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What could be more enjoyable at this time of year than getting out in the fresh air and marvelling at the wonderful autumn colour - especially in England's most wooded county. Here, RON TOFT reveals some of the best places to do just that

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As John Keats famously put it in 1819, autumn is a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.

It is also the time, of course, when Mother Nature dons her coat of many colours and treats us to a breathtaking display of sylvan splendour in woods, parks and gardens across the nation.

And there can surely be few better places to appreciate nature's autumn artistry than here in Surrey, England's most wooded county, where we have the perfect blend of stunning wild countryside and beautifully manicured gardens and estates.

Almost any patch of deciduous trees and shrubs is capable, under the right conditions, of putting on a memorable show of colour, but if you want to see the complete spectrum of myriad hues, make tracks for one or more of the ten hot spots profiled in this article.

Clandon Park, near Guildford

The native trees at Clandon Park wear a spectacular gold and copper mantle in autumn - usually from late October to early November.

"We have three mature beech trees in a clump on the edge of the main lawn that give a very impressive display of golden leaves," says head gardener at Clandon Park, David Diaper. "Our copper beech joins in with its more russet colours, while our oaks and limes do their best
to compete."

The Palladian mansion at Clandon Park, which features in the new Keira Knightley film, The Duchess, was built in the 1730s for the second Lord Onslow by Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni.

Hatchlands Park, near Guildford

Autumn colours at Hatchlands Park tend to manifest themselves not in autumn but in winter, according to head gardener Susan Styreeter.

If you're lucky, however, you might just see the leaves changing before the park closes for the winter at the end of October.

"The oaks are orange to gold, the tulip trees golden yellow and the beeches shades of russet," says Susan. "The cornus around the pond has yellow and red flushes, finally revealing the shiny red bark on the stems. In the woodland
areas, the bracken turns from yellow to russet. The larch put on a credible display as well."

The Isabella Plantation, Richmond

The Isabella Plantation is an ornamental woodland garden - and an excellent area for autumn colours, according to the Royal Parks Agency. Guelder rose, rowan and spindle trees are laden with berries and acer leaves turn red. Noteworthy trees include Liquidamber styraciflua 'Worplesdon', the Persian ironwood, tulip tree and dawn red-wood. The latter is a deciduous conifer whose leaves turn pinky gold before dropping.

The rich scarlet, orange and yellow hues of the tupelo tree's leaves are reflected in the water of Thompson's Pond. In Acer Glade, leaves of Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium' turn ruby crimson, while Acer maximowiczii is noted for its red tints.

"Autumn is my favourite time of the year," says assistant park manager Adam Curtis. "Woodland colours are at their best and the evening light brings out the different tones and textures."

Leith Hill, near Dorking

The highest point in south-east England, Leith Hill has stunning views over the surrounding countryside. On a clear day, London can be seen to the north and the English Channel to the south.

Mature hazel and oak woodlands provide a colourful backdrop in autumn. The best colour comes from the beech trees and bracken, which, says the National Trust, "provide a stunning display from the end of October into December."
Leith Hill is crowned by an 18th century Gothic tower.

Painshill Park, Cobham

The famous foliage of the American trees and shrubs at Painshill Park's Serpentine Walk produces its fieriest colours in October.

Among the exotics are the North American snake bark maple (so named because moose eat the bark in winter - though not in the UK!) and the toothache tree (native American Indians chewed the bark, which contains a natural anaesthetic, to relieve the pain of toothache).
Other American trees in the park include the paper or canoe birch (canoes were made from this species by native American Indians), swamp cypress and scarlet oak.
"New England meets old England as North American and European trees combined put on a spectacular display of vibrant colours during October and November," says gardener Kath Clark.

A carefully restored 18th century landscape park and gardens, Painshill Park was created between 1738 and 1773 by Charles Hamilton, a painter, plantsman and designer.

Polesden Lacey, near Dorking

Polesden Lacey is best known in autumn for the colourful sylvan vistas across the garden and wider estate, common beech trees and limes being the most noteworthy species. Ancient sweet chestnuts to the north of the house also add a welcome splash of colour to the landscape. Visitors enjoy collecting the nuts that drop from these trees.

