If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. Not only will the leaves be starting to swap their summer greenery for the russet glory of autumn, but you might just stumble across someone with an easel trying to capture the changing of the seasons in watercolours.
Botanical art, which dates back more than a thousand years, is making something of a comeback – albeit at a snail’s pace – as part of the ‘slow living’ movement, which aims to put the brakes on our otherwise rapidly accelerating lives.
‘There’s been a recent revival of interest in botanical illustration as I think people are starting to prioritise beauty over convenience,’ says Bridget Gillespie, who has been a botanical illustrator for more than 20 years. ‘I think in our digital age where everything is throw-away, convenient and fast, it’s something of a slow revolution. It’s transformative in that it shows people how to see things in a new way, to really look at the detail and complexity of plants as something seemingly simple, rather than take them for granted.’
The earliest surviving examples of the art form have been traced back to the year 512, when artists accurately described plants for medicinal use to guard against potentially hazardous potions and preparations. Before the era of photography, artists were commissioned to create detailed drawings for physicians, pharmacists, scientists and horticulturalists for identification, analysis and classification. By the 18th century, botanical art had become a respected profession, widely used to illustrate books, catalogues and magazines. And now, it seems to be growing again in popularity and collectability.
The Royal Horticultural Society runs botanical art courses and has its own collection of artworks, including some of Bridget’s, who has been awarded Gold Medals by the RHS. Bridget has a studio in Ryedale but is heading to the Himalayan Gardens & Sculpture Park this autumn, which is playing its part in reviving the age-old artistic tradition by running a three-day workshop from 9th–11th October.
‘Autumn is a stunning time of year in the Himalayan Gardens because of the beautiful woodlands and strong colours,’ says Bridget, who will be teaching people how to capture the beauty of botanicals in the 45-acre North Yorkshire gardens. ‘So, we’ll be looking at root vegetables that are at their peak, and autumn leaves.
‘One of the unique and very exciting things about the Himalayan Gardens is you’ll find very rare plants you won’t find elsewhere, thanks to the specialised conditions of sheltered woodlands on acid soil.’
One of Yorkshire’s hidden horticultural gems, the gardens are home to a 20-acre arboretum, more than 80 sculptures and almost 20,000 plants, including the North’s largest collection of rhododendron, azalea and magnolia.
Peter and Caroline Roberts originally bought the property in 1996 as a privately-owned 20-acre woodland garden. Some of the grounds were coppiced hazel woodland with an infestation of Japanese knotweed, while other parts were dense, dark woods of sitka spruce. Original plantings of hybrid rhododendrons along the drive prompted Peter to visit other rhododendron gardens, including Bodnant, Ray Wood at Castle Howard, Hooker Hall and Muncaster Castle. Inspired by these gardens, and his love of art and sculpture, he set about transforming his grounds into a Himalayan garden, with wild-origin plants supplied by Alan Clark, an eminent Himalayan plant hunter.
Bridget believes botanical illustration fits with the meditative theme of the Himalayas, as the drawings are a slow process, demanding huge levels of concentration: ‘Once you’ve really learned to look at plants in detail with all their complexity, the world is your oyster – everything can be of interest because you just start to look more closely than before.’
If you’d like to look closely at even more autumnal colour, the Yorkshire Arboretum, a 120-acre woodland landscape on the Castle Howard estate, is hosting an Autumn Colour & Leaf Fall event on 13th October to ‘think about how the colours are made, and how the trees prepare for winter’; and a members’ tour of Ray Wood on 20th and 22nd October. Building work recently began at the arboretum – home to more the 6,000 trees – on the UK’s first purpose-built Tree Health Centre, which will be offering classroom, lab and outdoor learning for both professionals and the public.
‘We all need to know how to maintain healthy trees, and identify and manage those affected by pests and disease,’ says Dr John Grimshaw, Director of Yorkshire Arboretum. The government has identified a significant skills shortage in the field, and this lack of understanding around biosecurity has contributed to the current crisis. The Tree Health Centre is of vital importance in the promotion of healthy trees for a healthy future.’
There are plenty of healthy specimens at Thorp Perrow Arboretum in Bedale, where you’ll find one of the largest collections of shrubs and trees in the North, including five prestigious National Collections. It also has a Bird of Prey & Mammal Centre, for those for whom autumn leaves hold less interest than meerkats, wallabies, pygmy goats and Shetland sheep. The arboretum was originally created by Colonel Sir Leonard Ropner, and further developed as a visitor attraction by his son Sir John Ropner and his wife Niki. Covering 100 acres, it’s laid out in sections that take you on a journey of discovery around the continents, with species from, among others, China, Japan, North America and Chile.
As a World Heritage Site, Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal are spectacular all year round but, with the turning of the autumn leaves, the ruins of the magnificent abbey, its follies, mirror-like ponds and statues are given a particularly stunning backdrop that all but camouflages its resident red, fallow and sitka deer.
The landscape is peppered with ancient limes, oaks and sweet chestnuts, which you can explore via miles of footpaths and trails that take you into the woodland on the High Ride path or down through the high-sided Seven Bridges Valley. The circular 4km Ancient Trees Walk takes you through the deer park along bridleways, footpaths and roadways past St Mary’s Church, Choristers House, the East Gate lodges, the visitor centre and back again.
The 300 acres of landscaped park and gardens at Nostell Priory, widely regarded as an 18th century architectural masterpiece, are the perfect place to enjoy seasonal scent and colour in West Yorkshire. Joiner’s Wood is planted with standard oak trees, which were historically used for timber around the estate; Engine Wood is a haven for roebuck deer; Far Vista was recently replanted to attract ground nesting birds; Lower Lake provides a popular nesting site for daubenton bats, kingfishers and swans; and Obelisk Park has been replanted as a meadow, including trees originally set out on an 1849 blueprint.
For more of an autumn adventure – with waterfalls as well as falling leaves – you might want to head to Ingleton Falls on the very western edge of the Dales, where you will find a well-defined path running as close as possible to the edge of the two rivers (the Twiss and the Doe) to provide spectacular views of Pecca Falls, Hollybush Spout, Thornton Force, Beezley Falls, Rival Falls, Baxengyhll Gorge and Snow Falls. Just make sure you’re wearing sensible footwear, otherwise it won’t just be the leaves that are falling.