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Northern Ireland's Tree of the Year 2018 shortlist

Read the stories behind this year’s runners up.

Ballymenoch Oak, Ballymenoch Park, Holywood, County Down

This magnificent Turkey oak, 27 metres high and with a 7.1 metre girth, has an enormous spread and is thought to be among the largest oaks in Northern Ireland. It’s reckoned to be at least 200 years old and, as such, may have been planted by Thomas Gregg, who bought Ballymenoch House and its impressive grounds in 1802. The house burnt down in 1914 and, while the origin of the fire was not proven, there were suggestions of Suffragette involvement.

Today’s beautiful 8-hectare park is a small fragment of the original 200-hectare demesne. The extensive grounds, which once stretched as far as the sea, were bisected by the main Bangor Road. Those trees which remain – the Ballymenoch Oak and its veteran companions – are therefore truly precious indeed.

Ballymenoch Oak (Image: WTML/Michael Cooper)

Hezlett House Spanish Chestnut, Hezlett House, Castlerock, County Londonderry

The charming Hezlett House, at the entrance to Downhill Demesne, was built in 1691. The house is now under the ownership of the National Trust, and its stories – a mixture of fact and legend – are fondly retold by staff and visitors alike. A wonderful Spanish chestnut grows in the grounds: legend has it that during the 1798 uprising against British Rule in Ireland, one of the early inhabitants, Samuel Hezlett (1753 - 1821), was threatened to be hanged from the tree by his half-brother Jack Hezlett for refusing to join the United Irishmen.

It’s also said locally that the body of the notorious highwayman Cushy Glen, who operated on the Murder Hole Road – the old coach road between Coleraine and Limavady and now more respectably called the Windyhill Road – was hung from the tree as a deterrent to other criminals, having been shot by a Mr James Hopkins in 1799.

Hezlett House Spanish Chestnut (Image: Michael Cooper/WTML)

The Bishop’s Tree, Lumen Christi College, Derry/Londonderry

‘The Bishop’s Tree’ – an imposing sweet chestnut that dates all the way back to the 18th century – stands proudly on the grounds of Lumen Christi College (formerly St Columb’s College). A whole six metres in girth, the famous Bishop’s Tree is named after Frederick Augustus Harvey (Bishop of Derry from 1768 to 1803). He was a locally renowned civic and religious leader who was dedicated to improving the standard of infrastructure, agriculture and hence the wellbeing of the local people within the Derry/Londonderry area.

Many of St Columb’s former pupils went on to be famous. They include renowned leaders and writers such as John Hume, Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel.

This hardy chestnut is the last survivor of the original avenue of trees planted by Bishop Harvey. Its resilience is awe-inspiring. Such strength, it would seem, has rubbed off on many of those inspiring individuals who, as pupils, would have passed under the tree’s shady foliage.

Bishop's Tree (Image: Michael Cooper/WTML)

The Giant’s Grave Thorn, Slaghtaverty, near Garvagh, County Londonderry

In the middle of a field in the townland of Slaghtaverty is an area known as the Giant's Grave. It is here that the legendary Abhartach is supposedly buried. His grave is marked by a magnificent lone hawthorn (also known as a fairy thorn) together with a large, heavy stone.

The stories vary. Some say Abhartach was a chieftain, some a wizard, and some say he was an evil dwarf. The common thread is that he caused great misery, and was eventually killed and buried in this field. Abhartach, however, rose from the dead, attacking people and drinking their blood. He was killed once more but rose again. He was killed for a third time and this time buried head first on the advice of a druid, in order to subdue his magical power. Large stones were placed on the grave and hawthorns planted around it. One magnificent tree, guarding the grave, remains today.

It has also been suggested by academics that Irish author Bram Stoker may have taken inspiration for his novel Dracula from the legend of Abhartach.

The Giant's Grave Thorn (Image: Michael Cooper/WTML)

The Sandy Row Fairy Thorn, Sandy Row, south Belfast

Fairy thorns are very much at the heart of tree folklore in Ireland – heaven help anyone foolish enough to harm or fell a thorn. This is the story of a remarkable urban fairy thorn. Loved by the community, it stands at Blythe Street, just off Sandy Row, not far from the centre of Belfast.

This hawthorn once grew in the garden of a terraced house. When the area was redeveloped in the early 1980s, the site was to become part of a public housing development. However, there was fierce local opposition to removing the tree. It was said that the builders refused to touch it, and that they ‘pulled the house down around the thorn’. It was even reported that the tree stopped flowering.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive decided to retain the tree and create a children’s play area around it, which is now called the Fairy Thorn Garden. Wooden children’s seats in the shape of mushrooms have been placed by the tree and there are images of fairies on walls and railings. It’s thanks to folklore that this precious natural feature remains today.

The Sandy Row Fairy Thorn (Image: Michael Cooper/WTML)