The Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland’s Tree Tunnel

The Dark Hedges

photography by: KyOn Cheng / Wikimedia Commons

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The Causeway Coastal Route stretches along Northern Ireland’s rugged clifftops between Belfast and Derry, offering a plethora of tourist attractions along the way. Featuring internationally renowned sites such as the Giant’s Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, the trail also encompasses many of the filming locations used in the famous Game of Thrones TV series. One of the most photographed but still lesser-known of these is the Dark Hedges, an avenue of brooding beech trees whose entwined branches block out natural daylight, creating an eerily atmospheric tunnel. Over two centuries old, the trees are now at risk due to years of natural and man-made degradation and urgent efforts are ongoing to try to preserve what remains of this extraordinary arboreal phenomenon.

Origin of the Dark Hedges

Although its shadowy appearance means that many people now consider it spooky and even sinister, the tunnel of trees was built with the opposite intention in mind: as a welcoming and impressive feature to greet guests to Gracehill House, a Georgian estate built by the Stuart Family in 1775.

 

The manor house still stands today, although the tree alley on Bregagh Road is no longer part of the estate. Comprising over 150 saplings, the 1km long opposing rows of beech trees grew to heights of up to 40m and their domed crowns intermingled to form the unique avenue of ancient gnarled trunks that can be seen today – or at least what is left of it.

 

It is unknown when the moniker “Dark Hedges” was bestowed on the bent and twisted branches.  The obvious explanation is the lack of light caused by the foliage, particularly when they are in full bloom in spring and summer.

 

An alternative explanation is more supernatural: the road is purported to be haunted by a “Grey Lady”, by various accounts the ghost of James Stuart’s daughter, the spectre of a maid that died under suspicious circumstances in a nearby house or a lost soul from a close-by graveyard who calls those buried close by to join her on Hallowe’en night. Local stories say that she glides along the avenue by night, disappearing at the last beech tree.


Appearance in Popular Culture

Given the extensive filming of the HBO series, Game of Thrones, all over Northern Ireland, it is unsurprising that the Dark Hedges was chosen to feature in an important scene in the first episode of season 2, filmed in 2011. In this episode, Arya Stark is seen escaping from King’s Landing along the Kingsroad, a fictional road between Westeros and The Wall. The ominous, brooding atmosphere of the Dark Hedges clearly struck the directors as the perfect setting for this scene.

 

The international attention garnered by this appearance also led to a further cinematic role, this time in the movie, Transformers: The Last Knight, released in 2017. Shrouded in shadowy mist, Merlin the Magician rides his horse through the Dark Hedges, with the scene even appearing in the film’s trailer.

 

The Dark Hedges has also inspired other artists: Elaine Agnew, an Antrim-born composer, premiered her compelling Dark Hedges composition at the BBC Proms (a classical music festival held annually in London) in 2012.


Damage to the Trees

Now almost 250 years old, the beech trees are already older than the average life span for their species (150-200 years). Recognising this, the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust was set up in 2009 to preserve and enhance the ageing topiary. With the help of Heritage Lottery Funding, 94 of the trees were surveyed and recorded in 2014.

 

While this helped in understanding the age and condition of the trees, it could not prevent the effect of Storm Gertrude in 2016, which uprooted several of the most vulnerable of them. Rather than lose the legacy of the trees, the wood was salvaged and used to create 10 intricately carved Game of Thrones-themed doors, located across Northern Ireland.

 

Subsequent storms have toppled a number of additional trees – one in each of 2017, 2018, 2019 and two in 2021. This led to a new survey by the Department of Infrastructure and experts at Tree Safety, which found that 11 trees were in poor condition and six of them needed to be cut down, a process that began in November 2023. Disaster struck once again in January 2024, when a further three trees were blown down during Storm Isha, one of which had previously been deemed healthy.

 

While the local community is loath to lose part of their famous Dark Hedges, the remediation work is necessary to minimise the risk that falling branches pose to visitors. The most recent storm leaves 3 trees being actively monitored as at risk and 74 of the original giants being left alone for now – though it is clear a strategy will need to be developed to ensure their survival.


Visiting the Dark Hedges

It is clear that the future of the Dark Hedges is uncertain. At this stage, it is too late to plant new trees to replace those that have been lost and it remains to be seen how successful the ongoing remedial work will be. Tourist numbers exploded following the success of Game of Thrones, which may have contributed to the extent of the current problems.

 

For those visiting, it is therefore better to try to avoid the crowds: arriving early or late, avoiding holidays or weekends and walking to the south end, furthest from the parking lot, will enhance the experience.

 

It is also worth noting that the Dark Hedges may not look exactly like they did on Arya’s or Merlin’s journeys: colour grading and CGI spectacularly enhance what can be seen on the screen and even other tourists’ photographs are often edited or taken with a zoom lens, leading to a compression effect which makes the images of the Dark Hedges available online appear far more spellbinding and ominous than they really are. The time of year also matters – in winter, the trees lose their leaves so the effect can be far less impressive.


Getting There

The Dark Hedges are accessible by car or bus. By car, the Bregagh Road is between the villages of Armoy and Stranocum, 14km southwest of Ballycastle via the A44 and Ballykenver Rd. It is about 240km (2hr45m drive) from Dublin and 80km (1hr drive) from Belfast. The road itself is closed to traffic since 2017 in an effort to protect the tree roots but there is parking available at the nearby Hedges Hotel.

 

By bus, there are regular guided day tours that depart from Dublin and Belfast to visit Game of Thrones filming locations around the country. If time permits, it is also possible to take public transport to get there, but buses and trains may be infrequent and will not go all the way there so it is important to plan in advance.

County Antrim countryside around the Dark Hedges

photography by: dmandini/ Flickr