here, is not designed to be portable. Not only is it heavier than you think, it is also well- nigh impossible to blow up by mouth. We took it semi-inflated - at home a hair-dryer with a cool setting does the trick in less than five minutes. Once in situ, the chair proved an invaluable addition to our family-style picnic, since it has different purposes at different stages of inflation. At first, it was a fascinating wibbly wobbly jelly, then a bouncy castle for the children, then a rock solid seat. Midway is the most comfortable, when the dozing Nick Raffin thought the armchair had "an enveloping, uterine quality". Its "smell of lilos" reminded Theresa Macey of childhood holidays at the seaside, which, she said, was "hard to resist". Being plastic, this chair is not so good in the sun, but several panellists thought it would do well at an open-air concert in the evening, when its size would be protective and, says Sheila Hollingworth, "would keep people off your territory".


pounds 185

Another pipe dream that proved problematic in reality, the Pawleys Island rope hammock is a beautifully manufactured object, made from two curved pieces of hardwood between which soft, silky, mercerised cotton in seagreen fans out to an exceptionally wide bed, big enough for two. Chains are supplied to attach it to two trees in the classic manner - but as every hammock devotee knows, there seem to be plenty of tree pairs until you need to attach a hammock to them. Self-standing hammocks were no longer avail-able from the retailer who supplied this one, indicating that they are perhaps not as popular as we picnickers had supposed, and indeed the general opinion was that self- standing hammocks are naff: "This one is absolutely the business - as a hammock," insisted Nick Raffin. Sheila Hollingworth agreed: "The hammock is gorgeous in the right context; but first check your tree branches for height and distance apart." Supremely comfortable, the Pawleys Island hammock lets you sway gently as on a boat, later in bed though, you still feel the rocking motion.


Pascal Mourgue chair and Pawleys Island rope hammock from Purves and Purves, tel: 0171 580 8223; Heal's 0171 636 1666; Gadabout from Swaine Adeney, 0171 409 7277; Holland and Holland folding chair 0171 499 4411; Environment inflatable armchair 0181 374 1120. !