To say I am a Game of Thrones fan is putting it mildly. I am the sort of girl that likes to watch the season finale in full Khaleesi get up, clutching a goblet of wine. It is important to be fully committed to one’s favourite show. Imagine therefore my near hysterical excitement when invited on a press trip with other travel bloggers, to explore Game of Thrones filming locations across Northern Ireland with Tourism Ireland. All my wildest fangirl dreams were about to come true. Most Thrones fans will know that most of the series filming took places in locations across the Northern Ireland. Full of dramatic landscapes, ancient landscapes, rolling hills and frothing seas, it is the ideal location to film a fantasy series.
The morning we arrived we were met by a sword swinging Eddard Stark, which is always a pleasant, if unexpected surprise at 10am on a Thursday. The cloaked man introduced himself as our Tour Guide, William from Winterfell Tours who promptly whisked us away to the actual site of Winterfell Castle, the Castle Ward Estate located 40 minutes from Belfast. This National Trust site was used extensively for the filming and it is easy to see why, the entire places frankly looks medieval, I feel as if I have entered a time warp.
Obviously one must ‘cloak up’ and get into character if one is to spend the day at Winterfell. We were dressed in what Vogue would undoubtedly describe as ‘Signature Stark’, where the season line is always ‘Winter’ and given sword accessories to play with.
As we were now official Starks, we were taken to meet the Direwolves from the series, Summer & Grey Wind, played by Odin and Thor, the gorgeous Northern Inuit dogs, who starred in many scenes including the ‘finding of the Direwolf puppies’ scene. It’s not every day you get to take a ‘wolf selfie’ but friends, today was that day. Unfortunately, I discovered that dogs don’t really understand the importance of a good Instagram selfie and getting them to pose for the camera was very tricky. I largely ended up with 140 photos of the direwolves looking the other way, but still, I got to cuddle a direwolf, so I was clearly going to win the internet that morning.
After a medieval style lunch in a bell tent, complete with wine and roaring fire, we were shown around the estate as William pointed out the filming locations and how they set up the shots. There are nine Game of Thrones film locations on this site, all very close to each other, including a 16th Century castle that acts at the site of Winterfell, a 15th century Tower House that serves as one of Walder Frey’s Twins and as the location of Robb’s Camp in the Riverlands.
As we walked around William pointed out where other well-known scenes have been filmed, such as where Brienne of Tarth dispatched three Stark bannermen and the Battlefield of Baelor.
We ended the day at The Archery Range Film Set, which still stands in the Winterfell Castle courtyard, where we got to have a go at firing some arrows under Willaims very expert and endlessly patient instruction. Needless to say, it is easy to get rather carried away when you are in a medieval costume and I started enthusiastically and somewhat erratically, firing arrows whilst yelling ‘Winter is coming!!’ Given my obvious lack of archery, kills I suspect that I would be the first to be taken down by White Walkers.
Our Winterfell experience was a brilliant way of not only seeing where scenes for Thrones were filmed but also to immerse yourself in the world of Thrones. It’s one thing to see where a scene was filmed, it’s quite another to reenact that scene with sword fight outside of a medieval Tower. William did a fantastic job of making you feel a part of the of Winterfell as you walked in the steps of the cast. Any Thrones fan should make it their immediate prerogative to visit Winterfell and geek out.
The next day our itinery continued with us taking the stunning Causeway Coastal Route with Game of Thrones Tours on our hunt for Thrones locations, passing Carrickfergus Castle and getting a fleeting glimpse of Magheramorne Quarry, the location of Castle Black and the Wall.
We met the bearded and loveable Brian at this stage of our trip, who was to act as our Tour guide and Thrones expert over the next few days. Brian lives and breathes Thrones, as a regular series extra, he has played every hairy and bearded character imaginable, though turned down being a White Walker on account of the fact that he would have to shave all his hair off for the role, ‘there’s a history of baldness in the family, I don’t want to encourage it’ was the rationale given. I liked Brian, he didn’t realise it just yet, but he was going to be my new best friend.
It was Brian’s job not just to ferry us to the locations, but to bring them to life for us fans, this is no easy feat when at times you are essentially staring at an empty field. What Brian managed was to get us excited about the locations by providing context to them. He would go into great detail on how they filmed there, how certain shots were achieved and best of all, as a former cast member, he could give us the low down on what it was like on set and what the cast members are like, whilst managing to remain tight-lipped on spoilers. This is what brought the scenes to life, not just Brians encyclopaedic Thrones knowledge, but his infectious enthusiasm and passion.
Oh how we lady bloggers squealed with delight every time there was another titbit of information about Kit Harrington, ‘Yes that is fascinating stuff about the CGI Brian but how many sugars does Kit have in his tea? Did you ever see him naked? Does he have a girlfriend?’ These are the important questions to ask on a press trip.
As part of our tour, we also had the added bonus of hunting down the ‘Thrones doors’. These are ten doors that are carved out of the trees at the Dark Hedges that were blown down Storm Gertrude. The doors depict scenes from the sixth season and are located in pubs near filming locations, meaning that essentially you are on a sort of Thrones endorsed pub crawl. We were even given our very own ‘Journey of doors’ passport, so we could start collecting a unique stamp at each location, this is the ultimate in film fan geekery.
