The Complete Guide to Leaf-Peeping

If you go down to the woods today, you're sure of a big display of colour as summer rolls into autumn. This seasonal spectacle is a big draw for visitors to New England, but Britain also has plenty to offer.

If we were in the United States, you wouldn't have to ask that question. Leaf-peeping has been popular in North America for years. And, no, it's nothing to do with leering at people from behind bushes. It's strolling through the autumn woodland, admiring the leaves as they turn from the fresh greens of summer to the yellows, reds and golds of autumn.

What Is Leaf-Peeping?

If we were in the United States, you wouldn't have to ask that question. Leaf-peeping has been popular in North America for years. And, no, it's nothing to do with leering at people from behind bushes. It's strolling through the autumn woodland, admiring the leaves as they turn from the fresh greens of summer to the yellows, reds and golds of autumn.

Why do leaves change colour?

Nature: it's all down to chemicals. During summer, leaves are busy making food for the trees by producing sugar from carbon dioxide and water, using chlorophyll – which gives leaves their summer green colour – and light. The tree uses the dropping temperatures of autumn as a trigger to cease chlorophyll production and get ready for the sun- and food-deprived days of winter. This allows other, hidden pigments to make themselves known: carotene makes leaves turn yellow, while anthocyanins – found in large quantities in maples – make the leaves go red. Some say that three frosts in a row is a signal for trees that turn early in the season (such as the horse chestnut) but frost isn't necessary for trees to change colour. The brightest autumn colours are produced when dry, sunny days leading up to the beginning of autumn are followed by cool, dry nights. Dry weather increases the concentration of sugars in the leaves, which also increase the amount of anthocyanins.

The visual effects of organic chemistry are particularly colourful in New England because of the sheer variety of broad-leaved trees. Oak, ash, hickory and maple all put on a spectacular show before the icy fingers of winter begin to pull the leaves from the branches.

Do I have to go all the way to New England?

It's worth the journey (see box, below), but Britain has plenty of places where you can view this splendid natural cycle in action. There are, after all, about two billion trees in England alone, and that makes for an awful lot of leaves. Admittedly, not all of them change colour in autumn. Conifers, which include pines, firs, larches and spruces, are mostly evergreens, although the larch does shed its needles, turning an earthy orange at the end of summer. Colour change is usually confined to deciduous, or leaf-shedding trees, including oak, birch, poplar, elm and – perhaps grandest of all – the maple.

When is the best time to go leaf-peeping in the UK?

In Scotland, leaves can begin to turn as early as mid-September, and the colours are spectacular by the end of this month and into October. Everything happens a little later in England, reaching a peak in October; the show is usually over by mid-November. The first tree to feel the cold is traditionally the horse chestnut, followed by beech, maple, silver birch, and then ash and oak.

The Woodland Trust has a list of the best woods for autumn colours at www.woodland-trust.org.uk/woods/autumnwoodsindex.htm, or call 01476 581135 (Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm). But the trust believes climate change is making autumn arrive later and last longer, with spring coming earlier and winter close to disappearing altogether. According to a spokesman, "Last year oak trees weren't bare until 4 December and whereas autumn used to be September, October and early November, it seems to be increasingly stretching into early December." Fans of phenology (the study of seasons) can help gather data on the phenomenon Call 0800 0837 497; or see www.phenology.org.uk.

Choosing the best time to enjoy the hues of autumn has just become a lot simpler, with the launch this week of the Forestry Commission's Autumn Colours campaign. Foresters around the country are monitoring the leaves on the trees and rating the colours from one to five (one being green and five being golden).

Prospective leaf-peepers can visit the website at www.forestry.gov.uk/autumn, where a colour-coded map provides an up-to-date indicator of the colours on show. Seventy "autumn hotspots" have been selected, where visitors can see autumn at its finest, and most areas run autumn colour guided tours. Alternatively, you can order a free information pack by calling 0845 367 3787.

Where are the best places to visit?

One of the jewels in the UK's autumnal crown is the National Arboretum at Westonbirt, near Tetbury in Gloucestershire (01666 880220), which attracts thousands of visitors at this time of year. Among the 18,000 tree species at Westonbirt, there is the national collection of maples (also known as acers), many of which are natives of Japan (see box, below).

Maples are known for the wide variety of colours they display, from white, through various shades of yellow, to deep red. Here they are arranged in a "stamp book collection", which means the colours are specially selected to put on the most attractive display. The leaves at Westonbirt usually begin to turn around mid-October; by mid-November the season is coming to an end. That doesn't stop Westonbirt, however, which has cunningly managed to extend things by introducing an "Enchanted Wood" spectacular (Fridays, Saturday and Sundays, for five weeks from 15 November) which "puts the leaves back on the trees" by using 1,600 coloured spotlights along a marked trail. Tickets cost £5 for adults, £1 for children.

