Ireland’s ethereal ‘Dark Hedges’ have fascinated visitors for centuries and have even featured as the King’s Road in Game of Thrones.
They are made up of two rows of beech trees straddling a narrow road near Ballymoney in Northern Ireland. Their branches and canopies intertwine for about three hundred yards creating a tunnel effect that has a strange, other world appearance.
It’s little wonder then the hedges are used as the location for the King’s Road in the TV series Game of Thrones, which is filmed in Northern Ireland.
In reality, there’s nothing royal about the trees but they do have aristocratic connections. The two rows of beeches were planted in the 18th century by the Stuart family, who were large landowners in the area. They wanted to impress visitors and local people by creating a grand entrance route to their country home and estate, Gracehill House.
As the trees grew and reached maturity, they created one of the most fascinating natural phenomenon in an area already blessed with outstanding natural beauty. Tourists visiting nearby attractions such as the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick a Rede rope bridge also made time to visit the Dark Hedges.
It became a tourist attraction in its own right and has been voted one of the top five most beautiful tree tunnels in the world. It became even more popular after it was featured on Game of Thrones. It’s now one of the most photographed scenes in Ireland, with thousands of people visiting every week, many of them inspired by having seen it on television. Some couples even use it as a backdrop for their wedding photos, and it’s also popular as screen saver.
The popularity has taken tourism chiefs in Northern Ireland a little by surprise, which means there is no infrastructure in place. There is no visitor centre, facilities or information at the site and visitors have a tendency to park on the side of the road in front of the hedges, making it difficult for others to take photographs without parked cars in view.
Visitors also tend to walk along the road taking pictures, which makes it difficult for anyone wishing to take a clean picture of the opening archways to the Dark Hedges.
A word of caution, there are warning signs pointing out that the “dark hedges are ancient trees at risk of falling or branch breakage, especially during windy conditions” so take care when visiting.
Sadly, two of these majestic trees were blown down, and a third one was badly damaged, during Storm Gertrude on January 29 2016.
See what it’s like to drive through The Dark Hedges
Ghost of the grey Lady
You might also want to keep an eye for the ghost of the Grey Lady, which according to local folklore, haunts the area and can sometimes be see gliding along the nearby Bregagh Road. She glides soundlessly under the tunnel of branches and then disappears when she passes the last beech tree.
James Stuart built the Georgian Gracehill House around 1775 and named it after his wife, Grace Lynd. The family then planted more than 150 beech trees to create an avenue leading up to the house.
There are currently about 94 of those trees remaining, giving the avenue a mystical, ethereal mix of light and shadow. They are looked after by the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust and the Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust. The trees are more than 300 years old, which suggests they have been carefully tended for centuries because the average lifespan of beech trees is between 150 and 200 years.
The Dark Hedges made a grand entrance route to the Stuart’s family country home and estate, Gracehill House.