With the leaves about to turn all fiery in autumn colours, now's the time to start planning some Autumnal walks in the woods. Here's a list of ten of my favourites for this time of year.
1. New Forest
Roots: We have William I to thank for the New forest. After his conquering, he created this hunting forest in 1079. Less than half of the 564 square km/218 square miles of New Forest National Park is wooded. Many other important ecosystems thrive, including the largest area of lowland heathland in the UK. With its long history of commoners' rights, still practiced today (as the freely grazing ponies, cattle and pigs show), the forest harks back to medieval times.
Routes: There are 235 km/146 miles of rights of way in the New Forest and more cosy pubs than you can shake a stick at. In Fritham, the award-winning Royal Oak, famed for its food, real ales and crackling log fires, is deservedly popular. Lunch or dinner here would be more than enough fuel for a gentle eight km/five-mile circular route, kicking up fallen leaves in ancient woodland and on through heath and plantation. Watch out for fallow deer.
Roots: In 1779, the world's first cast-iron bridge spanned the River Severn near Coalbrookdale, Shropshire. Ironbridge gorge, 'birthplace of the Industrial Revolution', has been a tourist attraction ever since. Where once furnaces blackened the sky, this wooded valley and graceful bridge is now a UNESCO-listed site, full of pretty houses, narrow lanes and museums in former factories. Open-air Blists Hill Victorian Town, takes you back to a Dickensian world. Exchange pounds for pennies and spend them on roasted chestnuts.
Routes: Ironbridge is on the Severn Way, at 338 km/210 miles, it's the longest riverside walk in Britain. For a six km/four mile woodland stroll, follow a small section of the Way opposite Ironbridge's festively decorated streets, climb up through Benthall Edge Woods behind the impressive red-brick cooling towers of the power station, to Benthall Hall, a National Trust property (closed in winter). Loop back around to Ironbridge for afternoon tea.
3. Exmoor Coast
Roots: "Exmoor's coast is one of the highest, wildest and most scenic in the country," it says on an information board at County Gate car park, on the border of Somerset and Devon. "The woods between The Foreland and Porlock represent the longest stretch of coastal woodland in England and Wales." The stunted oaks and numerous chestnut trees hug the hillside, arching over the Southwest coast path. It's a sylvan faery dell, thick with moss and lichen, but it does mean that for most of the year, you can barely see the sea. In autumn you'll have more chance and the view will be framed by golden leaves. It's not a walk to undertake in a raging gale though, the trees have a habit of falling across the path.
Routes: The 1014km/630 mile Southwest coast path starts (or ends) at Minehead. Minehead to Porlock is a good nine miles walk - not all through woodland - so you may want to save that as another day's hike? There are buses from Minehead to Porlock and/or Porlock Weir from where it's about a 10km/seven mile hike to a sign pointing to County Gate. From here it's a good mile or so uphill to the road from where you can take a bus back to Minehead.
4. National Forest
Roots: Among the eight million trees that have been planted so far on former mineral and mine workings in Britain's new National Forest, there are historic parks, country houses, lakes and ancient woodland. At Calke Abbey, oaks at least 1,000 years old arguably look their gnarled best in winter. The Ferrers Centre of craft workshops - great for Christmas shopping - is in converted 18th century stables on the estate of Staunton Harold Hall, a fine Georgian mansion.
Routes: Leicestershire's 56km/35 mile circular walk, the Ivanhoe Way passes through Dimminsdale Woods. Managed by Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust, this woodland is a hobbity, undulating landscape due to its history of limestone and lead mining. In winter there's a magnificent glade of snowdrops. For a walk of some 13km/eight miles, combine the National Trust's new Calke Abbey five miler with a stretch of the Ivanhoe Way and a detour for afternoon tea at the Ferrers Centre.
5. Glen Affric
Roots: Often billed as the most beautiful glen in Scotland, the National Nature Reserve of Glen Affric is home to the largest surviving area of Caledonian forest in Scotland. Red squirrels scurry between branches and ospreys soar; old, twisted 'granny pines' frame fabulous views of lochs, burns and munros. Britain's most remote youth hostel, Alltbeithe, stands alone at the top of the glen, 13km/eight miles from the nearest road but it's closed in winter.
Routes: There are many walks of varying lengths and difficulty within the glen, such as an 18km/11 mile circular walk around Loch Affric. Otherwise, 'Dog Falls' plus 'Coire Loch' combines two easy way-marked trails into one of about six km/four miles. You trek through some beautiful pine forest by a whisky-coloured river - where you may see otters - to view the falls, tumbling through a narrow gorge. Don't miss the white way-marked detour to the viewpoint across Loch Beinn a' Mheadhoin and the Affric munros.
6. Bwlch Nant yr Arian
Roots: As soon as you arrive at the visitor centre, with its bleached wood walls and living roof, you know that Bwlch Nant yr Arian is a special place and when you learn that the name means 'mountain pass of the silver stream' it's confirmed. In the Cambrian mountains, just ten miles from Aberystwyth, this forestry commission woodland of Corsican pine, larch and Sitka spruce was, in the 17th century, busy with lead mining. The old shafts and seams of the lead mines, which were abandoned in the early 20th century, are now roosts for hibernating bats while rare mosses and ferns grow in lead-rich soil.