"For autumn colours among the garden trees, look out for the tulip tree and the ironwood trees in the Winter Garden, which are a must - especially if seen against a clear blue sky," says head gardener Stephen Torode.

Polesden Lacey is a 1,400-acre estate with some of the finest views in Surrey.

Richmond Park, Richmond

Covering an area of 2,500 acres and home to 650 deer, Richmond Park is the biggest of all the royal parks in London and also the capital's largest Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Area of Conservation and a National Nature Reserve.

The park is renowned for its ancient trees, of which there are around 1,200. Some of the venerable English oaks are so old they even predate the enclosure of the park by Charles I in the 17th century.

Autumn colours are at their best on sunny days after cool, crisp nights from September to November. Of the native tree species, field maples are noted for their lemon yellow foliage, beeches for their bronze leaves and hawthorns and rowans for their bright red berries. Of the non-native species, red oaks and sugar maples are especially worth looking out for.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Liquidambers, acers and beeches are the stars of the autumn colour show at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, according to arboretum manager Ray Townsend. Predicting when foliage will be at its colourful best, however, is tricky and depends on a variety of factors, such as temperature, amount of sunlight and whether there are strong winds.
"I have known leaves at Kew to stay on until December," says Ray. "As far as I can recall, the strongest colours followed hot, dry summers. Last year, we had a wet summer, as a result of which autumn colours were fine over a long period instead of being fantastic over, say, a two-week period. This year, I don't expect colours to be brilliant, but don't quote me!"

Whatever the colours are like, visitors will be able to enjoy them from a completely different vantage point - the new 18m high and 200m-long Treetop Walkway. This new attraction enables visitors to wander through a canopy of sweet chestnuts, limes and deciduous oaks and see trees from the top down rather than the bottom up.

Winkworth Arboretum, Godalming

The National Trust-owned Winkworth Arboretum, which boasts more than 1,000 different shrubs and trees, is internationally famous for its autumn colour. Indeed, it becomes a veritable paint palette of vibrant colours at this time of year, and it's now that most visitors make tracks for this oasis of rural tranquillity.

"Boldly arranged masses of mountain ashes, whitebeam and maples bring splashes of russet and gold to the valley landscape" at this time of year, to quote the Trust's official guidebook.

Winkworth Arboretum was created by professional dermatologist and amateur arboriculturist Dr Wilfrid Fox from 1937. Species represented include the Oregon maple (leaves turn bright orange in autumn), purple-leafed Japanese maple (noted for its brilliant scarlet colour), golden whitebeam (its foliage assumes a butter-yellow mantle in autumn), katsura tree (turns a pinky yellow and emits a smell like burnt sugar) and Chinese dogwood (rich bronze and crimson in autumn).

"This autumn, we are hoping for another intense explosion of colours as good as any in the South of England," says head arborist Rob Tyler. "Even when the leaves have fallen, Dr Fox's legacy includes a brilliant array of berries, lighting up the dark winter days to Christmas and beyond."

Wisley, near Woking

Like Winkworth, the Royal Horticultural Society's Wisley Garden is a feast for the eyes in autumn with all manner of trees and shrubs contributing to the extravaganza of colour.

Superintendent of the floral ornamental department, David Jewell, says that two of his favourite trees for autumn colour are Cornus kousa and Nyssa sylvatica. The foliage of the former turns "a wonderful bronzy crimson" in October, while the latter is "a fantastic tree with stunning, vivid reds and burnt oranges".

The Nyssa variety at the garden is 'Wisley bonfire' - noted not only for its colour but also for its ascending branches that drape down towards the ground.

River Wey, near Godalming

There can surely be no better place to experience Keats' season of mists and mellow fruitfulness than a river or canal, and the River Wey and its associated Navigations constitute one of Surrey's finest waterways. Early in the morning or late in the afternoon are the best times to capture the misty, milky essence of autumn associated with rivers, canals and lakes.

The banks of the Wey are lined with all manner of deciduous trees and shrubs, which, given the right weather conditions, provide as colourful an autumn treat as anything likely to be seen in a formal garden or park.

Look out for the reds and golds of hawthorn leaves, among which nestle clusters of dark red berries, the yellows and browns of conker-laden horse chestnuts and water-loving alders, and the bright pink berries produced by spindle trees.



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