Calls have been made my numerous campaign groups to ensure the Dark Hedges remains a national treasure in Northern Ireland amid fears of its long-term survival, Jonathan McNabb investigates.
The future use of one of Northern Ireland’s most popular tourist destinations is under immediate threat, the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust has warned.
The Dark Hedges, known for its background setting in the fictional drama, Game of Thrones, is often busy with cars and buses in the outskirts of Armoy, Co. Antrim.
However, constant pressure on the site from traffic and a high number of tourists has caused debate about the long-term future of the trees.
Out of the 150 trees that were planted by the Stuart family in the 1700s as a dramatic approach to their Georgian mansion, only 90 remain, with one being uprooted in February’s Storm Doris.
The site is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year and is on a list of the 12 best road trips in the UK and Ireland compiled by the website continental road trip.
In 2015, it was estimated that over 10,000 Game of Thrones fans visited the site on tours across the Province.
The natural phenomena is one of the most photographed locations in Northern Ireland for amateurs and professionals, but this increase in popularity means the beech trees are surface rooting and cannot withstand the heavy flow of traffic.
Graham Thompson, CEO of the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust, explains that the ‘experience’ of visiting the iconic site is becoming damaged by cars and other road traffic.
He said: “It is important that cars don’t come down the road so that the whole experience of visiting the site is appreciated more by the people who are coming.
“Cars are just one of the many issues as there are also buses that stop here and disrupt the whole experience for others.
“We are working with the Hedges Hotel and the Gracehill golf complex to try and come up with an integrated management solution.
“This will involve traffic management and reducing the amount of cars and other vehicle gaining access to the site.”
Mr. Thompson also revealed that the Trust has been in discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly to resolve the issue.
“Cars will be stopped coming up the road,” he added.
“Measures have been put forward to the Assembly to restrict vehicle movement.
“We don’t know what will happen but it is our aim that people will park off site, the road will be free of traffic and they will have a much better visitor experience.”
Jonathan Hobbs, writer of the blog NI Greenways, is in agreement with Mr. Thompson and believes road traffic around the area can be managed ‘very easily’.
He said: “The Woodland Trust have estimated that the Dark Hedges have about 20 years left if we continue to let traffic along the Bregagh Road at current levels.
“For such a small intervention closing vehicle access at both ends is a small price to pay to protect this important piece of rural heritage and a tourist draw.
“The Council, the Department for Infrastructure and many local politicians and community voices seem to be working towards this very solution.
“There’s very little essential access needed along the road, nothing which can’t be managed very easily. There is a decent car park already in place at the Dark Hedges Hotel just across the road.
“You wouldn’t expect to be able to drive right down to the Giant’s Causeway and park up on the famous stones at the side of the road there.
“The Dark Hedges has a big role to play in drawing in tourists from around the world in the future and we need to offer visitors a safe and pleasant experience which is memorable for the right reasons.”
Sam Reynolds, who lives in nearby Stranocum, believes local authorities need to resolve this issue immediately; otherwise the site ‘could be gone for good.’
He said: “I have seen a major deterioration in the area in the last four or five years.
“Trees have fallen and the grass verges are becoming destroyed at an alarming rate.
“Traffic at the site is causing severe damage, despite Gracehill Golf Club and the Hedges Hotel offering free car parking nearby.
“It is vitally important that local authorities come up with a strategy to maintain the long-term survival of the Hedges because if not, the site could be gone for good.
“It’s a shame as it’s one of the most popular destinations on the North Coast and attracts thousands of visitors each year.”
The long-running saga about closing the site to vehicle traffic looks set to continue after the news that the safeguarding of the Hedges could come down to a public inquiry.
Causeway Coast and Glens councillors were told that a public inquiry may be the only logical step to preserve the area after four objections were received to Transport NI’s proposals to ban vehicle movement at the tourist attraction.
Councillor Joan Baird OBE, the Mayor of the Council believes the trees are at a ‘high risk of destruction.’
She said: “The trees at the Dark Hedges are at a high risk of destruction due to people parking on the grass verges and destroying the root structures.
“The Dark Hedges Preservation Trust must take responsibility for the delays in addressing the problem.
“Transport NI plan to restrict usage of the Bregagh Road, but there are objectors, and under law this must go to a public inquiry which does take time.
“The problem with parking at the Hotel is that pedestrians still have to cross the Ballinlea Road to access the trees and this presents road safety issues.
“It is a shame there is no quick fix solution as yet.”
The loss of this iconic site would be a blow to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council who explain that they are ‘working with landowners and Transport Northern Ireland to create a sustainable solution.’
The sad reality is that this beautiful site might not be here for much longer.