When I was a child the local newspaper which was always in my house was the Coleraine Chronicle, a great smudged beast of a broadsheet which seemed to come in multiple sections and featured countless black and white photographs of serious men in flat caps and wellies ploughing fields.
For many, many years a column called ‘Watt’s About’ appeared in The Chronicle. It was penned by legendary north Antrim troubadour John Watt, popularly known as ‘The Singing Farmer’. A larger than life character who roamed the local towns and villages making friends and writing songs about the environment he knew.
The premise of Watt’s column was that he would weave his way around the countryside on a vintage Massey Ferguson 135 tractor encountering well-known characters along the way and relating his adventures to the readers.
My memory is notoriously unreliable but, to the best of my recollection, the column often started with the words ‘I happened to be passing…..’
It was clearly hokum, but pleasing nonetheless, the idea that all of these ‘yarns’ were being communicated purely by chance to this wandering minstrel. It is my earliest memory of journalism and it still makes me smile.
So in tribute to John Watt….
I happened to be passing The Dark Hedges near the lovely little village of Stranocum this morning.
The Dark Hedges will be familiar to viewers of Game of Thrones and regular readers of my blog (roughly the same size of audience I assume).
Last year I wrote about The Dark Hedges (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/11/04/the-dark-hedges-and-aunt-rosetta/), the haunting, ancient beech trees which captivate visitors from around the world. I related how, long before Game of Thrones made the road famous, my great, great aunt Rosetta McCambridge, ran a shop at the site.
I wanted to know more and the answers duly arrived. Renowned local journalist Lyle McMullan was able to tell me that the shop closed in 1971 because dear old Rosetta, then in her 90s, was unable to cope with the new decimal currency. Her photograph featured on page one of the Belfast Telegraph a full 30 years before my name made it onto the front of the same paper.
Another correspondent told me how she had grown up calling the area ‘McCambridge Corner’.
So, as I said, I happened to be passing (ahem) The Dark Hedges this morning when I decided to stop for a look. Despite growing up less than two miles from the road I had not been there in several years.
It was before 10am on a Monday morning but already a crowd of roughly 100 people had gathered at the trees. I heard American and Australian accents and speakers of French, Spanish and what I assumed was Japanese.
There are now signs which forbid cars from traveling on the road lined by the Dark Hedges trees but, curiously for what is now marketed as an international tourist attraction, no advice for motorists on where they actually can park.
The trees themselves remain an impressive and daunting sight. But looking at something which used to be so familiar for the first time in years, I was left with the impression that it is not as stirring as it once was.
For a start, a small number of the trees have fallen, finally defeated by years of being battered by strong winds. I expected this. More of a surprise was the state of those still standing. Most seemed to have lost major branches, with only ragged stumps protruding like broken teeth. I’m far from an expert on trees but several of the grand old beeches looked like they were also on the verge of toppling.
The overall effect from distance is changed. The branches once joined together to create an eerie patchwork above the road. Now, it is pocked by imperfections and holes.
Perhaps this is all to be expected. The trees are old, and like all living things, they will eventually die. Natural conditions have taken a heavy toll on The Dark Hedges.
But I was also left wondering if unnatural forces are at work here as well. I stayed at the road for no more than ten minutes but, while I was there, I saw six cars drive through along the route. The signs which prevent traffic are clearly not enforced, and therefore impotent. To take the trouble to ban traffic and then allow it to proceed unmolested seems to be some form of tokenism.
Worse followed. I saw two separate groups of youths who were attempting to climb the trees. My instinct was to be annoyed at the action, but, as there are no signs or personnel to forbid it, then why would they not?
It’s hardly scientific but if this ten minutes early on a Monday morning is replicated across the weeks, months and years, then cars will be driving through the Dark Hedges and pedestrians climbing them on an almost constant basis.
Of course you could argue that cars were on the Dark Hedges road for many decades and the trees were often scaled without mishap before now. That is true, but the volume of visitors to the site now has grown to a level which could never have been anticipated. And that must have an impact.
I left very quickly with a feeling of unease, a feeling that what was once constant was now in flux. A sense that a lot of change has occurred in a short period of time, a persistent doubt that the will is there to do anything to stop the steady destruction of one of the most strikingly beautiful natural formations in the local environment.
Yes, I happened to be passing. I wish I hadn’t.