The Complete Guide To Autumn Gold

The nights may be drawing in, but nature is set to ease the blow by staging its annual display of autumn colour that marks the changing of the seasons. Harriet O'Brien brings you the best places in the UK to witness our native trees at their most spectacular


AUTUMN COLOUR - SHOULDN'T I HEAD FOR THE US?

AUTUMN COLOUR - SHOULDN'T I HEAD FOR THE US?

The New England states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut famously have spectacular tree colour in the Fall - thanks to a favourable combination of climate, soil type and tree mix. But there is no need to travel all that way: old England, along with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, puts on a jolly good show as well. Wherever you are in the UK, you won't need to travel far to see stunning displays of arboreal colour.

WHY DO LEAVES TURN GOLD?

... and bronze, brilliant orange, red, crimson and more. These glorious colours are the result of chemical reactions that occur as the leaves die during the autumn. In spring and summer, leaves produce food for the tree, converting nutrients and minerals into sugars and starches for growth. Energy for this process comes from sunlight, which is absorbed by leaves thanks to chlorophyll, the pigment that makes them look green. Trees in temperate climates do not grow in winter, so as summer ends, the cooler weather and shorter days trigger them to stop producing chlorophyll. As it is broken down other pigments become prominent, such as carotenoid (which turns the leaf a golden colour) and anthocyanin (which produces shades of orange and red).

There's some debate as to why most broad-leaved trees (and larch) shed their leaves in autumn. One reason might be as a way of saving energy. Evergreens, such as holly, yew and pine, produce tough leaves able to withstand frost, but those of deciduous trees are comparatively thin and weak. It would require a great deal of effort to keep them alive during the chillier months, so the tree produces leaves for spring and summer use and then drops them when they are not needed. Another theory is that dropping leaves prevents dehydration in the tree during the winter when the ground may be frozen and any loss of water is potentially damaging.

WILL THERE BE A DRAMATIC DISPLAY THIS YEAR?

Reports suggest that this year's wild weather could produce a brilliant display. The colours are governed by a complex mix of factors, from soil type to sunlight, moisture and wind conditions - so, for example, storms during September and October could rip away the leaves and curtail the show. After the dry summer last year the autumnal display was particularly vibrant; the long period of hot weather boosted production of anthocyanin, leading to a great glow of reds and rich bronzes. This year, by contrast, has seen a very soggy summer, so the carotenoid pigment may be more dominant, resulting in a season of magnificent yellows and, indeed, gold. In addition, the wet July and August seem likely to ensure that the leaves will stay on the trees well into the season, provided there are no strong winds.

HASN'T AUTUMN ALREADY STARTED?

Another tricky question. There's no accepted definition for the beginning of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Astrologers maintain that it starts on the autumn equinox - one of two times in the year when the sun crosses the equator and day and night are of equal length. In 2004 this falls on 22 September. Some naturalists believe the season begins with the departure of the first migratory birds. Others look not for gathering swallows but for the plumping of nuts and berries. Some people relate the first signs of autumn to cooler weather and changing leaf tint. In much of Britain the season seemed to begin in late August this year, before summer came back. According to the Woodland Trust (01476 581111; www.woodland-trust.org.uk), autumn begins five to seven days later than 20 years ago.

Nationwide, the conservation charity cares for more than 1,100 woods, primarily of native species - oak, ash, alder, field maple and more (for details of the 33 British native trees see www.british-trees.com). Since 1998, the trust, in conjunction with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Cambridge, has been conducting a study of UK paccording to the Woodland Trust (01476 581111; www.woodland-trust.org.uk)henology, the science that relates natural events to climate. In addition, it has been gathering historical information from records dating back as far as the 1700s. The findings so far point to far longer summers, with spring starting up to two weeks earlier than it did 30 years ago, and raise concerns about the impact of climate change on the synchronisation between insect, bird and plant life. About 14,000 volunteers across the country have been contributing their observations to the programme and more are welcome - particularly at this time of year when the response is generally less enthusiastic than in spring. Visit www.phenology.org.uk (or call 0800 083 7497), for details of how to get involved in this natural treasure hunt.

WHEN CAN I SEE THE BEST COLOUR?