Alternatively, try the National Trust's Winkworth Arboretum just outside Godalming in Surrey (01483 208477; adults £3.50, children £1.75), which boasts an impressive range of unusual trees and shrubs, including the national collection of sorbus (whitebeam and mountain ash), which turns a spectacular russet and gold colour in the autumn. Or there's Sheffield Park Garden (01825 790231; adults £4.80, children £2.40) in East Sussex, an 18th-century landscape garden dominated by four lakes, where you can see the rich reds of scarlet oak and the oranges of swamp cypress. For more information on National Trust properties and autumn events, call 0870 458 4000, or see www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

What if I want to branch out?

If you do prefer to walk on the wild side, as opposed to spending time in carefully cultivated gardens and arboreta, you should have no problems finding a wood or a forest near you that is putting on a good autumnal show. After all, eight per cent of England and 15 per cent of Scotland has a tree on it.

Among the most spectacular is Grizedale Forest Park (01229 860010; www.nwefd.co.uk) in Cumbria, where beech, oak and larch trees mingle with trees planted when the estate was an ornamental park, including maple and copper beech. On 24 October there's a two-hour ranger-guided tour of the autumn foliage, which costs £3 for adults and £1.50 for children. Nearby Whinlatter Forest Park (017687 78469, www.nwefd.co.uk) boasts a similar riot of leafy hues.

Autumn in Hampshire's New Forest (023 8028 3141) means that fewer tourists are strolling among the trees and over the heathland. But they're missing a treat, because the bracken turns a bright shade of red at about this time, which looks stunning alongside the purple of the heather. What's more, there's also plenty of opportunity to admire the 1,000-year-old forest at your leisure by taking a tent. The Forestry Commission has 10 official campsites within the forest. Prices start from £5.60 per tent per night, depending on facilities; book on 0131 314 6505 or visit www.forestholidays.co.uk.

Or why not head north for an autumn stroll in the multicoloured forests of Scotland?

But scotland's full of evergreens

Leaf-peeping aficionados feel the golds and russets of autumn are best viewed against a dark backdrop of firs and spruces – and, although you might not think it, there are plenty of deciduous trees to be admired up here. Perthshire is so proud of its arboreal heritage that the tourist board has dubbed the region "Big Tree Country". The Meikleour beech hedge, 10 miles east of Dunkeld on the A93 is officially the highest hedge in the world. It stands 30 metres (100ft) tall and 530 metres (one-third of a mile) long. A strident green in summer, it turns golden in the autumn. Perthshire also claims to be the birthplace of Scottish forestry: between 1738 and 1830 the "planting" Dukes of Atholl managed to grow 27 million conifers "for beauty and profit" around Dunkeld. Most of these were larches, which turn orange as the season progresses.

In Killikrankie on the B8079, a visitors' centre (01796 473233) marks a spectacular wooded gorge, famous for its autumn colour (and for a bloody battle in 1689). A £1 parking fee entitles you to explore the network of paths installed by the National Trust for Scotland and there's a wonderful view of the trees from the viaduct above the town itself. For more information on National Trust for Scotland properties and autumn events, call 0131 243 9300, or see www.nts.org.uk.

Alternatively, try Faskally, which is part of Tay Forest Park (01350 727284) near Pitlochry. It's famous for the diversity of tree species it contains, remnants of a cultivated garden planted in the 1870s. Douglas firs, Scots pine and Norway spruce rub leaves with oak, birch, aspen poplar and alder alongside Loch Dunmore. There's a "Forest Fire" ranger-guided walk on 17 October at 2pm (adults £2.50, children £1).

Perthshire tourist board is running an autumn colours hotline from the beginning of October until mid-November, along with special "Autumn Gold" short break and accommodation offers (call 01796 472751 or see www.perthshire.co.uk for details).

How green is my valley?

It's green, red, orange, mauve and pinky-russet. Or will be soon. One spectacular option for leaf-peeping in Wales is to take a drive through Cwmcarn forest, a mature wood of larch and pine which puts on an impressive show each autumn. There are places to picnic, take cycle rides and enjoy the views. The seven-mile drive is signposted from the M4 at Junction 28, and there's a visitors' centre, where you can pick up maps. The Cwmcarn woodland festival runs from 23-27 October. For details, call 01495 272001.

Even Ireland, famously green throughout the year, bends to autumn's will. Head for the moors and woodland of Killarney National Park (00 353 643 1440) in Kerry, where turning leaves of beech, oak, maple, silver birch and mountain ash can be seen alongside the bell-like white flower and dark red fruit of the arbutus unedo, otherwise known as the strawberry tree.

