Experts hopeful for a spectacular autumn – but next two weeks will be deciding factor

Press release
The National Trust is hoping for spectacular scenes like this one at Stourhead, this autumn
Published : 06 Oct 2020

The sunny spell towards the end of September together with six months of high levels of sunshine have boosted the chances of a ‘spectacular and prolonged’ autumn display of colour, according to experts at the National Trust.

This is in spite of the heavy rain and strong winds much of the country experienced over the weekend which had the potential to scupper nature’s annual autumn spectacle.  

The duration and intensity of autumn colour relies on lots of sunshine for trees to bask in prior to the season’s arrival.  

Although the very dry spring caused stress to some trees, particularly ash trees making them more susceptible to disease, classic summer weather with good levels of both sunshine and rain has given trees the best chance of staying in leaf and retaining their full crowns until temperatures start to drop and colour starts to develop.

Warm summers with lots of sunshine, help to increase the leaf sugar content which, in turn, results in a range of pigments – from reds and oranges, to greens, golds and browns – as leaves turn.

But, weather patterns will need to remain favourable through the first half of October for a memorable display, with enough sunshine during the day, cold conditions at night and no intense storms or rainfall. 

The conservation charity cares for more than 10 million trees in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and looks after one of the largest populations of ancient and veteran trees in the world.  

Some of its most spectacular autumn displays can be seen at Stourhead in Wiltshire – home to the UK’s tallest oak tree, veteran trees including beech, holly, lime plus some more exotic trees including tulip trees, Japanese maple and katsura; Sheffield Park in East Sussex – which is renowned for its collection of rare trees including maples, tupelo trees and swamp cypress, providing a taste of North America in the fall; and Speke Hall where visitors can enjoy the dazzling yellows of the avenue of lime trees.

Simon Toomer, Plant Specialist at the National Trust, said: “Autumn in the northern hemisphere is one of the natural world’s great spectacles. It starts in the far northern deciduous forests and progresses southwards to the warm temperate regions over about a 10 week period.  Our northern gardens and woodlands are therefore a week or two ahead of the most southerly.

“The primary trigger for trees to begin the process of shutting down for the winter and shedding leaves is day length but weather conditions through the summer and early autumn affect the rate of leaf loss and intensity of colour. 

“North America and Japan are the best-known global hotspots for autumn colour and we are lucky that many of our gardens and parks have many trees from these areas. This variety of species ensures a long and very colourful display and this year, with favourable weather conditions, the show should be spectacular.”

Tom Hill is Trees and Woodland Advisor for the South East.  Among the places he looks after is Winkworth Arboretum which has many champion trees, and Petworth Park which is home to many ancient trees.  

He says: “We’re just starting to see some of the maple trees start to turn – from greens to reds and oranges.  And, judging by how the weather had been over the past few weeks I’d expect our autumn colour to be at its peak in mid to late October.

“Amazingly, we care for around 100 champion trees at Winkworth - all of them either the tallest or widest trunked trees of their species, either in the county or across the whole of the UK and Ireland.

“And, at Petworth we care for many ancient trees – some of which are thought to be more than 600 years old.  The grand old oaks and towering sweet chestnuts create deep carpets of leaves, perfect for our visitors to rustle through as they wander through across the 18th Century, Capability Brown landscape.

“A woodland may be ancient, but it never stands still – it is literally teeming with life at all times of year, not just above ground, but beneath our feet. 

“The falling leaves nourish the soil and produce a habitat of their own, supporting billions of microscopic organisms that provide the building blocks for all life in the forest. It’s also a special time of year to appreciate the amazing natural architecture of our trees as their branches are revealed for the first time in months.”

It's not only trees that may offer spectacular colour this autumn, berries in hedgerows and colour in gardens are also doing well.

Simon continues: “Fruit and berries offer an additional display and our native hedgerow shrubs provide a riot of colour.  One of my favourites is spindle with its bright pink fruits with orange seeds, once used to treat headlice.  Most people recognise blackthorn by its welcome spring flowers but in the autumn it’s the bloomy blue sloes that draw attention.  

“Many of our common garden plants like cotoneaster, dogwoods and mahonia are also at their best in autumn.