That depends on which part of the country you're in. In cooler northern areas, autumn colours emerge markedly earlier than in southern England. Shallow-rooted trees such as beech, birch and horse chestnut tend to change colour first, but perhaps the best bet is to follow the advice of autumn leaf aficionados. They maintain that colour is generally best across the country from about the middle of October; that mixed woodland (including some evergreens for colour contrast) gives the most spectacular variation and display; and that the contours of the landscape are important - hills not only provide views from the top but also help to heighten the colour contrast.

SO WHERE SHOULD I GO?

The Forestry Commission recently launched its 2004 Autumn Colours campaign (0845 367 3787; www.forestry.gov.uk/autumn). The campaign is essentially a guide to the best Forestry Commission woodlands to visit in England, Scotland and Wales, with a colour-coded map showing the progress of leaf tint in these places - from green to gold. The information is regularly updated by foresters and rangers, and the website also provides details of how to get to the selected woods, what you can expect to find there and what activities are taking place, such as butterfly briefings, nature walks and autumn craft fairs.

The commission's highlights include the New Forest in Hampshire (in particular the rich variety of trees around the road between Emery Down and Bolderwood); the larch and broad-leaf woodland of Whinlatter Forest Park in the Lake District; the beech, birch oak and waterfalls at Coed-y-Brenin in North Wales; and, in Scotland, the woods around Loch Faskally just outside Pitlochry. Alternatively, to find a good wood near you, log on to the Woodland Trust's website. A search under Nottingham, for example, produces recommendations for 10 woods, two of which are marked with a tinted-leaf icon indicating that they are especially rich in autumn colour: Hannah Park, dominated by oak, beech, sweet chestnut and lime; and the larger Oldmoor Wood near Strelley, generously planted with oak, ash, beech and birch. A free printed directory is available to the trust's subscribers (£30 per year or £350 for lifetime membership).

ANY OTHER AREAS?

Tourist boards are a good source of autumn inspiration. The Kent Tourist Board (01271 336020; www.kenttourism.co.uk), for instance, suggests walks in The Larches near Maidstone. This woodland and downland area is accessible only on foot and has excellent views over the ever-changing hues of the Weald.

Among the recommendations of the Wales Tourist Board (08701 211251; www.visitwales.com) is the Wye Valley Walk. The route stretches 136 miles from Chepstow to Hafren Forest. but in particular the path between Whitestone and Pen-y-Fan offers amazing views across the valley to the rusts and burnished golds of the Forest of Dean. Highlights from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (028 9023 1221; www.discovernorthernireland.com) include County Fermanagh, whose loughs mirror and intensify the autumn colours, and the magical Glens of Antrim, which offer wonderful views over the surrounding valleys and tree-clad hillsides.

HOW ABOUT SPECIALIST TREE COLLECTIONS?

Prince among tree gardens is the Forestry Commission's Westonbirt Arboretum (01666 880220; www.forestry.gov.uk), three miles from Tetbury in Gloucestershire. It contains about 18,000 numbered specimens, many of which are very rare and very large. Of particular glory are its acers, which put on a brilliant show in autumn. These can be seen in the Acer Glade in the Old Arboretum and in Silk Wood, which contains the national collection of Japanese maples. Once the autumn display is over, visitors can marvel at the architectural forms of the trees with an illuminated walk during December. The arboretum is open from 10am to dusk throughout the year. From January to November an entrance fee is charged: adults £7.50, children £1. Entry during December is free before 3pm, thereafter adults are charged £5 (children free) for the illuminated trail. The lights go off at 8pm.

Westonbirt is not the only arboreal wonder of the Cotswolds. Further north, Batsford Arboretum ( www.batsarb.co.uk; 01386 701441), just over a mile from Moreton-in-Marsh, is smaller but no less colourful. As well as acers, it boasts riotous foliage from sorbus, cherry and vines. Batsford is open daily from 10am-5pm until mid-November, then weekends only 10am-4pm; admission £5.

Over in County Down in Northern Ireland, Annesley Garden in Castlewellan Forest Park (028 4377 8664; www.forestserviceni.gov.uk) contains another magnificent arboretum. Broad vistas down to fountains and ponds create a striking sense of drama among this diverse collection of trees and shrubs. The forest is open daily from 10am until sunset throughout the year; entrance costs £4 for a car, £2 for a motorbike, while pedestrians are charged £2 per adult, 50p per child.

