Now is the season of deep content; at least it is if you love the outdoors. Britain may look small on a world map compared with the United States with its legendary fall colour, but it is farther north and longer than people think. While we wait to discover when we can travel to the US once more, autumn is bringing out magical changes across our wondrous woodlands. Where else was New England named after, if not our own fair shores?
Shortening, cooler days transform the colours of the canopy at different times, a slow drama enhanced by the range of tree and plant species. Changes take place stealthily and patchily, the light playing a major role in what is and isn’t seen. Arriving in the Lake District in the evening you might think you’re surrounded by deep-green forests, only to wake up in your hotel room to a riot of russets and ochres, golds and purples.
An autumn walk has long held an important place in the British imagination. Who doesn’t love the crunch of boot or shoe on dry leaf, acorn and conker, so evocative of childhood? From Keats’s famous ode to harvest service at village churches to the recent American import of leaf peeping, we have truly fallen for the fall.
Finding the perfect wood is a joyous quest. Britain is among the least-wooded countries in Europe yet is home to around 80 per cent of the continent’s oldest trees. Plantations get a mixed press, while forestry sites often border reservoirs and moorland. Our woodlands frame suburbs, quarries and motorways. A walk through British boscage is as changeable in its moods as our weather.
For people, as for nature, autumn is a time of changing and turning. Flashes of warm sunlight through the dwindling canopy hark back to summer; sudden gusts rattling bare branches augur the coming winter. No wonder autumn puts us in a reflective mood. Walking has always been the most enjoyable – and re-energising – way to think deep thoughts. A close second has to be sitting in a country pub, ideally with an open fire and something to lubricate the mind.
Here are our 10 favourite walks around some of Britain’s most beautiful places, with plenty of wildlife, history and mystery en route. We’ve also provided suggestions on where to stay, cosy inns and pubs with rooms, where a hearty welcome is guaranteed.
The county that gave us the Industrial Revolution is, today, a largely green and pleasant one, and while the old names of the Forest of Bowland and Pendle Forest describe hunting ranges rather than forests proper, both of these are dotted with native woodland and mixed plantations. Some of the prettiest copses cluster along the becks and streams that wind down the steep ravines known here as cloughs, while hundreds of footpaths wind through villages and towns, with glorious walking around the fells above the Ribble Valley and on the flanks of Pendle Hill.
Walk the Sabden Valley Circular (9 miles)
This lovely hike takes in Sabden Brook, which supplied and powered seven mills, woodlands around Churn Clough Reservoir and, between Stainscombe and Ratten Clough farms, stone walls that are evidence of an ancient form of pastoral enclosure called a vaccary (from the Latin vacca, for cow). ribblesdale.net
Stay at Freemasons at Wiswell
This country pub is the real deal, with low, beamed ceilings, flagstone floors and pictures of hunting scenes on the walls. The owner, Steven Smith, is an acclaimed chef, and his kitchen serves up classy starters and sublime mains such as Lancashire beef sirloin and cheek, smoked egg noodles and mushroom risotto. Doubles from £260, including breakfast (01254 822218; freemasonsatwiswell.com).
A somewhat unsung county, Shropshire offers lovely autumn walking opportunities around its namesake AONB and, to the north, at spots like Haughmond Hill on the Shropshire Way (shropshireway.org.uk). The mature beech trees of Linley Hill, planted around 1740, form a natural ridge-top avenue ideal for an easy stroll. The Wrekin, while small, is criss-crossed by lots of trails and is wooded enough to allow anyone to escape the crowds and enjoy sweeping views.
Walk The Wrekin (6-8 miles)
Starting at the Forest Glen car park, a walk around the Wrekin (Shropshire’s iconic 1,335ft peak) winds up through veteran oak, ash and beech trees. It’s a landscape that is all about the past – million-year-old geological processes, Bronze Age settlements, industrial history and the plundering of rocks for a motorway and New Town. Look out for holly, hazel, birch and rowan and, around the quarry, heather, broom and gorse (discoveringbritain.org).
Stay at The Haughmond
This former 17th-century coaching inn is a welcoming hotel run by husband and wife Martin and Mel, with seven bedrooms (five named after British deer species, a nod to the herds at nearby Attingham Park). Short, savvy lunch and dinner menus offer classic dishes enlivened by truffles and tuiles. Doubles from £95, including breakfast (01743 709918; thehaughmond.co.uk)
Visitors to South Devon are spoiled for autumn walking options, with woods tucked into many of the steep-sided valleys of the South Hams; the weather can be quite balmy here as late as the end of October, but the leaves still fall and change as the nights draw in. In and around the Dartington Estate are patches of dense tree cover, with easy walking punctuated by cafés, gardens and pubs. The gnarly, fairytale-like oaks of Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor are a short drive away.
