The Atlantic Oakwoods of Borrowdale

Autumn view of King's How and Black Crag in Borrowdale

Borrowdale has the largest area of native broadleaf woodland of any of the Lake District valleys. In autumn the valley fills with waves of colour as the birches, wild cherry, ash and finally the oaks put on their autumn display.

When's the best time to see the autumn colours in Borrowdale?

October and early November are the best months for autumn colour in Borrowdale. The exact timings will vary each year depending on the weather and how early the first frosts start. Each tree species turns at a different time, so you can keep returning to enjoy the full specturm of colours.

Horse Chestnut is often the first species to start turning in early September, or even late August.  Birch trees start to turn in early October, dotting the still-green woodland with splashes of golden yellow.

Ash leaves turn a vivid acid yellow-green but will lose their leaves fast in any storms of wind. The wild cherry trees that dot the woodlands can get beautiful flame reds in their leaves among the yellows and oranges, as do the wild apple trees in the wood pasture at Thorneythwaite, as well as the blackthorns in the hedges.

The welcome warmth and colour of the autumn sun
Ashness Woods in autumn sun, Borrowdale, Lake District
The welcome warmth and colour of the autumn sun

At the end of October the oaks take on their mellow tawny and auburn, and then finally the larch trees sprinkled through the native woods along the valley turn a fine burnished copper around the first week in November.

The colours are amplified as the bracken on the hills turns first yellow then old gold and finally amber. In the sun it really glows. Lakes poet William Wordsworth said in his guide to the Lakes that Autumn was the best time to see the Lake District, and you can see why when you visit.

Best places to see the autumn colours

To wander among the trees and see them up close, try the waymarked walk at Great Wood, or the signposted walk from Great Wood to Ashness Bridge which combines stretches of woodland with open views of the lake and Cat Bells.

To enjoy peaceful moments observing the autumn colours reflected in still water, go to Kettlewell car park and walk some or all of the Derwentwater Walk, the 10 mile waymarked trail that takes you along the lakeshore all round the lake.

To get a sweeping vista where you'll see the autumn colours spread out beneath your feet, try the downloadable walk to Walla Crag - as you descend towards Ashness Bridge there's a wonderful view of the wood-cloaked crags right along the valley.

Castle Crag sits in a valley of autumn colour
Autumn colours at Castle Crag, Borrowdale, Cumbria
Castle Crag sits in a valley of autumn colour

Or try the Castle Crag walk from Seatoller which combines sweeping views along the length of the valley with a beautiful stretch along the river Derwent - which means the river through the oak woods in old Norse - where the trees arch over the water and the leaves drift gently down on the current.

Best time of day to photograph the colours

Late afternoon, the time photographers often refer to as the 'golden hour' is the best time. As the sun dips down towards the horizon the light becomes golden, the shadows deepen and become almost blue. And everyone else is heading home to their tea, leaving the spaces open and empty just for you. So don't be a sheep and join the 4pm traffic jam in Keswick with everyone else, instead, crack open the thermos flask and use that 4pm-6pm slot to slow down, unwind, connect with nature, and capture a memory to last you a lifetime.

Autumn sunbeams light up the valley
Sun beams down onto Borrowdale valley in autumn
Autumn sunbeams light up the valley

Why is the Borrowdale Atlantic Oakwood habitat special?

These woodlands are the last surviving fragments of an enormous ancient forest that once stretched all the way down the west coast of Britain and Ireland. They receive an incredible 11 feet (3.5m) of rainfall per year and therefore they qualify as temperate rainforest.

Look up as you walk and in the crooks of the branches you may see ferns growing - another indicator of rainforest status. The woods in this valley are one of the most important habitats in Europe for mosses and liverworts (Bryophytes), and lichens, especially 'old forest species'. As a result of their rarity and diversity, all of the Borrowdale rainforest is protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It also gets international recognition as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), which is the highest tier of protection given to habitats in Europe.

Borrowdale forestry facts:
•    We look after around 500 hectares of Atlantic Oak woodland with SAC protection
•    Great Wood, near Keswick, is nationally important for its old forest lichen communities
•    Red and Roe Deer are present throughout the forest
•    Bird species include peregrine falcon, barn owl, tawny owl, little owl, pied flycatcher and redstart, greater spotted woodpecker and dipper
•    Otters often visit our woodland streams and gullies
•    Borrowdale is home to a thriving population of red squirrels
•    The forests slow down the flow of water from the fell-tops to the valleys, acting as giant sponges, reduce flooding that would result from huge amount of rainfall each year
•    We retain as much dead wood as we can, both fallen and standing. 80% of British beetle species make their home in dead wood
•    If you're lucky you can spot glow worms in the valley close to Watendlath