Game Of Thrones: Storm Gertrude rips up Dark Hedges trees

By Iain McDowell

image copyrightNorthern Ireland Tourist Board
image captionThe intertwined beech branches and gnarled trunks make the Dark Hedges an iconic sight

Even though their appearance in Game Of Thrones is a fleeting one, County Antrim's Dark Hedges are instantly recognisable to fantasy fans around the world.

The iconic tunnel of trees on the Bregagh Road near Armoy features as the Kingsroad in the smash-hit HBO television series.

But now some of the 200-year-old beeches have fallen victim to the savagery of Storm Gertrude.

High winds ripped up two trees on Friday morning, causing them collapse on to the road, and a third was left badly damaged.

media captionIn Armoy, County Antrim, trees at the Dark Hedges, made famous by the HBO series Game of Thrones, have collapsed onto the Bregagh Road

The trees were planted by the Stuart family along the entrance to their Gracehill House mansion.

Over the decades, the branches grew over the road and became entangled and intertwined, creating a covered passageway with something of an ethereal feel.

Originally, there were about 150 trees, but time has taken its toll and now only about 90 remain.

The combination of light and shadow at the Dark Hedges, as well as snow, mist or haze depending on the time of year, draws both amateur and professional photographers keen to capture a compelling image.

image copyrightPacemaker
image captionTree surgeons worked on Friday afternoon to remove the fallen beech trees

American photographer Jim Zuckerberg has said the country lane is "one of the most beautiful roads I've ever seen".

"The serpentine trees form a tunnel that is spectacular at any time of the day, but I find it particularly intriguing and mysterious just before dark," he said.

That enchantment also caught the eyes of the makers of Game Of Thrones, who included it in episode one of the show's second season.

Thrones fan Cristina Lekka, from Greece, who visited the Dark Hedges on Friday, said she was "disappointed" that some of the trees had fallen down due to Storm Gertrude.

"I saw this place on Game Of Thrones and we came here only for that - we came here to see the trees," she said.

image copyrightPacemaker
image captionCristina Lekka and Cris Antonopoulous are among thousands of Thrones fans who visit the Dark Hedges every year

Caroline McComb, who runs tours for Game Of Thrones fans, said about 10,000 people travelled to Northern Ireland last year to visit to the Dark Hedges and the show's other scenes.

"We keep the Dark Hedges as the last location on the tours, because the sight of them just blows people away," Ms McComb said.

"Five days a week we take people to the Dark Hedges - they are so tangible for people, so relatable and recognisable.

"It's one of the most stunning parts of our Northern Ireland countryside, so it's greatly disappointing to see some of them damaged.

"Hopefully we can protect the ones that remain."

image copyrightPA
image captionMany of the trees have "well over-lived their lifespan" and have become vulnerable to extreme weather

That job has been taken on by the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust.

Its chair is Mervyn Storey, who is also Northern Ireland's finance minister.

He said that while the Dark Hedges now appear on posters and in advertisements around the world promoting the Thrones tourism trail, many people in Northern Ireland knew little about them even as recently as 10 years ago.

"The dilemma we had was that here was this amazing set of trees that people took great pride in, but nobody really knew where they were," he said.

image captionThe task of maintaining the Dark Hedges for visitors has not been an easy one, Mervyn Storey says

"A campaign then put them on the map and the numbers of people coming to see them started to increase.

"But then they were used in Game Of Thrones and they went viral."

The task of maintaining the Dark Hedges has not been an easy one.

A survey of the trees carried out in 2014 showed some were in much better health than others, and that they were vulnerable in severe weather.

image copyrightPA
image captionVisiting Thrones fans said they were "disappointed" to see two of the landmark trees had fallen

As Mr Storey said, "many have well over-lived their lifespan".

The preservation trust is now having to be "ultra cautious" about the work it does to protect the stunning natural landmark.

"What makes the Dark Hedges is the intertwining of the branches, but that also creates a difficulty because when those branches get weak they have to be taken out," Mr Storey said.

"All we're able to do is ensure we apply as much tender, loving care as we can."

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