Walk to Totnes to Sharpham (5 miles)
A popular section of the John Musgrave Heritage Trail starts at the quayside on the right bank of the River Dart. From here a paved trail winds between woodlands and open fields, with lovely views down to the Dart’s meanders. The pretty village of Ashprington, above Sharpham winery, has a pub; a further 15 minutes’ walk takes you to two more pubs at Tuckenhay. From here you can double back to Totnes, or wander back along quiet lanes (visittotnes.co.uk).
Stay at The Bull
Following a takeover by Geetie Singh-Watson – a pioneer in the UK gastropub scene – this once grimy old boozer is now a smart inn. A shortish menu sticks to sophisticated dishes (pork rillette, skate wing, roasted fennel) and the bar is stocked with interesting wines. Doubles from £135, including breakfast (01803 640040; bullinntotnes.co.uk)
Norfolk’s Broads and Coast Path may be its more famous visitor experiences, but as the county’s wildlife trust puts it, “broad-leaved woodland is the natural habitat of Norfolk”. West Norfolk and the Cromer Ridge support heathlands where silver birch, rowan, beech and holly persist. Carr (or flooded) woodland around the Broads is dominated by alder, sallow and birch trees.
Walk The Salthouse (5 miles)
At Salthouse, you can combine coast and canopy on a circular walk that starts at the Dun Cow pub and heads inland and upwards to Salthouse Heath, where there are views over the coastline to Blakeney Point. Oak and birch dominate the southern portion of the heath, along with some ash, holly and rowan. Along the steep boundary slopes near the coast are gorse and sycamore. Heading towards the sea you pass the tiny wetland of Snipes Marsh before crossing the coastal salt marshes and winding back along the Norfolk Coast Path. This walk can be accessed using the Coast Hopper bus service (nationaltrail.co.uk).
Stay at the Cley Windmill
This early 19th-century windmill turned cosy guesthouse has an enviably scenic coastal location, and is a great base for walkers and birders – and a popular option for romantic couples. Doubles from £189, including breakfast (01263 740209; cleywindmill.co.uk).
Perthshire has been dubbed “Big Tree Country” because it boasts more champion trees – that is, trees of impressive girth and/or height – than anywhere else in the UK. At places like Aberfeldy, Blair Atholl, Pitlochry and Rannoch are some of the dreamiest woodland trails, with waterfalls and literary sites en route and red squirrels for company. Being this far north, you can expect early flushes of gold, red and yellow, especially in the Grampian Mountains.
Walk to Allean Forest (2.5 miles)
This short but satisfying walk around the Allean Forest starts at the car park on the B8019. From there, it’s a gentle circular walk on a well-marked trail through stands of Douglas fir, Scots pine, spruce and larch; after a short climb turn left to follow the trail anti-clockwise. You’ll climb a little to a viewpoint over Loch Tummel, with the summit of Schiehallion visible to the southwest. Look out for mushrooms on the forest floor and woodpeckers above; ospreys can sometimes be seen over the loch (walkhighlands.co.uk).
Stay at The Inn at Loch Tummel
Built as a coaching inn in the 1800s, this has six cosy rooms, a snug with an open fire and a breathtaking view of the loch. Come dinner time there is a menu of confit duck leg, Perthshire lamb and chicken milanese, plus a well-chosen wine list. Homemade shortbread and whisky await in the rooms. Doubles from £180, including breakfast (01882 634317; theinnatlochtummel.com).
Some of the county’s finest autumn walks can be enjoyed along canals, such as Pocklington, and more manicured sites including Nostell Priory and Thorp Perrow Arboretum. A surprising highlight is the Yorkshire Dales. While woodlands are relatively scarce here, where they have survived, or been revived, they are spectacular. Walks through upland woods of ash, rowan, wych elm in the national park or, more rarely, oak – as at the Ingleton Waterfall Trails – are beautiful in themselves, but also because, when you emerge into clearings or onto summits, you’re gifted lofty views of the surrounding countryside.
Walk Bolton Abbey, River Wharfe and Strid Wood (seven miles)
This looping walk around Bolton Abbey, starting and finishing at the Cavendish Pavilion, will plunge you into Strid Wood, one of the largest remnants of sessile oak trees in the Dales. In a riverine setting that’s a habitat for roe deer, otters, kingfishers and woodpeckers, the path is well marked and takes in the splendid ruins of the abbey. The “strid” is a narrow stretch of the Wharfe, dubbed “the stream that swallows people”; it looks pretty but is deep, fast-flowing and has strong undercurrents (boltonabbey.com).
Stay at The Devonshire Arms
Built as a travellers’ inn, this property was absorbed into the estate of the Duke of Devonshire in 1753. The food at the Burlington restaurant is carefully crafted by chef Peter Howarth, using produce grown and reared on the estate. Doubles from £239, including breakfast (01756 718111; devonshirehotels.co.uk).
