Gardens and arboreta across the country are reporting their best October visitor figures ever as trees displayed their finest autumn colour in decades. A fortuitous combination of low rainfall, warm weather but not too much sun produced spectacular autumn colour this year, with Westonbirt, Batsford, RHS Hyde Hall and Harlow Carr all saying they had record footfall as a result.
Westonbirt, the National Arboretum, has had 50 per cent more visitors than 2015 and its best autumn since reliable records began 20 years ago. "It's been our most successful autumn yet," said Paul Cody, head of visitor attractions at the 15,000-tree site in Tetbury, Gloucestershire.
"We are 50 per cent up on visitor numbers for October in comparison to last year and that was the best year for a long time. We know we're quite well up on November. On 30 October, our peak day, we had just over 12,000 people on site. Normally it varies between a few hundred and a couple of thousand. On the second weekend of November we were really busy too, especially on Sunday, which was a lovely day."
Acers were really good this year and are still showing colour because the arboretum has had no heavy frosts as yet, he added. Westonbirt also recorded more visitors from further afield, many from the M4 corridor to London and the M6 corridor to Birmingham, as well as international visitors. "We've seen quite a few Japanese coach parties," said Cody. "The autumn colours are very popular with the Japanese and we're seeing a few Chinese people as well."
Stuart Priest, director of operations at 23ha Gloucestershire arboretum Batsford, said the autumn colour was the best in 30 years, despite the weather this summer being cool and cloudy rather than warm and sunny, conditions normally associated with good autumn colour.
Acers, sorbus, euonymus and cherries all did well this year. Batsford is forecasting a 20,000 increase in visitor numbers for the 2016 calendar year compared with 2015, according to marketing head Laura Summers.
She added: "It's staggering. The majority of that has been down to the autumn. It's been a brilliant year. Colour-wise it's been absolutely fantastic and hung around for longer than we might expect. We've probably had our busiest autumn so far. The colour has helped, the weather has helped and lots of people have come to the garden. I think people are a bit nervous about going abroad with the exchange rate and everything else. It's been a really good season for us."
All four RHS gardens have also recorded a bumper season. RHS Hyde Hall saw a 20 per cent rise in visitor numbers last month, compared with the previous year. The site's increase in visitor numbers has outstripped the other RHS gardens for a number of years but even taking this into account the rise is significant.
"It's been a phenomenal autumn," said marketing and PR manager Sue Carter. "It was our best ever October. Everything came together right, the mild weather and the autumn colour, which has been phenomenal this year. Half-term week was particularly good and even into November we've done really well too."
Visitor numbers at RHS Rosemoor are up 11.8 per cent on October 2015. Acting head of site and curator Jonathan Webster said: "I've been here 11 years now and it's the best I've seen. It's been stunning - proper New England colour. Last winter we had horrendous rain so it was really wet and horrible but this summer we've been quite dry, which is quite unusual. It was a combination of the dryness, the shortening of the days and the colder night temperatures triggering that colour. Cornus kausa and dogwoods have done fantastically well.
National Trust gardens, Winkworth Arboretum and Stowe also had a bumper season. Winkworth gardener Tom Wells said: "The autumn colours have been spectacular this year - thousands of trees all ablaze in yellows and reds. Scarlet carpets have formed in groves of Japanese maples, katsura trees have been filling the air with the scent of burnt sugar and we've seen a record number of visitors over the half-term period."
He added: "Luckily, the weather has been good to us, with no early frosts or storms. We've had weeks of glorious colour all around the arboretum. The native trees have reached their peak colour a few weeks later than the maples, so even as the non-natives have begun to go over, the beauty of the season has been extended by the oranges of the oaks and beeches."
Wells said the extended autumn colours due to the weather conditions over the past month and over the year contributed to Winkworth's busiest ever autumn season.
Stowe is fond of trees from northern Europe but favours north American varieties for their autumnal brilliance. They were also part of original planting plans for areas of the Capability Brown- designed garden such as the Grecian Valley.
Head of gardens and estates Barry Smith said the autumn colour was the best he has seen in his 30 years on the estate. "Autumn at Stowe was very strong this year due to shifts in seasonal weather," he explained. "More so than in previous years, we experienced conditions of mild temperatures, low wind and minimal rainfall. This was conducive for leaves being able to stay longer on the trees and creating a display that started in September and carried on at its best until the second week in November when frost struck. The lack of rain water has a reverse effect for our gardens as we'd consider it to be in drought at the moment."
He added: "We've seen a great rise in visitor numbers and their enjoyment of the place over several years during our autumn season as we promote conservation and access to the great outdoors for everyone to enjoy. We've been holding an autumn rambles series of self-led walks where visitors can choose from various routes to discover autumn colours across the 250 acres of gardens and 750 acres of parkland."