by Chris Leadbeater, The Telegraph, September 21, 2017
For an event so firmly fixed in the mind’s eye – staunch oak sentinels, swaying sycamores and a chorus line of other arboreal wonders opening up their annual paintbox in a giddy array of browns, pinks, oranges, auburns, yellows, ochres and olives – the exact arrival of the UK autumn can be tricky to define.
Does it slip into the house – as so often seems to be the case – just as the last barbecue smoke is clearing over the embers of the August bank holiday, bringing with it chillier nights and the back-to-school signifier of shorter evenings?
Does it hide on those gloriously bright days when September is still flirting with summer? Is it at its finest when October has found its groove in crisp afternoons, when twigs and acorns crack underfoot? Does it linger into November, even as Christmas lurks outside the door?
In truth, the British autumn is all these things – prompt in its visibility in the upper reaches of Scotland in the first flushes of September, yet an unhurried traveller who takes a mazy journey south as October progresses into November.
The season is also easily the equal of its celebrated cousin, the American fall, which haunts the lanes of New England to such applause every year. And if you seek it in the following places in the coming weeks – soothing your soul in the process – you will understand why.
1. 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. Walk Highlands (walkhighlands.co.uk/outer-hebrides) gives details of a four-mile walk from the centre of town, cutting up through the estate.
How to do it The castle is part of the Natural Retreats portfolio of luxury hideaways. Doubles from £110 a night – accommodation only (01625 416430; naturealretreats.com).
2. Loch Lomond
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 £100 with breakfast (01360 870357; theoaktreeinn.co.uk).
3. Dawyck Botanic Garden
When September and October
The Scottish Borders blaze with colour at this appealing offshoot of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (01721 760 254; rbge.org.uk/dawyck; £6.50), 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 £94 – accommodation only.
4. National Memorial Arboretum
When September and October
As well as being a site of remembrance for Britain’s military dead, the National Memorial Arboretum, at Alrewas in Staffordshire (01283 245100; thenma.org.uk; £7.50), 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 Swinfen Hall Hotel (01543 481494; swinfenhallhotel.co.uk), in Lichfield, has tree-rich grounds of its own – as well as double rooms from £140 with breakfast. Or try the White Hart Hotel in Uttoxeter; doubles from £75 with breakfast.
The White Hart Hotel Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, England
7Telegraph expert rating
This once-rundown old Staffordshire coaching inn has recently been transformed into a warm, welcoming and well-priced place to stay, with a clean, contemporary look, popular bar and restaurant and fresh new bedrooms. Read expert review. From £75per night. Check availability. Rates provided by Booking.com.
5. Thetford Forest
A happy combination of heath and lowland forest which straddles the border between Norfolk and Suffolk, Thetford Forest (forestry.gov.uk/thetfordforestpark) 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 (0333 9204144; goape.co.uk/visit-thetford; £33) 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 £80 a night with breakfast. The Elveden Inn is part of the Guinness family estate at Elveden Hall; doubles from £85 a night, including breakfast.
The Elveden Inn Elveden, Suffolk, England
8Telegraph expert rating
A country inn on the edge of Thetford Forest that’s part of the Guinness family estate at Elveden Hall. It's handy both for families heading for Center Parcs and couples looking for an easy, outdoorsy escape from London. Read expert review. From £85per night.
6. Wye Valley
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 throws shadows, and wooded limestone slopes frame the water – a special delight during autumn.
How to do it Ramblers Walking Holidays (01707 818149; ramblersholidays.co.uk) has an eight-day group jaunt along a southern section of Offa’s Dyke – the eighth-century earthwork which roughly traces the Anglo-Welsh border. It departs on Oct 8 and participants will cover 70 miles in all (between Kington and Chepstow), but will be based at Lindors Country House Hotel in St Briavels. From £715 per person, including lodging.
7. The Cotswolds
When September and October
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 £590 per person, with hotels, breakfast and baggage transfers.
8. Longleat Forest
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 three-night stay for a family of four in a two-bedroom Woodland Lodge, starting Oct 19, costs from £779 (centerparcs.co.uk).
9. New Forest National Park
When October and November
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 (01590 646600; 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 £245, room only.
Lime Wood New Forest, Hampshire, England
9Telegraph expert rating
Londoners looking to for a change of pace could do worse than this luxury country-house hotel, located in the heart of the New Forest. Attention has been paid to all the little details: oaks doors, lush colours and soft lighting, giving a relaxing and content atmosphere. The spa is excellent. Read expert review. From £245per night. Check availability. Rates provided by Booking.com
When September to November
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 23 to Oct 8.
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 three-mile “Secrets of the Forest” jaunt slated for October 8 (£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 £127 a night, room only.
The Duke of Richmond St Peter Port, Guernsey, Channel Islands
8Telegraph expert rating
An eccentric four-star hotel in Guernsey's capital, St Peter Port. Each room is uniquely styled and you might spot a Picasso or Miro on the wall. Families will love the children's check-in and outdoor pool, while couples can enjoy afternoon tea on the sun-trap terrace. Read expert review. From £127per night. Check availability. Rates provided by Booking.com.