What if leaves leave me cold?

There are other things to do in the woods apart from admire the mellow hues. Mushroom picking, perhaps, or seed gathering. Dalby Forest in North Yorkshire, for example, has a "seed gathering Sunday" on 13 October, while this is the best time of year for mushrooms in the New Forest. However, if you do intend to collect canapés under the canopy, make sure you never pick anything you aren't entirely sure of. You can order a free leaflet on the conservation of wild mushrooms from the publications section of the English Nature website ( www.english-nature.org.uk, or call 01733 455000).

And if not fungi and flora, why not fauna? The deer rutting season starts at about this time (the first frosts are a trigger) and the battles between stags for control of the herd can be spectacular. The Scottish Deer Centre at Cupar in Fife (01337 810391; adults £4.50, children £3) has nine species of deer roaming in 55 acres, so you can watch the rut in tame conditions. Meanwhile, the Highland Wildlife Park (01540 651270; adults £7, children £4.80) just beyond Kingussie at Kincraig on the A9 is a chance to see rutting red deer (the UK's largest wild animal), as well as pine martins, wildcats and wolves, all from the safety of your car. Alternatively, to see red deer in their natural environment, continue north along the A9 to Inverness, where stags are often visible as they lock horns on the hillsides. If you're in the New Forest, you may also get lucky: red, roe, fallow and sika deer all roam in the woods.

And conkers?

Where would autumn be without the cut and thrust of a horse chestnut battle? For decades, the village of Ashton (near Oundle in Northamptonshire) has played host to the World Conker Championships on the second Sunday of October. Things are already hotting up for this year's event: the men's contest is full, with a reserve list being prepared. However, there are vacancies in the women's event, and plenty of heats for children. And there'll be Morris dancing and clog dancing to get contestants in the mood. (Adults £2, children £1; for more information call 01832 272735).

"Conkers" is also the name of the recently revamped visitors' centre in the National Forest, Leicestershire, a place of "fun, entertainment and discovery", with various family orientated autumnal events planned. (For more information call 01283 216633 or see www.visitconkers.com; adults £5.25, children £3.25).

Enough of leaves and nuts, I crave culture

A walk in the woods can be inspirational. Perhaps you should leaf through a bit of poetry. John Donne, for instance: "No Spring, nor Summer beauty hath such grace/As I have seen in one Autumnal face" ("The Autumnal"). Just don't mention Mr Keats's "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness", recently outed by Private Eye as one of the most over-used stanzas ever. On the other hand, perhaps spouting verse would ruin the whole experience. Joyce Kilmer certainly seemed to think so, when she wrote: "I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree."

I am looking for a New England

Six weeks to see the best show in the world

Residents in the New England states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island) are justly proud of their autumn colours. The area has the right combination of climate (warm sunny days, cool nights) and variety (birch, poplar, aspen, beech, mountain holly, witch hazel, hickory, oak, dogwood and hornbeam, to name but a few) to make their autumn show one of the best – if not the best – in the world. It's also big business, with millions of people journeying into the wilds to enjoy the colours of the fall.

The season lasts about six weeks, from mid-September until the end of October and the leaves start to turn first in northern New England, around the Canadian border. The process then gradually spreads southwards, through New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and into New York and New Jersey.

The US Forest Service operates a Fall Foliage Hotline which you can call on 001 800 354 4595. A report on the best places to find autumn colours in the US can be found at www.fs.fed.us/news/fallcolors/index.html.

Trees for all seasons

Nature's changes are a serious business in Japan

Americans call it leaf-peeping. The Japanese call it momiji-gari. Momiji are the leaves of the Japanese maple, also known as acers, that give off the best displays of colour every autumn.

The progress of the seasons is followed avidly by the Japanese: spring cherry blossom viewing (hanami) is often a rowdy affair, with huge picnics under the trees, but autumn is traditionally seen as a period of quiet reflection, and a time to honour one's ancestors. In autumn, chestnuts, matsutake mushrooms and kaki (persimmon fruit) all feature as seasonal fare, as does Momiji oroshi, a red maple sauce. In some areas, maple leaves are even fried like tofu. They probably look better than they taste, though. Areas noted for their autumn leaf-peeping opportunities include Nikko in the Tochigi prefecture and Hakone in the Kanagawa prefecture.

Inside Japan operates autumn "Essential Honshu" packages, where visitors will be able to see Japanese autumn colour. The 14-day trip costs £1,175 per person, excluding flights, but including accommodation, breakfast, six evening meals and the services of a full-time "tour buddy" to help you pick out the best sights. For more information call 0870 746 1044 or see www.insidejapantours.com.

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