A lady-like specter glides through the shadowy arboreal tunnel of intertwined branches bent over the Bregagh Road in County Antrim in Northern Ireland.
Many say it’s the ghost of a maid from a nearby house who died mysteriously long ago. Others think it’s Margareth “Cross Peggy” Stuart, the daughter of a previous owner of the land, James Stuart. Some even suggest it’s a lost spirit from a deserted and long-lost graveyard, believed to lay hidden somewhere in the nearby fields.
On some nights, the forgotten graves are said to open up and she is joined on her walk among the bent trunks by the tortured souls of those once so dear, and now dead, buried beside her. Whatever her tormented past was, the locals call her the Gray Lady of The Dark Hedges, and she is believed to haunt the long ominous road beneath the huge domed crown of gnarled branches.
This spooky yet magnificent avenue of beech trees was planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century, with the intention to serve as an impressive entrance for visitors who approached their Georgian mansion, Gracehill House. Although the family had owned the estate for over a century, it was not until 1775 that one of Irwin Stuart’s children, James, decided to build a home for his family there, and name it after his wife, Grace Lynd.
As soon as they settled in, he acquired and planted 150 beech trees in two opposing rows to create an imposing road leading toward their estate. James believed that by doing so he was creating a stylish and grand look for their residence.
However, as years passed, and the trees matured, they began to bend over the road and their branches intermingled, thus creating an atmospheric tunnel and a very scenic road indeed. What James planned as the centerpiece of his home two centuries later became an unusually serene and spellbinding tunnel of ancient beech trees along the Bregagh Road, north of Belfast.
Intertwining and entangling, the branches of the trees form a dramatic union of light and shadow, making the roadway truly magnificent, a real gem of nature, and one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland.
The life span of a typical Fagus sylvatica L., commonly known as the beech tree, is 150 to 200 years, but they can achieve an age of up to 350 years .
A survey was commenced in 2014 of more than 94 beech trees as part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project. Authorized by the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust and the Causeway Coast & Glens Heritage Trust, the survey confirmed that the tree thrives here and often reaches the greater age of maturity, which is rare. According to the survey, when mature, the beech tree can grow to a height of more than 40 meters and form an enormous domed crown at the top. This transformed the treeline into a scenic backdrop, one that can be utilized in the creation of some unique and memorable television series, or movie sequences for instance.
And so it did, for the iconic trees of County Antrim were used as a filming location in HBO’s epic series Game of Thrones, representing the King’s Road in Season 2, Episode 1: “On the King’s Road.” In it, after Arya Stark, disguised as a boy, escaped successfully from King’s Landing, this was the path she took along with her companions Gendry and Hot Pie and began her journey north toward the Night’s Watch in the back of a cart.
Prior to that, to ensure the preservation of the trees, the Department of the Environment (NI) Planning Service in 2004 placed a Tree Preservation Order on the Dark Hedges, and five years later the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust was formed. Backed by Heritage Lottery Funding, the Trust aims to conserve and enhance this phenomenon, as well as to protect the remaining 90 trees that survive out of the 150 originally planted centuries ago.
Aside from the huge increase in traffic generated by people who now were eager to see this fantastical and dreamy place, the Dark Hedges had to endure even more hardship in 2016, when Northern Ireland was hit by Storm Gertrude. Two of the trees were completely destroyed, and many others heavily damaged during the storm.
As the place’s popularity increased, the number of people visiting it grew, and this raised concerns as to how the trees, being surface rooting, would handle the increase in traffic, or the graffiti left behind by vandals.
As a result, at the very start of this year, the Department of Infrastructure, to preserve the site from degradation and possible damage, announced plans to eventually close the road to traffic.