The National Trust manages a number of notable tree collections across the country. In England, chief among these is Winkworth Arboretum (01483 208477; www.nationaltrust.org.uk) near Godalming in Surrey. With deep shades of gold and russet from whitebeam, maple and mountain ash, it is famous for its autumn colour and is open all year from dawn until dusk; admission £4. Meanwhile, the National Trust for Scotland is justifiably proud of The Hermitage (01796 473233; www.nts.org.uk), which lies adjacent to Perthshire's river Braan gorge. Containing one of Britain's tallest Douglas firs, the forest of mixed broad-leaf and conifer is spectacular in autumn. From 22 October to 7 November it, too, puts on an illuminated display: the Enchanted Forest is a son et lumière that will take place between 6.30pm and 10pm regardless of the weather (rain helps heighten the drama, so they say). The Hermitage is open all year round from dawn to dusk. Entrance is free except for the Enchanted Forest show (adults £8.50, children £4.50. Booking is essential (01738 621031).

IF I CAN'T SEE THE WOOD FOR THE TREES?

Visit an ornamental garden, where there may be greater scope to concentrate on individual trees and shrubs. At the Royal Horticultural Society's Wisley Garden (01483 224234; www.rhs.org.uk) near Woking, for example, you can stand back and admire the "Wisley Bonfire" tupelo ( Nyssa sylvatica) near the lake in Seven Acres. Along with this miracle of oranges and reds, Himalayan birch and Japanese maple will provide spectacular golds and bronzes. Until November, Wisley's opening hours are 10am-6pm weekdays; 9am-6pm weekends. From November to February the garden is open 10am-4.30pm weekdays; 9am-4.30pm weekends. An entrance fee is charged for non-RHS members: adults £7, children £2.

The National Trust's Sheffield Park (01825 790231; www.nationaltrust.org.uk) near East Grinstead in West Sussex also has its own tupelo, Nyssa Sheffield Park, which has particularly fiery colours. Elsewhere in this garden, strong autumn shades are intensified through lake reflections. The grounds are open daily from 10.30am-6pm, except Monday, until 23 December (until 4pm from November); admission £5.20.

In Scotland, the trust's Inverewe garden (01445 781200; www.nts.org.uk), in Wester Ross is aflame with the reds and oranges of Japanese maples and other exotics during October. These flourish at a latitude further north than Moscow thanks to the microclimate created by the clever planting of Sir Osgood Mackenzie in the 1860s. The garden is open daily 9.30am-9pm (until 4pm from November), admission £7.

ANY OTHER AUTUMN COLOUR?

Autumn is not only about beautiful death scenes. While ripening berries add purples and reds to the general mix of colours, a number of later flowers bloom. At the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens (01794 368787; www.hilliergardens.org.uk) near Romsey in Hampshire, you may be in time to see abundant fuchsias as well as heathers, magnolia flowers, the stunning blue of South American Salvia uliginosa and, towards the end of the season, the yellow of mahonias. The gardens are open all year except Christmas Day and Boxing Day, 10.30am until dusk; adults £6, under-16s free.

At this time of year, fuschias, along with hydrangeas, are a feature of Lochalsh Woodland Garden (01599 566325; www.nts.org.uk) at Balmacara Estate in northern Scotland. Owned by the National Trust for Scotland, the gardens are open daily all year round from 9am until sunset; an honesty box is provided for admission (£2). For more recommendations see www.greatbritishgardens.co.uk, which also suggests where to stay nearby.

A TASTE OF AUTUMN

Do you know your Pitmaston Pineapple from your D'Arcy Spice? British apples are celebrated on various Apple Days, which were initiated by the green charity Common Ground in 1990 to highlight the plight of Britain's orchards. They have proved a great success and now take place across the country during October. One will be held at the Centre for Alternative Technology (01654 705950; www.cat.org.uk) at Machynlleth in mid-Wales on 17 October and at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden on 24 October (01223 336265; www.botanic.cam.ac.uk). Fungus Forays are also popular. For example, on 23 and 24 October there are woodland walks at Castle Espie (028 9187 4146; www.wwt.org.uk/visit/castleespie) in County Down, while a fungus tour will begin from the Normanby Hall Country Park and Farming Museum (01724 720588; www.lincolnshire.gov.uk) in Lincolnshire on 3 October. For details of events near you contact the National Trust (01793 462800; www.nationaltrust.org.uk).

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