It’s a running joke that one of Chippenham’s best features is that it allows you to get to other places very easily. It’s practically a stone’s throw from the lovely villages of Lacock and Castle Combe, a short drive to the market town of Malmesbury, the railway station and M4 open Bristol, London, mid Wales, and beyond to Chippenham residents, and the wonders of Wiltshire are on our doorstep.
One of my favourite places to go from Chippenham is Westonbirt Arboretum, located near the Cotswold village of Tetbury and a neighbour to Highgrove, Prince Charles’ estate. The arboretum had its start in 1829 through the efforts of landowner Robert Stayner Holford, and it was extended by his son throughout the 19th century, benefitting from the mania for plant collecting during Victorian times. It passed into the hands of the Forestry Commission in 1956, and today comprises over 18,000 trees and shrubs on 600 acres. These can be viewed from nearly 17 miles of pathways that wind their way through two distinct sections, the Old Arboretum and Silk Wood. Made the National Arboretum for the country in 2001, it houses a number of “champion” trees, for example the biggest or largest of their species, and a national collection of Japanese maples and cultivars.
It’s these, the acers, that most people flock to see at this time of year. They turn the woodland into a riot of colour, their vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows forming nature’s version of stained glass. A visit to Westonbirt is always the highlight of my autumn.
Planning a trip, however, is a tactical exercise. There are a number of factors at play, all of which have to be carefully weighed up. There is the weather: when photographing trees, good lighting and a dry environment are desirable. Lack of strong winds is necessary to make sure the leaves stay on the trees and don’t blur in photos. Then there’s the timing; do you want something a bit different and atmospheric? Morning mists are ideal, but require an early start. Or maybe golden hour light? A clear day and waiting for an hour or two before sunset are then required.
Another aspect to consider is the crowds. Westonbirt is one place where trees are rock stars. As a result, the area is packed on weekends. If you want to get away from it all, but work full time, how do you work around several thousand other people with the same idea?
And then there is the hunt for Peak. This is the Holy Grail of leaf peeping, the time when the greatest number of leaves have changed colour and remain on the trees. The timing of this varies from year to year, and is the result of the science behind the change in colour.
Leaves contain the green pigment chlorophyll, which captures energy from the sun and turns it into food for the tree. However, the decreasing amount of daylight and cooler temperatures cause the chlorophyll to break down and allow the other pigments in the leaves—such as the yellow xanthophyll and orange carotenoids—to become visible. While this basic process is repeated year after year, the weather can affect the duration and intensity of the colour. The temperature, light, and amount of water the tree receives all have an impact. For example, low temperatures that stay above freezing will bring out the red of the anthocyanin pigment in maple trees, but an early frost can reduce the colour.
My husband and I still speak in awe of the autumn of 2010. The trees in Westonbirt—and everywhere along the train lines and motorways—were aflame that year. The perfect combination of temperature, light, and dry weather meant the leaves hung around just a bit longer and were quite a lot brighter when we paid a visit to celebrate successfully passing my PhD viva in early November. This year, the colours were not quite so brilliant and the crowds of people out for the half-term holidays were the biggest I had ever seen during nearly a decade of visiting Westonbirt. Yet the opportunity to see this seasonal spectacle is always a privilege and a treat, and something I am already looking forward to the next time autumn rolls around.