In order to understand this article, I recommend you first read my blog entry from 2011. It will set the scene for the rant which you are about to read!
A lot has happened in my landscape photography world since late 2011 when this article was posted. I have purchased an entirely new camera and lens setup, taken landscape photographs in destinations I have never visited before like Cyprus, and created this new website to display my work! However, in that same time the Dark Hedges in County Antrim has encountered several problems and, in my opinion, is a classic case of a tourist location being a victim of its own success.
For as long as I have been a landscape photographer I have been aware of this famous road. It has always been popular and I would have regularly seen a few other photographers when I was there with my camera. With the exception of a few rogue photographers, courtesy was generally the order of the day and visiting was a pleasant experience. However, the very popular HBO television series Game of Thrones used the road in one of their scenes a few years ago (I think 2010/11), sending the popularity of this simple little country road into the stratosphere.
At this point I think it is important that I make clear my support for anything which increases tourism and creates jobs and other opportunities. There can be no doubt that the Game of Thrones has had a positive impact in this regard and all involved in securing its production in Northern Ireland should be applauded. However, in allowing the country's landscape to be used in this way, the various government bodies and other stakeholders who have a responsibility to protect said landscape must do so in a strategic and considered way, in partnership with each other.
In the case of the Dark Hedges this has not happened and the results have not been pretty. The saga began with the horrible fence I talked about in my 2011 article. A bright green monstrosity which glowed like a cartoon nuclear rod, it fortunately had a shorter half-life than expected and the colour faded. Next came the cars and tourist coaches. At the weekends there was congestion that central London drivers would have been grumpy about, with people parking seemingly at random along the road, thinking nothing of sticking 2 wheels of their vehicles up into the root systems of the trees. If one wished to witness the potential for human stupidity and selfishness first hand, sending them to the Dark Hedges with a camera on a mission to capture the beautiful avenue of trees would almost certainly do the job. There isn't a car park worth talking about, discrete signs to discourage parking on the road itself, or any form of traffic management that I can find. It is a free-for-all.
With this increase in traffic came the erosion of the grass verges which line the road and protect the tree roots to an extent. To call the trees fragile would be an understatement, in a recent storm several were felled and are gone forever. Hundreds of years of growth wiped out in seconds. Of course this would have happened even without the increase in tourist numbers, but let's give the trees a fighting chance.
The photograph at the top of this page is the latest 'disaster' to be inflicted on this beautiful road. Not only is the white line down the middle of the road the visual equivalent of graffiti on a beautiful building, but look at how the new road surface encroaches on the base of the trees. It beggars belief that someone signed off on this decision. I know I'm not the only person thinking "what an idiot!" I realise that it is much easier to to critisise decisions from the sidelines than to make them whilst following rules and regulations, but is this really the best we can do?
I'm not ashamed to say that I was upset when I first heard that these road markings had been laid. Upset with the person who made the decision, upset with the stakeholders in the Dark Hedges who allowed this to happen, and upset with the person putting the lines on the road for not thinking 'this doesn't look right.' I have known for a long time that most people don't care about the beauty around them, some pay lip-service to the idea of appreciating it, and very few really take the time to stop, stare and realise just how lucky they are.
My intention is to email Mervyn Storey who is part of the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust in the morning and urge him to use his considerable influence to put a stop to this madness. The markings only extend along 25% of the road so far, so perhaps it can be stopped before the whole road is ruined. I would encourage anyone reading this blog who cares about the landscape around them to share this blog post or email Mr Storey to make your views known.