On a Game of Thrones trail in Northern Ireland
Eighteen seconds. That’s all it took for previously semi-obscure rural Northern Irish lane the Dark Hedges to become one of the country’s most photographed tourist sites, thanks to a relatively innocuous appearance as a backdrop on an episode of Game of Thrones. It’s a graphic depiction of the sway that the rough-and-racy HBO fantasy-drama, which begins its penultimate season this summer, has wielded on tourism in the smaller “half” of the Emerald Isle since it began its role as a filming location in a pilot episode more than seven and a half years ago.
Many other locations have been embellished by CGI effects to the point where seeing the actual landscape won’t immediately jog your memory directly towards a GoT scene. But this row of 18th-century beech trees, which was used in the second season as a section of the Kingsroad, almost forms a canopy over the single-track road and appears suitably otherworldly in real life without any computer trickery. When some of the historic trees were blown down during a storm last year, timber from two of them didn’t go to waste, either: it was carved into 10 GoT-themed wooden doors that now make up a tourist trail of their own in various hotels, restaurants, cafes and pubs across the country.
That’s reflective of the wide geographical spread of GoT locations across Northern Ireland, although the majority are found along its ruggedly beautiful coastline – a route that I trace during a three-day tour, with the occasional foray inland. Perhaps the best-known spot of all is my first stop, Castle Ward, near the inlet of Strangford Lough, more recognisable as the home of the Stark family, Winterfell.
Arriving from Dublin by car, I have already seen mist rolling across the Mourne Mountains, an inspiration for another literary/screen giant, The Chronicles of Narnia, just across the border from Dundalk on the east coast of the Republic of Ireland. Bathed in sunlight, Castle Ward feels a world away from the grim Winterfell and its “King of the North”, but one facet immediately brings back a pivotal scene. Without spoiling anything for the uninitiated, there’s a moment at the conclusion of the opening episode of the first season where the series announced itself to the world in shocking style. Until then, you might have been forgiven for dismissing it as sub-Dungeons & Dragons dross. Yet that sequence of events, set high in a tower of Winterfell keep, which dominates the entrance to Castle Ward, very much set the tone for the six seasons to date.
The castle itself isn’t quite as imposing, with storeys added in post-production, but I do sample some of the attraction’s themed activities, including crossbow shooting, in full Night’s Watch “Crow” garb with (fake) sword. It’s hammy, but good fun nonetheless. GoT tours cost from £29 (Dh132) per person.
Farther east on banks of the lough, towards the town of Downpatrick, is the area that became Riverrun, scene of Robb Stark’s camp and a murderous series of events that culminated in The Rains of Castamere episode, also known as The Red Wedding.
After a medieval banquet-accented GoT lunch at The Cuan in Strangford, one of the locations of those aforementioned 10 doors, I take the ferry to Ards Peninsula (single journey from £1 [Dh5] per person or from £5.80 [Dh26] per car and driver), towards the eventual destination for the evening, the Northern Irish capital, Belfast.
Leaving Belfast the next morning on the road towards ferry-port town Larne, you can see Scotland on the horizon. About six kilometres north-west of Larne is Ballygally Castle, a supposedly haunted hotel where hungry fans can enjoy a GoT-themed afternoon tea (£22 [Dh100] per person). Dishes include a Dothraki trifle with mini dragon’s egg and Sansa Stark’s lemon cakes – none of which, to our knowledge, are actually seen being wolfed down during the series. From there, it’s about 1.5km to Carncastle, a small village surrounded by wild hillsides that have served as the surrounds of Winterfell, including the scene of a slightly grisly beheading in season one.
A 15-minute drive away is Carnlough, which served as the city of Braavos in season six, where Arya Stark is stabbed. The village’s most-famous real-world attraction is the Londonderry Arms Hotel, which was once owned by Winston Churchill.
From there, places of GoT interest come thick and fast, along a coastal road where highway robbers stalked in the 1800s. The Glenariff Valley’s rolling scenery; Cushendun Caves (where the shadow baby is born in season two); and Ballycastle, where actors Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark) and Conleth Hill (Varys) grew up together – and real-life Scottish king Robert the Bruce once sought refuge after losing a battle. Despite its name, there isn’t actually a castle at Ballycastle – it was knocked down and replaced by a Presbyterian church in the 19th century.
My final major stop of the day is the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, a remote crossing across a 30-metre-deep chasm to the titular island on the north coast of Northern Ireland. The National Trust site is certainly spectacular enough to warrant a camera crew, although the tours (admission £7 [Dh32] per person) are frustratingly clogged with tourists during my visit. Somewhat incongruously, it was actually the attraction’s overflow car park that was used in several GoT episodes.
There’s just time for a call past Ballintoy, a village with a sleepy inlet that was used as Pyke Harbour – part of the Iron Islands, the home of Alfie Allen’s infamously maimed character Theon Greyjoy – before heading to converted coach house Bushmills Inn for the night.
Bushmills, most famous for its liquid exports, is the closest major settlement to Northern Ireland’s solitary Unesco World Heritage Site: Giant’s Causeway (admission £10.50 [Dh48] per person) and the surrounding Causeway Coast. The spectacular sight comprises thousands of predominantly hexagonal columns of basalt rock that rise out of the crashing waves near the divide of the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea, although followers of a different kind of rock might also recognise it from the cover of Led Zeppelin album Houses of the Holy. There aren’t too many world-famous phenomena that demand repeat visits, but this, my second time at Giant’s Causeway, a decade after the first, is still equally impressive – although it probably goes without saying that its Unesco status means it’s not a viable filming site.
Heading south-west along the coast, the towering sand dunes at the small town of Portstewart were used in GoT as the site of a landing in Dorne, while the main road towards the country’s second city, Derry, snakes through hillsides that played host to Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons.
For GoT fans, that’s the convenient beauty of touring Northern Ireland: you can scarcely travel for more than 15 minutes without another set rolling into view. But even for those who would rather jump off Giant’s Causeway into the swell below than subject themselves to such realms of make-believe, this wild and wonderful part of the British Isles has the ability to regularly take your breath away – almost literally on a windy day in this often-blustery part of the world.