'It wasn't a strange place; it was a new one.'
July 27, 2018
On the King' s Road, Arya Stark has escaped from King’s Landing, disguised as a boy. She is with Yoren, Gendry, Hot Pie and others who are to join the Night’s Watch, in a cart, travelling north on the King’s Road. (Season 2, Episode 1 - The Game of Thrones)
'Turn right. You have reached your destination.'
The GPS is wrong again... The postcode I enter into the device will only guide me to an approximate location, so I whip out the phone and type in my desired destination.
We are close enough, but not quite there. I turn the car around and continue along the narrow road. The hedges are high, uncut. Swallows and other birds chase each other out of the vegetation, turning this way and that before settling on the trees above.
Turning right, there is a 'Road Closed' sign, which I ignore, following the car in front of me. I come to a small parking area, and park the car. Picking up my phone and camera, I get out of the car and begin to walk down the centre of the road.
I find myself standing in an arch created by ancient trees; the fingers of their branches reach forth, intertwining with the one directly opposite. The smooth bark of the enormously tall trees emit a ghostly hue. Despite the large number of people on the road, they speak in hushed tones, as if they are in a church. Indeed the height and shape of the arched tunnel would rival many old churches.
In 1775, James Stuart built Gracehall House, and named it after his wife, Grace Lynd. Around the same time, the family planted an avenue of 150 beech trees along the driveway leading to the home. Two centuries later, some 90 of the original trees remain along Bregagh Road, their 200 year old branches entangling to provide a tunnel. The eerie trunks and branches are no less dramatic in the bright sunlight.
I walk from the parked car through the tunnel of trees. I can imagine how dramatic they would look at dusk, or on a dull day, but even today's sunny outlook and azure-blue sky cannot detract from the creepy atmosphere and a sense of hidden secrets. The avenue is supposed to be haunted by a grey lady, but I don't see her today. Perhaps there are too many visitors.
I reach the end of the road. On the opposite side, directly opposite Bregagh Road is the house, Gracehill. The beech trees have long been removed from the front of the house, but it's not hard to imagine the house sitting at the end of a long tunnel of otherworldly trees.
The media, and in particular films, can have a huge impact on a location. This one attracts hundreds of people every single day. Whilst it doesn't attract a fee to view it, such interest by the public must have a positive influence on the economy of Northern Ireland.
The beech trees of The Dark Hedges had a preservation order placed on them in 2009. As the trees themselves are nearing the end of their lives, it is important that they are protected as much as possible. Storm damage is always a concern and three trees were destroyed over the past two years.
As beech trees are shallow-rooted, there was a risk that the increased traffic would irreversibly damage the roots. To this end, the road was closed to all but farmer and emergency vehicles in October 2017.
There are lush paddocks on either side of the road. The smell of recently-cut hay in one paddock competes with the just-sprayed fertiliser on another. Nearby, a young married couple stand amongst wheat sheaves, which will probably be harvested in the coming days. The wind is blowing the grassy heads so they are almost laying flat. The soft green is a perfect backdrop for the happy couple.
In the foreground, ragwort weeds have pushed their way through the bare soil of the verge. Tiny bees drink deeply from the abundant nectar within the centre of the clustered flowers. This little yellow daisy-like flower may be pretty but it's lethal to cattle, and must be destroyed by farmers to arrest its spread.
The Game of Thrones may be a mystery to me, but for a little while today, I feel as though I am an observer as I imagine Arya Stark's daring escape down the Kings Road.
Title Quote: Paolo Coehlo
Accommodation: Groarty House & Manor B&B, 62 Groarty Rd, Londonderry BT48 0JY, UK