IN a summer decimated by coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown, Blenheim’s Picnic at the Palace season has come like manna from heaven.

While regular festivals, and indeed most attempts at live entertainment, have either been banned or abandoned, a plucky group of young people have pulled off an absolute coup by staging a series of live concerts and comedy events with fabulous food in a beautiful setting.

And punters have flocked to make the most of the closest thing we’ll get to a festival all year.

Having visited on the event’s launch, where I could barely hide my excitement at seeing one of my heroes, Rik Sanders of Fairport Convention, playing alongside the guitarist Vo Fletcher, followed by a boogie woogie set by Tom Seals, I was eager to return – if only to prove to myself that it hadn’t been a dream. After all, friends to whom I’d described the evening, treated me with deep suspicion. “You saw bands... in a field... with a bar?” they’d ask. “You mean a festival... this summer...?”

Read more: Enjoy this ONLY chance of a festival this summer

It did seem nuts, but there it is. And the fact it has been pulled together not by some high-flying big-shot music promoter but by a 27 year-old, Francesca Nally, who lives on the edge of the estate at Bladon and usually makes her living by taking a bar in a pretty vintage caravan around local events, makes it even more remarkable.

The formula for the events is simple but unbeatable: Stage two or three artists a night on a stage between the palace’s imposing Great Court and the lake, seat guests at socially-isolated pergolas draped in ivy and solar-powered fairy lights, and serve wicker picnic hampers groaning with goodies – most locally sourced.

We returned on Saturday – and for good reason. Among an impressive bill of artists, that night featured a visit by a veritable superstar: the soul artist Omar.

Banbury Cake:

A musical titan, he is the kind of guy you’d expect to see headlining a decent sized London venue or, at least, a very expensive hotel bar in Los Angeles, New York or Dubai. So the prospect of seeing him perform to 50-odd people on the lawn of Blenheim was too much to resist.

The evening was sublime, of course. How could it be anything but?

Buzzing our way in through the main gate, like mates turning up to a private house party, we wandered along the long driveway – my friends bringing their puppy Flori (well behaved dogs are most definitely welcome) for a bit of exercise.

The sun was already sinking beyond the lake when we took our seats. Even though the tables are, if anything, overly distanced, there is a warm social atmosphere; a fizz of excitement at being able to do something approaching ‘normal’ for once this summer.

We tucked into picnics of cold meats on skewers, rich local cheeses, including a fabulous blue, hummus, little crackers, carrot and cucumber sticks, springy rich focaccia, and grazed on plump olives, sweet grapes and strawberries and sipped decent Malbec (£20 a bottle from the bar), while watching the support act get the audience gently going with some crowd pleasing vocals and banter.

Then, as the sun disappeared and the sky and lake (or what’s left of it: it is currently being drained for conservation work) turned an impossible shade of pink and orange, Omar came on and charged headlong into a gorgeous set of soulful, smoky, jazzy loveliness, initially sat the keys, before standing stage front, fixing us in his stare from behind his sunglasses. He’d have been better off with binoculars, so distant were we, but, alas, this is the ‘new normal’ – and while it must’ve felt strange performing to a remote crowd, I’m sure he was happier without drooling fans at the foot of the stage. For now, at least.

We did all take to our feet, sang along and danced a bit – which felt strangely nostalgic in itself.

I took a look around a the smiling, laughing crowd. At another table, a chap was proposing to his, now, fiancée. I’d bet none of us thought, when this summer began, that we’d be back in a field with our friends, yet here we were. Francescsa and pals – we take our hats off to you.

Don’t miss out. You’ve got until August 16 to enjoy it.

  • Picnic at the Palace is held on the lawns of Blenheim Palace, Woodstock and run by Midsummer Nightcap events.
  • It runs until August 16, when it closes with a show by Tim Seals and band.
  • The series features a line-up of house artists and visiting stars, with jazz on Sunday. Check the line-up and book at picnicatthepalace.co.uk
  • Picnics can be ordered in meat or vegetarian/ vegan varieties and food allergies and preferences catered for if notified in advance.