Game of Thrones dark hedges secrets are revealed
The stunning tunnel of trees in a quiet rural road in Ballymoney has become a must-see tourist destination after appearing in the TV series Game of Thrones.
Sheila Elliott rarely gives her companions a second thought or a second glance as she strolls with her 12-year-old Golden Retriever Sasha along the sometimes insanely busy Bregagh Road near her home a few miles from Stranocum.
As the mother of quintuplets - and a sixth child - Sheila has obviously been used to a crowded house but for a stranger the Bregagh Road is hardly a walk in the park, thanks to the hundreds of visitors who descend day and daily on what has become one of Northern Ireland's hottest of tourist hotspots.
Not that anyone calls the Bregagh Road by its name. Because this is the home of the Dark Hedges, a remarkable archway of intertwining beech trees which are now world famous, thanks to their fleeting appearance in the hugely popular TV series Game of Thrones.
And that's why Sheila Elliott is never short of company on her canine constitutionals and why she is regularly pressed into service to take pictures of visitors on their mobiles - a game of phones, you might call it.
"I think it's great," says Sheila. "The Hedges have always been popular in the 14 years I have lived here, but since Game of Thrones the number of tourists has gone through the roof.
"I stopped long ago being amazed at where all the day-trippers come from and many of them seem to be from really far away like China.
"I see folk at all hours of the day and night. A lot of them like visiting first thing in the morning to capture the Hedges in their best possible light in their photographs.
"And the light changes all the time. I love that."
On a nondescript Sunday recently, I gave up counting the tourists I'd seen at the Hedges - more than 100 in half an hour - and the road was at times choc-a-bloc with cars, buses, motorbikes and the odd bicycle.
However there were moments when it wasn't a place for the faint-hearted as drivers paid more attention to the Hedges than to the people ambling along on their rambles.
One motorist with a Northern Irish number-plate drove so fast down the road that a number of people, this writer included, had to jump out of his way and speculation was that he may have been a local man aggrieved that his quiet rural area has been transformed into a tourist trap.
Later, a group of bikers literally stopped the traffic for a while, lining their high-powered machines across the Bregagh Road so that they could take photographs of them against the spectacular backdrop of the Hedges just as members of the Dunlop racing dynasty from nearby Armoy had done in the past.
And if the Dunlops put the Hedges on the bikers' map, Game of Thrones has rocketed the trees' appeal into overdrive across the globe.
Their pulling power is nothing short of astonishing. During my time there I met people from Singapore, Mexico, France, Germany, America, England and Ireland. Yet finding the Dark Hedges is nigh impossible without the aid of modern science in the form of GPS.
There are no signs to guide the baffled visitor to the Hedges. Many tourist leaflets do have graphics showing roughly where the Hedges are located but don't include detailed maps and the only clue I found to what literally is a hidden gem was a small sign tucked away in greenery on the Ballinlea Road just a few yards from the turn into Bregagh Road. Better late than never - but only just.
"It is difficult to find, but most people tell me they think the search is worth it," says Sheila Elliot, who admits she wasn't a Game of Thrones watcher, adding: "But I did go on to the internet to see the scene in which the Hedges feature. The clip isn't all that long but it really does look beautiful."
Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey is the chairman of the Hedges Preservation Trust, which has been lobbying for brown information signs to be erected to make the Hedges less of a magical mystery tour.
And now happily there is light at the end of the Dark Hedges tunnel, for the Road Services are due to erect the much-needed signs shortly. The DUP man says the Hedges, which he believes are the most iconic row of trees in Europe, have become a victim of their own success because the more people come, the more problems arise of managing them.
A closer look at the Hedges reveals that other things in the garden aren't exactly rosy. Several surveys have resulted in a number of the diseased or dying trees being felled.
Experts say beech trees can stay healthy for up to 200 years, but some of the Hedges are already half a century older than that, having been planted in the 18th century by the Stuart family leading up to the entrance to their estate, Gracehill.
The Preservation Trust has been working with the Woodland Trust and the Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust to do all they can to extend the trees’ lives and to plant new ones in place of those Hedges which have had to disappear, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll grow in the same unusual way, overhanging the road.
A campaign has been launched in Co Antrim to encourage the public to vote for the Dark Hedges conservation project to win a £2,000 National Lottery award after reaching the finals of the competition.
“Some of the Hedges are well past their sell-by date in terms of how long they will survive,” says Mr Storey, who concedes that visitors’ safety must be a priority in any future plans.
At one stage there were discussions about closing the Bregagh Road to all traffic and making it a pedestrian zone but it was decided the impact on local residents would be too disruptive.
“We are going to have to find a long-term solution for managing the traffic,” says Mr Storey. “We realise that once the brown signs go up on the main A26 before Ballymoney, more people are going to visit the Dark Hedges.”
A lay-by at one end of the Bregagh Road does ease the pressure but it is far too small to cope with all the vehicles that converge on the Hedges. And most drivers simply abandon their cars at the sides of the narrow road, which isn’t just a potentially dangerous practice but also spoils the photo opportunities for other visitors who don’t want modern vehicles in their pictures.
Mr Storey says that the owners of a nearby hotel on the Ballinlea Road — called The Hedges, naturally enough — have offered the use of their car park for the hordes of tourists who can then walk to the trees. Posters for the hotel, which has a lounge named after the House of Lannister from Game of Thrones, feature the Dark Hedges as an attractive setting for wedding photographs.
But the main visitors to the Hedges are day-trippers. The proximity of the trees to Northern Ireland’s most popular tourist offerings, the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, has helped to make the Hedges part of a north coast must-see itinerary.
A number of bus companies also organise tours of Game of Thrones locations in different parts of Northern Ireland.
One woman who works in a visitor centre in Belfast tells me: “It used to be that tourists who come to see us would ask for directions to other places they could see in Northern Ireland.
“The Causeway has always been the first place they wanted information about, but now the Hedges are up there at the top of the query list too, thanks to the TV series.”
Which is what they call the fame of Thrones.