Hunting for autumn colour in Sussex and Surrey

Since we moved to East Sussex from Oxford two years ago, I have been on the look out for the best places to find autumn colour, and more specifically, Acers. Acer leaves are my favourite thing to photograph in the autumn - there's something so pleasing and special about their shape and the huge range of colours they display as the season moves on. The best collection of Acers I have ever found is at Westonbirt Arboretum. However, this is now quite a trek for us and most certainly not a day trip anymore. So I've been on the lookout for the best Acer collections closer to home....

Winkworth Arboretum

This year, we visited Winkworth Arboretum in Surrey (The National Trust's only arboretum) for the first time and I wasn't disappointed, even though we were probably a couple of weeks away from the peak colour. It was blissfully quiet as we visited on a week day and I'm sure this considerably added to my enjoyment!

Winkworth is a large place, so be prepared for lots of walking, some of it steep. The visitors map suggests three different routes - we opted for the "Challenging walk" with steep steps of approx. 3.6km that took in most of the arboretum. We soon strayed off track, though, as I got distracted by the leaves, so I'm not sure how much of this we completed. There's also an accessible 1km route with no steps, and a shorter "taste of" walk that is 1.6km.

For us, it was definitely a whole day trip (but bear in mind there are frequent stops for photography - I can spend a LONG time with my head and camera stuck in a single beautiful tree!) and I'm very glad we took a packed lunch with us. There is a small cafe, but the lunch options are limited and it's located at the entrance, so it's quite a trek to get back there.

Since adopting our rescue dog, Misty, one of our additional requirements this year was to find places that allowed dogs to visit. Quite a challenge, it seems! A big tick in the box for Winkworth, though, even if the "short lead" rule seemed a little unnecessary.

I think Misty enjoyed the trip, but got rather impatient with our frequent photography stops! With such a beautiful backdrop, I just had to attempt some portraits. I had grand visions of some beautiful shallow depth of field shots of Misty, with leaves gently falling around her. Reality, however, didn't quite match-up.... Photographing pets is clearly an art form and I have a lot to learn. We had fun, though!

I also got a little obsessed with photographing the seed pods. I love the bright pop of red that really catches the light. Such a brilliant distribution system!

All in all, a thoroughly lovely visit - I look forward to returning next year!

Sheffield Park and Garden

I think the best place for autumn colour and Acers close to home, has to be the National Trust's Sheffield Park and Garden in East Sussex. It really comes alive in the autumn. But with it, of course, come large visitor numbers. If you can, I would try and get there for opening time on a week day. Unfortunately we were restricted to visiting after 1.30pm as this is the only time you are allowed to take dogs in the garden. We visited a couple of times this year, once on a Friday (busy, but still pleasant) and once on a Sunday (jam-packed, noisy and very hard to get much photography in without other people in your shot!).  Still worth it, though, as it's a stunning place with a beautiful Acer collection and one I will most definitely return to next year.

My lens of choice for autumn photography is my 100mm macro lens as it allows me to get nice and close with a decent background blur (and also a good way of avoiding other people in your shots!). All the photos in this post were taken on my macro lens.  One thing I love to do is to try and line up a contrasting colour as the background for my leaf shots - for me, the background is what makes or breaks the shot.

If you'd like to read more about autumn photography you might like my Photo tips: capturing autumn/fall colour post.

One of the great things about Sheffield Park is that there is a lot of concentrated autumn colour in a relatively small space, so you don't have to walk far to take in a lot of beauty. But I guess that's the reason it's so popular and busy....


Other places to visit

Do you have any suggestions for other places to visit for autumn colour not far from East Sussex? I'd love to hear them. Other places I've visited include:

  • Nymans - a beautiful place, but best in the spring and summer I think - there was a little autumn colour, but nothing substantial. Plus, no dogs allowed in the garden.
  • Standen House and Garden - I was very disappointed when I visited here last autumn - hardly anything to see - so I haven't returned since.
  • Wakehurst Place - I love it here and there are quite a few Acers as I recall, but sadly no dogs are allowed, so we haven't visited recently.