Over the hedge
Updated: Nov 2, 2019
Today's glimpse through the lens brings us jovial blue skies and a rolling green countryside. Any human map would claim that this place lies at the Northern tip of the very aptly named Northern Ireland. However, I see it as more of a gateway to the land of faeries, Gaelic gods and maybe even the odd criminal genius. As we stroll down this tranquil country path, I can't help but hear bird song and the crackle of candle flame leaves. But out of the blue, a turn materialises on our idyllic path. Your breath turns to ghostly vapour as icy tendrils stroke down your back. A sudden mist has you in its clutches. What are those shadowy titans looming through the mist? Ogres? Bigfoot? Wendigoes? But as you fearfully peer closer, you realise that it's something a bit more bizarre.
Where did this eerie tunnel come from? Could it have been grown by the scheming, green-thumb of a witch? Perhaps, this otherworldly forest could really be from another realm or even a portal to one? But who would leave such a thing in the middle of a country road? These trees seem big enough to house a metropolis of sprites or even a few dwarves. After brushing my fingers over the ivory husks of these giants, I can't help but compare it to bone, and their hollows to the staring eyes of a skull. Maybe these beings aren't trees but a horrific show of petrified people- as if some Irish warlock had taken inspiration from Ursula to make their own collection of 'poor unfortunate souls'. Between the barring arms of branches above us, I can see the sun scraping the sky with light as it is dragged towards the darkening horizon. I certainly don't want to stay here a moment longer but I can't help but feel curious about the origins of this ominous structure. Maybe, if we're quick, we could dig into the roots of this mystery. But keep an eye out... there's no telling what beast could leap out from between these trees.
and it all started with a drowning
The inner-most ring of this spiralling tale starts in the early 1600s. The monarch of the time, King James I, gifted the estate bridging from these trees to his cousin, James Stuart. Eerily, he never managed to even step foot on the estate as he drowned on his way to Ireland. The estate remained hauntingly empty until Stuart's grandson, William, built the famous Gracehill House. Apparently, the Stuart family then planted the drive of beech trees for dramatic effect. Only a few generations after, the whole family moved to the US.
Before they left there were many lives that began and ended on the estate. Including the death of a maid under quite mysterious circumstances.
Or at least that's what the history books want us to believe. Something about these trees feel unnatural and I'm not the only one feeling a bit jumpy here. Recently the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust had the trees dated and found that they were about 300-350 years old. This would have been impressive if the report was about oaks or great spruces, but this breed of beech has a maximum life of 250 years. Clearly, something is keeping these trees here far longer than they should be. But the trees aren't the only things trapped here beyond their rightful time on earth.
Cross Peggy and the ghoul gang
Did you hear that? A soft footstep? a shallow breath? the soft scuffles of a layered skirt? I'm not sure what you saw, but out of the corner of my eye I caught a flutter of grey cloth. Ethereal, floating, ashen cloth. Could this be the Grey Lady that is told to haunt these trees? I can imagine her as a young lady rushing to a ball or perhaps a scullery maid running to deliver a message. Whoever she was, she seemed to be in a hurry. The locals have taken to theorising a name to go with the mournful apparition. Some believe her to be James' late daughter, Margaret, who is also known as Cross Peggy.
If it is Cross Peggy, then maybe she isn't running from anything, but rather to yell at a servant she has a bone to pick with.
But there are others who link the Grey Lady back to the suspicious end of the Stuarts' maid. Perhaps she is lying her in wait for revenge. It could even be her restless soul that has even kept these ghoulish trees in a trance of undead beauty. But I find that it's the last theory that's a bit more ominous. Grab your kaleidoscope and take a look at the roots of these trees. What do you see?
Swirling wooden tentacles, a few budding acorns that spark with blue faerie magic, a treasure chest buried beneath the road? Can you see the skeletons? It's rumoured that this entire drive is built on top of a huge unmarked grave and the lady we see flitting between the branches is actually a lost, forgotten soul from this series of abandoned bodies. But what about the other souls? Legend says that on the night of Samhain, the ground of Éire trembles as the trees part to make way for the awakening of these faceless ghouls. For one night only, the lonesome spirit of the trees is joined by her long passed brethren. And although it sounds nice, no one has ever returned from witnessing their Halloween night revelry. Maybe they too are added to the long list of forgotten souls that lie beneath the ornate tunnel we're walking through right now.
Tree or terror?
However scary they may be, there's no denying the beauty of the Dark Hedges. The impressive display of light and shadow is enough to leave anyone mesmerised. But some people claim that it's just these shadows that are leading to the scary stories and nothing more. Of course, most who visit here come for the cool Instagram pics and Game of Throne references and leave believing it to be a nice garden feature. Maybe they can't hear the quiet tittering of pixies, or the howl of the trees on windless days. Maybe they can't even see the mournful passage of the Grey Lady. But having explored this mystical land, I believe that there really could be something guarding these ominous wooden pillars. Something dancing on the border between the whimsical and the occult. I guess we'll have to return here on Halloween night and find the real answer. The same way we've dredged up every treasure hiding among the roots of our world- through the lens of a kaleidoscope.