Even die hard Thrones fans will be surprised at how much was filmed in Northern Ireland. Scenes you assume were shot in Malta or Croatia, were actually filmed in coastal locations in Northern Ireland. One such scene is when Arya Stark is stabbed by the waif in Bravos and crawls out from the water. This scene was actually filmed in Carnlough Harbour and we got to hear all about the filming from the enthusiastic owner of the Londonderry Arms.
As I posed for photos where Arya stood, I was directed by the owner of The Londonderry Arms, this meant I found myself crawling up the harbour, in costume, pretending to be Arya Stark whilst an old man shouted at me ‘more duck face’. I have been in some unusual situations over my many years of travels but this was something else entirely.
After our rather unexpected photo shoot, it was off to Cushendun Caves, where Melisandra gives birth to the shadow baby. Again Brian was able to explain the technicalities of the shoot and how certain shots were achieved. We all decided against a shadow baby birth reenactment on this occasion. Some things are best not committed to film.
Lunch was served at another ‘Thrones Door’ stop, the Fullerton Arms. Here we not only got to feast on traditional Irish fayre and have a spot of wine but we also got take ‘Iron throne selfies’ on their replica Iron Throne. There is nothing I love more than sipping a glass of red, dressed as Khaleesi, sat upon my very own throne. Now I just have to figure out how to get one into my house.
Our first afternoon stop was the beautiful Ballintoy Harbour, home to Pyke and the Iron Islands. The scene where Theon is baptised into the religion of the Drowned God was filmed here and it is easy to understand why when you start exploring. Frothing seas, dramatic shoreline and blustery winds make for gorgeously cinematic surroundings, you really feel like have set foot on the Iron Islands here.
We had a most enjoyable afternoon swinging swords and leaping from rocks as puzzled bystanders looked on. I admit, as usual, I got rather into character, as I jumped upon rocks, wielding a sword, shrieking ‘what is dead may never die’. This is also the location of where Ser Davos seeks the help of Salladhor Saan for the Battle of Blackwater Bay, and where Gendry escapes Dragonstone in a rowing boat.
We then visited Larrybane Bay and the famous Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, the location of Renly Baratheon’s camp in the Stormlands, and where Brienne of Tarth was appointed to Renly’s Kingsguard. The rope bridge connects the mainland to the tiny island of Carrickarede and is not for the faint hearted as it swings precariously in the wind 30 metres above the rocks. Trying to take a selfie as you cross is generally not recommended, as I almost dropped my phone into the wild sea below whilst attempting an Instagram story.
We had time for a quick pit stop to the Larrybane Chalk Quarry, where Brienne duelled with and defeated Ser Loras Tyrell and Catelyn brought news of Robb’s rebellion to Renly and his army. Again Brian was able to bring the scene to life by explaining how this particular scene was shot and how CGI would have been incorporated.
Our final stop of the day was in the iconic Dark Hedges, a haunting and beautiful row of beech trees and the location of King’s Road. This stunning tree lined road was planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century and well known as a tourist attraction even before Thrones. The Dark Hedges was used as a filming location for the Kingsroad in Season 2 when Arya and Gendry escape King’s Landing in the back of a cart. When trying to capture the perfect Dark Hedges photo it is important to remember it is an actual road as there were a few ‘near misses’ with traffic as we all scrambled to get the best shot. Bloggers eh, what can you do?
After an evening of food and drink indulgence we were back on the road first thing the next morning to continue our Thrones location hunt. We squeezed in a quick visit to The Giant’s Causeway. Whilst this is not technically a Thrones location it is ‘ sheer madness’ according to Brian, to not visit this spectacular National Trust site, whilst on the road in Northern Ireland. Brian, as usual, is right. The 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic eruption make for one of the most dramatic and photogenic coastlines I have ever seen. I would like to take this moment to thank Brian for his enduring patience when dealing with a group of travel bloggers as we insist on capturing EVERYTHING. Poor Brian has to wait around whilst we host our own photo shoots, snap chat and Instagram away. You could literally spend all day trying to capture the mystical beauty of the Giant’s Causeway and still fall short. It is one of those places you simply have to experience yourself.
One of our final stops was Downhill Demense and Mussenden Temple. This 11km stretch of beach was the location of the burning of the seven, where Stannis Baratheon’s rejects the Seven Gods of Westeros and allows Melisandre to burn their effigies to show his allegiance to the Lord of Light. The clifftop houses a tiny temple called Mussenden, which can be seen in the background of the burning of the seven.
Our time with Game of Thrones tours had sadly come to an end, as we bid farewell to Brian we reflected on what an amazing experience it had been. It’s not easy to bring filming locations to life after the cast and crew have moved on, how do you make an empty quarry appear interesting? The skill that GOT tour leaders like Brian have is that they manage to fully immerse you in the world of Westeros. You don your costumes and you swing swords, but ultimately it is the intriguing narrative they are able to weave that really sets the scene.
During my time exploring the Thrones locations, it became increasingly obvious why it was the obvious filming choice. “It looks old because it is old” Brain noted on our travels. Northern Ireland is full of ancient castles, wild ravaged ruins, dramatic coastlines and the wet and wild weather that creates a medieval feel. I would encourage not just Thrones fans, but anyone who loves beautiful scenery, history and legends to come and visit this little slice of Westeros.
A massive thank you to Tourism Ireland and partners for hosting me on this spectacular trip. Also, a huge shout out to my fellow travel bloggers on this trip, The Travel Hack, Kim Leuenberger, The World in my Pocket, Scouse Bird Problems, James Reynolds and Munchies and Munchkins, you guys were a ridiculous amount of fun.