“With the evenings already drawing in and with the potential of further localised lockdowns due to the coronavirus, it’s more important than ever that we take the time to notice nature and to drink in the colourful landscapes that we can see at this time of year.  Together with the particular dusky, heavy scent of autumn and the sounds of crisp leaves crunching under foot, will all serve to help our wellbeing through the next few colder, darker months.”

For more information on places to visit for autumn colour or to support the National Trust’s Everyone Needs Nature campaign, where donations will go towards nature projects to include planting an additional 20 million trees, visit nationaltrust.org.uk  

- Ends – 

Picture editor’s notes

See link below to imagery.  Images should only be used in conjunction with this story and should be credited with the photographer’s name / National Trust Images.

Recent images taken in 2020 can be found in the Winkworth Arboretum and Powis folders – the other autumn colour images have been taken in the last couple of years.

https://nationaltrustonline.sharepoint.com/:f:/s/MediaAssets/Ev7M2LyL4EhFo8UOhYSflakBcnFalsgIF4UlG5y87DXgpA?e=en0htk

Some of the best locations for Autumn colour, cared for by the National Trust

Stourhead, Wiltshire

This 2,650 acre estate in Wiltshire is one of the Trust’s most famous Autumn landscapes.

Toby Yorke, Senior Gardener says: “The garden has a well matured base of native trees such as beech, birch, oak, lime, holly and yew.  Some of these are veteran trees which pre-date the creation of the garden in the 18th Century. These have been joined over the last 250 years by a large array of exotic species such as tulip trees, Japanese maples, Californian and coast redwoods, chestnuts, and katsura trees among many others and were often selected after being seen on the grand tours undertaken by the Hoare family members.  

In terms of the tulip trees (Liriodendron), which are native to North America - we have many dotted around the landscape and top garden, some are estimated to be around 200 years old such as the veteran tree on the left-hand side of the lake with the heart shaped hollow. They along with the acers are some of the biggest stars if autumn due to the vividness of their colours and prominent position around the lake and on both islands. 

“In autumn the tulip tree’s leaves gradually become more of a vivid yellow, ending up almost golden near the end of October just before falling. In summer they bear fragrant tulip shaped flowers which are yellow/green in colour with an orange band around the centre. The flowers are also great for pollinators.”

Other trees of note at Stourhead include:

Katsura trees (Circidiphylum) native to Asia - They are dropping their heart-shaped leaves now and release that lovely sweet scent that smells like candy floss. The smell comes from the leaves breaking down and releasing a chemical stored inside mixed with sugary compounds the tree has stored over the spring and summer. 

Sweet chestnut (Castanea) native to temperate northern hemisphere areas.  The oldest trees on the Stourhead estate are the sweet chestnuts lining the bottom of the drive. They are at least 600 years old and counting and still provide plenty of chestnuts which are often collected by visitors or taken by our wildlife. 

Dawn redwood (Metasequoia) native to Asia and swamp cypress (Taxodium) native to United States.  These are two types of deciduous conifers. Unlike most conifers which are evergreen, both of these shed all of their needles in autumn after giving a colourful display of bronzes and oranges. They then, like other deciduous trees, start their fresh growth in spring with soft vivid green growth, in their case as needles. 

nationaltrust.org.uk/stourhead

To avoid disappointment please book in advance, especially at busier times such as weekends and bank holidays and for autumn colour.  However, where space is available on weekdays, pre-booking may not always be necessary, but please call in advance to check availability.

Croome, Worcestershire

Garden and Outdoors Manager, Katherine Alker says: “We look after 750 acres of parkland here at Croome. 

“The design for the landscape was drawn up by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1751 at the request of George William, 6th Earl of Coventry.  The Earl was an avid plant collector who purchased specimens of trees, shrubs, herbaceous and perennial plants from around the globe. 

“Brown incorporated these exotic plants into his plans and many of the trees planted over 200 years ago are still growing in the shrubberies and parkland today. 

“Views from Croome Court across the parkland were cleverly designed to focus your gaze towards statues, follies or particular vistas. London plane trees planted along the lakeside and river look magnificent in autumn, and the beech trees beside the carriageways turn spectacularly golden. 