Carmarthenshire is Wales’s most underrated county, with woodlands, fields and moors galore. Some of the nicest walking is around Carreg Cennen and Dinefwr castles; the latter has veteran oaks believed to be more than 700 years old. The Wales Coast Path, opened in 2012, is one of the few footpaths in the world to encircle a country’s coastline; the section between Kidwelly and Llansteffan passes through several long stretches of relatively isolated woodland.
Walk Laugharne to Pendine (12 miles)
The walk has a bit of everything and there are a couple of ways to get back. Laugharne is famous as the place where Dylan Thomas spent his last years and is buried. The walk leads around the edge of the estuary and up Sir John’s Hill, along a path known as the Birthday Walk after a Thomas poem; this is a densely wooded area, but between the trees you’ll catch fabulous views across to the Gower Peninsula. If you’re heading back to Laugharne from Pendine, you can use the beach for the return trip if the tide is out; the young wet woodlands on the dune system between Pendine and Laugharne are arguably of national significance, as wooded sand dunes are rare in western Europe (walkthewalescoastpath.co.uk).
Stay at Brown’s
This sometime rough and ready local pub – frequented by Dylan Thomas – has been turned into a stylish boutique hotel. The in-house restaurant, Dexters, takes its name from the cattle used for the superb dry-aged steaks on the menu. Doubles from £130, including breakfast (01994 427688; browns.wales).
From the Cotswolds to the Severn Vale, Gloucestershire abounds in woodlands. Westonbirt Arboretum, near Tetbury, has 2,500 different tree species, ensuring every autumn colour, as well as evergreens, are on show. For a full foliage immersion, go forest-bathing in the Forest of Dean. Norman kings chased deer and wild boar here, appointing officials called verderers as their stewards. Today, the forest contains some 20 million trees including native beech, oak and ash. With villages sprinkled across the region, it’s easy to combine walks with drives and/or pub meals.
Walk The Beechenhurst Trail (8 miles)
This circular walk, designed by a local ramblers’ group, explores the northwest of the Forest of Dean, ticking off historical and industrial sites as well as the Cyril Hart Arboretum, established in 1915 when plant-hunter Ernest Wilson returned from his 1910 explorations of China. It’s quite a challenging walk with ascents and descents on rough tracks. OS Explorer map OL14 is recommended (forestryengland.uk).
Stay at The Kilcot Inn
Built in the 1690s, this cosy pub in Newent has wood-beamed ceilings, stone floors and a log burner. Real ales and ciders are served alongside burgers, a fish mixed-grill and roast dinners on Sundays. Doubles from £99, including breakfast (01989 720707; kilcotinn.com).
Over a tenth of the Lake District National Park is woodland. Of course, a lot of the trees are for timber, but forests have been managed here for centuries and some of the conifer forests are old and very atmospheric. To aficionados, the woodlands of Grizedale Forest, Borrowdale and remote Ennerdale are as alluring as the famous fells and lakes. The Whinlatter Forest above Keswick is considered to be England’s only true mountain forest.
Walk the Seat How Summit Trail (3.5 miles)
This circular trail in the Whinlatter Forest is clearly waymarked and takes in heather-clad heath and open fells, with great views of Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite Lake as well as the Skiddaw and Helvellyn ranges; if it’s clear, you can see as far as the Solway Firth and Scotland. The climb up to around 1,650ft is steep but short, making this a popular family walk (keswick.org).
Stay at The Cottage in the Wood
This Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms is surrounded by the Whinlatter Forest. Carved out of a 17th-century Lakeland drovers inn, it’s been given a contemporary makeover. The modern British food served here is carefully considered, with some intriguing combinations – crab with ice cream is not considered too daring. Doubles from £270, including breakfast and dinner (017687 78409: thecottageinthewood.co.uk).
Close to Winchester, Wickham and Alton are picturesque woods with beautiful views. A fine, flat walk is along the 33 miles of the Basingstoke Canal Towpath Trail, allowing you to dip a toe into sylvan Surrey. At the other end of the county is the New Forest, home to a thousand ancient trees, including 400- to 800-year-old oaks and yews that have been there for more than a millennium – with wide, hollow trunks and shrunken crowns due to their great age. There are dozens of walking options across the national park, with an opportunity to see wading birds as well as New Forest ponies, grazing alongside cattle, donkeys, pigs and sheep.
Walk Brockenhurst village (5 miles)
Brockenhurst is a picturesque village in the New Forest, and this circular walk takes in its prettiest corners, passing its famous watersplash – a ford – to visit heathland and riverside woodlands (thenewforest.co.uk).
Stay at The Pig
The oldest of the stylish Pig hotels has a restaurant menu that accentuates garden-grown food; what isn’t available on site is sourced within a 25-mile radius. The Pig is a five-minute drive from Brockenhurst station, making this walk/accommodation ideal for a car-free break. Doubles from £149; breakfast from £8pp (01590 622354; the pighotel.com).