It has been a strange sort of year for weather. A heat-blistered summer in Europe was not mirrored in Britain, where downpours plagued those who had opted for a staycation. Then the warmth lingered, making September one of the warmest on record. It certainly didn’t feel as if autumn, ever difficult to define, would ever properly arrive.
Yet the National Trust has said that this will be a spectacular season. Wet weather has reduced the stress on our woodlands, meaning those coppery hues will soon be flourishing across the country. Staunch oak sentinels, swaying sycamores and a chorus line of other arboreal wonders will soon open up their annual paintbox in a giddy array of browns, pinks, oranges, auburns, yellows, ochres and olives.
It will soon emerge, prompt in its visibility in the upper reaches of Scotland, yet an unhurried traveller who takes a mazy journey south as October progresses into November.
The season might best be experienced as they do in Austria, with fine wine and bracing walks. And if you seek it in the following places in the coming weeks – soothing your soul in the process – you will understand why.
Isle of Lewis
Autumn arrives early in the Outer Hebrides – not least on the Isle of Lewis, which starts to glow with fiery foliage almost as soon as August has departed. The capital Stornoway joins the carnival in the shape of Lews Castle, a 19th century stately home (lews-castle.co.uk), cocooned in 270 acres of woods and parkland. Visit Outer Hebrides (visitouterhebrides.co.uk) gives details of a walk through the estate.
The largest inland stretch of water in the UK by surface area, Loch Lomond has enjoyed justified protected status since 2002 as the centrepoint of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park. The other half of this scenic package is the area of wooded glens which make up Great Trossachs Forest National Nature Reserve (nnr-scotland.org.uk) – a prime spot for autumn strolling thanks to the Western Atlantic oaks which grow in close clusters. The Millennium Forest Trail (lochlomond-trossachs.org/things-to-do) at Balmaha on the west bank of the loch is a simple 1.5-mile path which climbs through oak groves to a high knoll for fine loch views.
How to do it The Oak Tree Inn in Balmaha has twice been named “Scotland’s Best Independent Pub”. Doubles for £95 with breakfast (01360 870357; theoaktreeinn.co.uk).
Dawyck Botanic Garden
The Scottish Borders blaze with colour at this appealing offshoot of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (rbge.org.uk/dawyck; £8), situated in Stobo, Peeblesshire. Its 65 floral acres are a backdrop to the Dawyck Beech, a star of autumn planted in 1860, and a Japanese katsura tree, whose leaves “turn a pale biscuit colour” as summer recedes.
How to do it Cringletie House Hotel (01721 725750; cringletie.com), close to Peebles, also embraces the season with its walled garden. Doubles for £278 – accommodation only.
National Memorial Arboretum
When to visit September and October
As well as being a site of remembrance for Britain’s military dead, the National Memorial Arboretum, at Alrewas in Staffordshire (thenma.org.uk; donations welcome), is a quiet entity where 30,000 trees rustle in the wind. Species from all over the planet stand tall in this 150-acre enclave. Autumn – naturally – is their moment to shine.
How to do it Try the White Hart Hotel in Uttoxeter; doubles from £99 with breakfast.
A happy combination of heath and lowland forest which straddles the border between Norfolk and Suffolk, Thetford Forest (forestryengand.uk) is a photogenic pretender. At every glance, it is a natural joy, dominated by evergreen pine trees, but also alive with oak, maple and walnut inhabitants. Yet it is, in fact, man-made, created in the aftermath of the First World War to help counter a dearth of timber. Its autumnal coat is no less glossy for this. Nor is the Go Ape adventure zone which hangs from its boughs (goape.co.uk/visit-thetford; £35) any less thrilling for said sleight of hand.
How to do it The Bridge Hotel (01842 338228; bridgehotelbrandon.com) overlooks the River Little Ouse in delightful Brandon. Double rooms from £63 a night without breakfast. The Elveden Inn is part of the Guinness family estate at Elveden Hall; doubles from £105 a night, including breakfast.
The River Wye is one of Britain’s most picturesque rivers, delineating the border between Wales and England for much of its 134-mile meandering from the Cambrian Mountains down to the Severn Estuary. It finds particularly comely form in the Wye Valley, not least around the village of St Briavels in Gloucestershire, where the Forest of Dean (wyedeantourism.co.uk) throws shadows, and wooded limestone slopes frame the water – a special delight during autumn.
How to do it Celtic Trails (01291 689 774; celtictrailswalkingholidays.co.uk) offers self-guided walking holidays of various lengths along Offa’s Dyke – the eighth-century earthwork which roughly traces the Anglo-Welsh border. A six-day foray along the southern half of it, between Chepstow and Knighton – a hiking distance of about 80 miles – costs from £655 per person, including accommodation with breakfast and luggage transfers. If you are feeling active, a full 16-night 177-mile odyssey between Chepstow and Prestatyn starts at £1,69 a head, on the same basis.
Few locations exude an English prettiness as readily as the Cotswolds and its small shards of “urban” Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, wrapped in honeyed beauty. There’s the attractive market-town of Moreton-in-Marsh; Bourton-on-the-Water, with the River Windrush ebbing under its low bridges; Stow-on-the-Wold with its antique shops and cafes; Broadway, where the 18th-century folly Broadway Tower crowns its tree-shrouded hilltop. All look at their finest when autumn leaves start to tumble.
How to do it Macs Adventure (0141 530 5957; macsadventure.com) sells “The Cotswolds Trail” – a self-guided walking tour of up to nine days and 50 miles. It ticks off all four towns – from £765 per person, with hotels, breakfast and baggage transfers.
Leaf-peeping can also be a family affair. The Center Parcs retreat at Longleat Forest in Wiltshire is arguably the most tree-blessed of the company’s “villages”. Not only is it an easy drive from Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (ccwwdaonb.org.uk), it is populated by Giant Redwoods, which spread across a landscape of gentle hills and valleys. Inevitably, the site has a high-ropes course where children and parents can gain a close-up glimpse of the changing of the season as they swing and leap in the branches.
How to do it There is still availability for October half-term. A four-night stay for a family of four in a two-bedroom Woodland Lodge, starting Oct 23, costs from £799 (centerparcs.co.uk).
New Forest National Park
The great treescape of Hampshire and Wiltshire has been a place of autumn magnificence for centuries. Its 219 square miles of protected space play host to oaks up to 800 years old and elderly beeches of 400 years or more – as well as (evergreen) yews which have murmured with the breeze for the best part of a millennium. All will be saluted as part of the New Forest Walking Festival (newforestnpa.gov.uk; Oct 14-29). Over 80 guided strolls are on offer, and most are free, although booking is advised. For other ways to explore the New Forest in autumn, see thenewforest.co.uk.
How to do it Rest your legs after a day on the trail at Lime Wood, the sophisticated spa hotel at Lyndhurst. Doubles from £495, room only.
Part of the British Isles rather than Britain per se, Guernsey will nevertheless join the seasonal party by virtue of its popular Autumn Walking Festival (visitguernsey.com/event/autumn-walking-festival) from Sept 15-Oct 1.
The second largest Channel Island is a leafy enclave, from the trees of Candie Gardens in St Peter Port to the ashes and elms which appear along the 42 miles of its coastal path. The festival will dip into this via a series of guided hikes, including a four-mile “Forts and Forests” jaunt slated for September 26 (£8). This will explore the parish of Forest rather than dense woodland – but you can revel in autumn hues all the same.
How to do it The Duke of Richmond, a comfortable, family-friendly four-star retreat in St Peter Port, offers double rooms from £166 a night, room only.