“My particular favourite are the two mature ginkgo biloba trees in the home shrubbery. They were planted here in the 1760s and are a beautiful sight in autumn. The fan shaped leaves turn a wonderful buttery yellow colour in which glows in the afternoon sunshine.”

nationaltrust.org.uk/croome

To avoid disappointment please book in advance, especially at busier times such as weekends and bank holidays.  However, where space is available on weekdays, pre-booking may not always be necessary, but please call in advance to check availability.

Winkworth Arboretum, Surrey

The National Trust‘s only arboretum, near Godalming in Surrey, is one of the best places in the country to see the fiery hues of autumn. Witness a magical transformation as the lush greens blaze into glorious autumn colour. 

The whole hillside at Winkworth Arboretum lights up in a kaleidoscope of colours in autumn. Acers and maples are the stars of the show, while liquidambar leaves turn crimson, orange and purple. Seek out the viewpoints at the top of the azalea steps and across the lakeside to the boathouse, where the colours of the trees reflect in the still water.

Head Gardener Graham Alderton talks about his favourite trees for autumn colour: “The larch is my favourite at Winkworth. It turns a bright yellow in autumn and even with all the colours vying for space at Winkworth, the larch seems to stand out as tall and stately.

“The sweetgum (Liquidambar) trees always deserve a mention, but in autumn you can’t do much better than katsua (Cercidiphyllum japonicum). Everything about it is just fabulous. The autumn leaves, the spring leaves, the shape of the tree and of course the burnt sugar smell from the leaves on the ground. We have a number of them at Winkworth in slightly different locations so the trees can colour some weeks apart, which extends the season.”

nationaltrust.org.uk/winkworth

Advance ticket bookings only this autumn

Hughenden, Buckinghamshire

Hughenden nestles in the Chiltern hills, one of the most wooded areas of the UK. The Chilterns is famous for its beech woodland, originally planted to provide timber for the chair industry of High Wycombe. Ash, cherry and oak have joined the majestic beech trees in the woodland around Hughenden, which creates a mosaic of glowing amber, russet and red in the autumn. 

Hughenden’s historic formal parkland is a tribute to the tree. When Benjamin Disraeli took on the estate in 1848, he indulged his passion for trees by bringing together his favourite native British trees such as lime, horse chestnut and sycamore together with significant trees from around the world. Each new specimen was carefully chosen with styles and silhouettes that contributed to the landscape and framed the views of the sweeping hills across the valley. 

Disraeli was also very fond of the Bohemian forests and this also influenced the planting of trees in the estate with a German Forest full of yew, laurel and pine.

Today, Hughenden is home to the largest horse chestnut tree in the country. The veteran has the accolade of champion tree in the National Tree Register for its 7.33m girth.

“We are so proud of our tree,” says Hughenden’s Countryside Manager Neil Harris.  “It’s impossible to date precisely, but it’s certainly over 300 years old, so it pre-dates many of the other trees at Hughenden. It produces bucket-loads of conkers every year and if it could speak, it would have plenty of stories to tell.”

nationaltrust.org.uk/hughenden

To avoid disappointment please book in advance, especially at busier times such as weekends and bank holidays.  However, where space is available, pre-booking may not always be necessary, but please call in advance to check availability.

Powis Castle, Powys, Wales

Head Gardener David Swanton says: “We look after 35 acres of woodland and gardens here at Powis and it's looking like it will be a very good season for autumn colour with the recent colder evening temperatures helping.  We can therefore expect to see good autumn colour with our tulip tree (Liriodendron) which turns a buttermilk yellow, dawn redwood (Metasequoia) that turns brownish red, Japanese red maple (Cryptomeria Elegans) which turns purple and Ginko Bilboa which goes a clear yellow.

“The Acers on the apple slope looking up towards the castle are already starting to put on a stunning show. Some of our trees such as the Cercidiphyllum japonicum (Katsura tree) do seem to turning a bit earlier than normal due to the dry summer we have had.  It turns a stunning orange, yellow and purple – but also has a particular smell of burnt sugar which the leaves give off when they fall to the ground.

