Autumn can be an unpredictable mistress. Her intensity is at the whim of the sun, rain and breeze. But when everything comes together – when the weather has been favourable, and a crisp, blue-sky day coincides with the dramatic death throes of the leaves – there is no greater, more glorious season.
Traditionally, North America is top of the list for leaf-peepers. Not so much this year. However, no matter, because there are plenty of places far closer to home where you can admire this natural spectacle in all manner of ways.
For instance, I remember an October bear-watching trip to the little-visited mountains of northern Greece – the bears remained elusive but, when it came to the blazing fall forests, I struck gold. One year, I walked in Provence during the vendange and admired grape-pickers hard at work on red-amber vines. And last October I wandered along the Wye Valley to find swathes of just-on-the-turn trees glowering through the atmospheric river-hanging mist.
Autumn has the advantage of not being winter, too – it’s generally still warm enough for pleasant paddles, hikes and bikes.
So, choose your location and research your month (between September and mid-November, dependent on region), pack a woolly jumper and keep your fingers crossed.
Forests for free
The Woodland Trust looks after more than 1,000 woods countrywide, all of which are free to visit, 365 days a year. Top pick for autumn is Tring Park, a 250-acre expanse of pasture and ancient trees within the Chilterns AONB. Follow trails using the trust’s new app to identify tree species.
The Tree ID app is free to download
The New Forest National Park puts on a dazzling autumn display. Not least alongside the Beaulieu River, which is flanked with ancient trees, including the types of oaks used to build Nelson’s warships at nearby Buckler’s Hard. Take to the river by kayak or Canadian canoe and paddle though the Beaulieu Nature Reserve, surrounded by lovely leaves.
Guided river trips cost from £29/£16 adult/child (01590 612377; newforestactivities.co.uk)
For mist and mellow fruitfulness dialled up to 11, take an autumn drive along the Romantic Road. Starting from Cheltenham, the route runs around the Cotswolds, Malverns and Forest of Dean, via back lanes of glowing honey-stone houses, berry-laden hedgerows and expansive woodland; pull over to hike up Symonds Yat Rock and see the River Wye engulfed by flaming trees.
A two-night self-guided Romantic Road trip costs from £253pp (01242 250642; compass-holidays.com)
The Lake District is especially lovely after the summer crowds have gone and golden trees and blazing bracken are reflected in all that water. Earn your views on an autumn cycle, riding around forest-fringed Thirlmere, beautiful Buttermere and island-dotted Derwentwater, and testing your mettle on the hauls up the Whinlatter, Newlands and Honister passes.
A four-day guided Cycle the Lake District trip costs from £495pp (0808 274 5111; intrepidtravel.com)
Foliage on foot
Absorb the crisp air and fine autumn colours on a series of gentle walks in Scotland’s central Highlands. Stroll through the venerable woodlands of Glen Affric, along the tree-lined river Tarff, by the shores of Loch Oich and into a community-owned forest by Loch Ness, listening for the roar of rutting stags en route.
A four-night guided Autumn Highlands trip costs from £1,095pp (01479 898546; wildernessscotland.com)
Enjoy the impressive autumn displays of the Scottish Highlands at a responsible social distance by navigating your own vessel along the Great Glen. Cruise between Fort William and Inverness, puttering along misty lochs, gazing up at the glowing munros, passing auburn cattle and ruined castles, mooring up for a warming whisky or two.
A seven-night Caledonian Canal cruise aboard the Kingfisher (sleeps four) costs from £633 (023 9280 9124; leboat.co.uk)