Overhead, red kites fly and are fed daily.
Routes: The 29km/18 mile Mal Evans Way passes through Bwlch Nant yr arian on its way from Borth to Devil's Bridge. Otherwise, from the visitors' centre, a three-mile ridgetop trail is worth the steep climbs and descents, for its sweeping views across sparsely populated Ceredigion. It's all especially beautiful on a crisp autumn day with trees fiery with colour.
7. Speyside Way
Roots: Woods of a different sort cheer the heart of many in Speyside: oaks from far and wide turned into barrels in which whisky is aged. At Tomintoul, the highest village in the highlands, the Tomintoul distillery on the Glenlivet estate is open year-round for free(!) tours and tastings by appointment (tel. 01807 590 274). After a chilly walk, warm away winter blues with a wee dram. For living woods meanwhile, Drumin Wood is a fine example of native Caledonian pine forest that hosts the rare and delicate twinflower.
Routes: The 60 mile Speyside Way follows the River Spey from coast to mountains, passing through forests on the way. A 25km/15 mile spur crosses picturesque hills to Tomintoul, the highest village in the Highlands. Once in Tomintoul, the way-marked West Avonside Path, a six km/four mile route following the River Avon (detailed in a new walking guide produced by the Glenlivet estate) passes through pretty birch woodlands. Another route, that starts and ends at the Glenlivet distillery (closed in winter though) is the 3 mile George Smith Smugglers' Trail that passes through Drumin Wood and takes in Drumin castle and the River Livet.
8. Brede High Woods
Roots: In the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, this 262-hectare woodland, ten km/six miles from Hastings, thrums with rare insects in many different habitats. Professional naturalists visit to study beetles, spiders and moths while a community archaeological project is underway to unearth the woodland's history of saw-milling, charcoal making and iron smelting. The root of the word 'High' in the name of the woodland comes from it being enclosed - by banks and ditches - not its elevation.
Routes: The 51km/32 mile 1066 Country Walk passes a short distance to the south of Brede High Woods, connected by footpaths to the woodland, while the Sussex Border Path passes to the north. Within Brede Highs Woods itself are 17km/ten miles of rights of way. Have a stroll before or after taking part in one of the free winter's activities, such as making Christmas decorations using natural materials.
9. Hatfield Forest
Roots: This medieval hunting forest has open plains, a lake, enormous pollarded hornbeams, coppiced woodlands and apple trees brimming with festive mistletoe. There are maples and hawthorns that are hundreds of years old, and, among it all, herds of fallow deer. It's like a mini New Forest but just an hour's drive from central London. A lakeside summerhouse, with walls encrusted with shells, is now the information centre and, if you fancy a change from turkey this Christmas, the shop sells venison from the herds.
Routes: You can walk all the way from Loughton underground station, through Epping Forest to Hatfield Forest on the 40km/25 mile Forest Way, passing pretty villages and rolling Essex countryside (and motorways). There are short way-marked walks in Hatfield forest, such as a four-mile stroll that includes a mile of the Flitch Way, an 29km/18 mile abandoned railway line.
10. Nagshead, Forest of Dean
Roots: With fewer leaves on the trees and birds concentrated into small flocks to feed, winter is a good time to hone up on your bird identification skills. In this RSPB reserve in the Forest of Dean you might see greater spotted woodpeckers, nuthatches and even hawfinches among the ancient oaks, planted for the Royal Navy's ships in Nelson's days.
Routes: The strenuous 151km/94 mile way-marked Gloucestershire Way passes through the Nagshead Reserve as it undulates through 'forest and vale and high blue hill.' If that seems too much of a hike for winter, there are two very short way-marked footpaths through Nagshead, one of one mile, another of two and a quarter miles. There are two hides and a visitors' centre (closed in winter but with updated information on display). The RSPB leads occasional guided bird-watching walks.
Five city woodlands:
Brighton. With a green travel guide produced by greentraveller.co.uk, Brighton is green in many ways. The city has 17,000 English elm trees, including the two largest and oldest in the world, in Preston Park. www.friendsofprestonpark.org
Cardiff. Fforest Fawr is a lovely woodland, deep in autumnal leaves in winter, just seven miles from the centre of the city and conveniently near a local train station, Taffs Well.
Glasgow. Just four miles from the city centre, Pollok Country Park has - perhaps uniquely for a city - a herd of Highland cattle that look a picture in its snowy woodlands.
Sheffield. Ecclesall Woods is the star attraction of the 80 ancient woodlands in and around the city that claims to be the most wooded in Britain with over 100,000 trees. www.friendsofecclesallwoods.org.uk
London. At 2,500 acres, Richmond Park is London's largest park, with ancient oaks, deer herds and a view of St Paul's, 12 miles away. www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/richmond-park