“Powis is also very good for late flowering perennials in our herbaceous borders – and they are awash with yellow rudbeckias, white asters, pink sedums, orange crocosmia and pink penstemon, to name but a few.”

nationaltrust.org.uk/powis

To avoid disappointment please book in advance, especially at busier times such as weekends and bank holidays.  However, where space is available on weekdays, pre-booking may not always be necessary, but please call in advance to check availability.

Speke Hall and Gardens, Liverpool

Area Ranger, Ian Ford says: “There are autumn colours to discover everywhere you look at Speke, particularly in the Clough woodland, Stockton’s Wood and the Lime trees lining the main driveway which are now turning a glorious yellow and gold colour.

“The distinctive red leaves of the South Lawn’s Japanese maple are just starting to fall, creating a dramatic view of the Tudor house.

“Our oaks turn a russet red and the beech trees keep their leaves and go crispy brown.

“In the gardens we also have ‘burning bush’ in the garden along with lots of different types of acers, including the distinctive paperbark maple.  Hawthorn and blackthorn fruits are in bloom – look out for sloes, hips etc – and there’ll be droops of bird cherries. Other autumn harvest includes acorns, conkers and sweet chestnuts. 

“There is plenty of nature for people to look out for as well with migrant birds on the sandy Mersey coastline, such as the orange-legged redshanks and long-billed godwits.”  

nationaltrust.org.uk/speke

To avoid disappointment please book in advance, especially at busier times such as weekends and bank holidays.  However, where space is available on weekdays, pre-booking may not always be necessary, but please call in advance to check availability.

Mount Stewart, Northern Ireland

Assistant head gardener, Oliver Johnson says: "Within the Mount Stewart gardens we have close to 60 acres of woodland around the lake, sitting within the wider demesne landscape, both featuring any number of beech, oak and pine interspersed with more specimen planting. 

“Particularly admirable at this time of year are the acers, deliberately sited so that they are reflected upon the calm waters of the lake; the smoky purples, bright scarlets and yellows create a sumptuous display, best enjoyed on a cold, crisp morning. 

“The light comes in low, gentle bronze rays picking out the nooks of the wrinkled bark of oaks, the hammered metal texture of the Scot's pines, and is radiated back to the world by the startling orange bark of the Luma apiculata, the Chilean myrtles that grow at the periphery of the formal gardens and seed themselves further afield. 

“Perhaps my favourite view at this time of year, and a little later into November, is looking back upon the shelter belt of mixed pines that grow upon Clarke's Hill from the western side of the lake; as the sun's apex gets a little lower it barely crests the hill and picks out the silhouettes with crystal cut clarity, and I convince myself that I can make out the individual needles and cones, stark and black."

nationaltrust.org.uk/mountstewart

To avoid disappointment please book in advance, especially at busier times such as weekends and bank holidays.  However, where space is available on weekdays, pre-booking may not always be necessary, but please call in advance to check availability.

Sutton Hoo, Suffolk

Sutton Hoo Ranger Jonathan Plews said: "The woodlands at Sutton Hoo look particularly good at this time of year and we have some lovely walks where you can see all the autumn colours starting to come in.

"My own favourite tree is an ancient oak which goes yellow in the autumn, it might not be the most exciting autumn colour, but when the leaves drop you can really see the structure of it and the large boughs. Autumn is the time where life on the saltmarsh really picks up and at that end of the site you are within earshot of the birds out there including avocet, goldcrest and black-tailed godwit.

"One of our walks takes you through a plantation that is mostly evergreen Scots pine, but when the pinecones fall the woodland floor turns into a wonderful deep brown colour. The pines are interspersed with deciduous trees including silver birch which develops lovely amber coloured leaves and then as they fall you really see the white of the bark shining through. There are also sweet chestnuts, which are believed to have been introduced into Britain by the Romans, so would have been a relatively new tree in the landscape when the Anglo-Saxons came here."

nationaltrust.org.uk/suttonhoo

To avoid disappointment please book in advance, especially at busier times such as weekends and bank holidays.  However, where space is available on weekdays, pre-booking may not always be necessary, but please call in advance to check availability.