Ten years ago, the Dark Hedges, an ethereal canopy of ancient beech trees budding in the rural remotes of County Antrim, didn't even have a name. The trees, planted in the 1750s on the grounds of James Stuart's Georgian mansion, grew together and interlocked, eventually forming an awesome nexus of silver-limbed arcs, crowning dainty Bregagh Road. Locals always liked the scene, but it wasn't until Northern Ireland's national tourist board started using the setting to promote tourism to the troubled republic in 1998 that visitors began arriving in earnest, and it has now become one of Northern Ireland's most photographed spots. Since that time, the Dark Hedges have become a desktop wallpaper cliche and a setting on HBO's 'Game of Thrones.'
The Dark Hedges lies along a tranquil byroad of the A147, two miles north of the sleepy village of Stranocum. Once they locate the small lane, motorists are shrouded by the gnarly, almost eerie trees: a gargantuan guard of honor that leads up a hillock. Entering the thick shade would be unnerving if the place wasn't filled with the clicking of birds and amateur photographers.
"The base of the incline facing the brow of the road is the optimum pointing position," says Northern Irish documentary photographer David Cleland, who has spent a good deal of time around the hedges. "The angle creates the most tangled appearance of the branches and really brings out the interweave."
Unsurprisingly, morning and evening – when soft light filters through the leaves – are the busiest times on the otherwise not-so-busy road. Visitors who opt to come by later in the day are advised by locals to keep watch for the "Grey Lady," a ghost said to haunt the road at twilight. Some say the wispy specter is the soul of a maid from the Stuart's mansion who died under mysterious circumstances centuries ago. Others put her down to a forlorn spirit from a nearby cemetery.
Either way, there is something about the Dark Hedges that is indisputably supernatural.
More information: The Dark Hedges lie a 50-mile drive northwest of Belfast and just a short detour from Northern Ireland's jaw-drop Antrim Coastal Road. Detailed driving directions and GPS coordinates of its needle-in-a-haystack location can be found in the local parish's tourist information site. While en route, other Instagram-friendly pit stops can be made at the Giant's Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.