The eighth Kingdom from 'Game of Thrones': how Northern Ireland became Westeros
Don’t be surprised if you come across people in cloaks when visiting the country, hiking up the cliffs, castles and forests, where the bulk of ‘Game of Thrones’ was filmed
“We’re overjoyed they’re choosing to come north,” Belfast tour guide Dee Morgan tells me, beaming with pride as we walk through Tollymore Forest to find the exact spot where the Stark children found their direwolf puppies in season one of Game of Thrones. The show is now the undisputed heavyweight of television, with more than 100 million people watching every new episode.
“Northern Ireland is definitely the road less travelled, and now it’s our time to shine,” she adds.
The country was a conflict-ridden territory from the late 1960s until 1998, with the roots of the divide going far deeper than four decades. This means that for a long time, it was avoided by tourists, but times are changing. Tensions are still felt in some communities, but the cobblestoned inner-city of Belfast has been rejuvenated, and the country is now full of cloak-clad Thronies on “set-jetting” trips: mega-fans seeking out the fields where great battles were held, the cliffs that dragons took off from and the trees that cloaked Arya in darkness as she escaped Winterfell.
The Good Friday peace agreement was signed 21 years ago, putting an end to three decades of ethno-religious nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland; and for nearly half of the subsequent period of peace, Game of Thrones has been in the picture. The HBO mega-hit began filming in Belfast and Northern Ireland 10 years ago, giving rise to a renewed film and TV industry and plenty of tourism dollars – recent estimates say that Game of Thrones being filmed in the country has contributed £206 million (Dh983m) to the economy.
And that almost didn’t happen: the original shelved pilot was shot in Scotland. The fact that a tale of warring factions has been one of the key turning points in the Northern Irish economy is not without irony – it is an intensely violent show full of deaths caused by battles for territory – but the mythology of the series also speaks to the land. Spend any amount of time in Northern Ireland and you’ll learn it’s a place loaded with lore, where you’ll be regaled with stories of Celtic warriors, pirate queens and faeries.
The people are bright and funny storytellers – or seanchai, as they say in Gaelic – always keen to spin a yarn about the land upon which you stand. For Thronies touring the filming locations, what is likely to linger is the people they meet on the way. A field is a field, after all.
One common talking point is, of course, Brexit. This year, as the walls in the fictional world of Game of Thrones come toppling down, many in Northern Ireland are worried about a hard border between the North and South of Ireland shaking their sense of peace, which is always precarious.
That said, Belfast is regularly ranked as one of the UK’s safest cities, and there is no sense of lethargy towards tourists: nearly everyone I met as I stomped around in a cloak with faux fur at the collar, ripe for ridicule, was polite, and pleased I’d made the trip from the UAE. A pub landlord I met reminisced about the time Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth) came in for dinner and chatted all night, and a former show extra told me about the night Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) kept his spirits up while on set with his famous caustic wit.
Game of Thrones is now part of this land, and the stories its people tell. Here are some of Northern Ireland’s top show-related highlights to visit.
Go to the Ulster Museum and find the most gratuitous tapestry you’ll ever see: the embroidery narrates every major Game of Thrones plot twist and turn, and blood-red thread is used a lot. It details seasons one to seven for now. After the final episode of season eight has aired, the tapestry will be completed, and will be 77 metres long.
Made in the tradition of the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry that depicts the Norman conquest of England, the linen in this 21st-century update is sourced from one of the last surviving linen mills in Belfast. Walk along the length of the cloth, starting at season one, and you’ll see dragons born, characters dying, castles exploding and more. You’ll also hear people umming, ahhing and wincing as they remember each scene. Don’t visit if you haven’t seen the entire show because these stitches are riddled with spoilers.
It will be in Belfast’s Ulster Museum until July, when it will travel to the home of its tapestry inspiration: Bayeux in Normandy, France.
Entry to the museum is free, visit nmni.com
The touring exhibition
If you want to see the exquisite dress that Margaery Tyrell was wearing when she wed super-villain Joffrey in season four, Melisandre’s magical choker necklace, Hodor’s layered furs or, indeed, the Iron Throne itself, you’ll find them all on Belfast’s waterfront until September 11 at the official Game of Thrones: The Touring Exhibition.
While you can pay to have a picture of yourself seated on the Iron Throne or see yourself trapped in the Hall of Faces for free, the best thing about this travelling exhibition is the breadth of costume and props on show. Seeing so many of the Unsullied’s costumes in front of you all at once makes you realise just how much goes into every second of screentime.
Tickets for the exhibition range from Dh70 to Dh83, visit gameofthronesexhibition.com
Tour of Tollymore Forest
While following the Game of Thrones Filming Locations Northern Ireland app on your own is a delightful way to pass the time, if you want to really learn what went into the show’s filming and how it has changed the country, a guided tour is a must.
I walked around the 630-hectare Tollymore Forest with Robbie Atkinson, a guide from Game of Thrones Tours company and a former extra on the show, and learnt so much. For instance, it rarely snows in the forest, but many of the scenes set here involved a snowy landscape. So the set designers put a tarp on the ground and sprayed on tiny pieces of photographic paper all around to mimic the blinding whiteness of winter.
“We had a guest from Tibet the other day,” Atkinson tells me as we walk towards the spot where a Night’s Watch member finds wildling corpses in the snow in episode one of the first season. “Think of it, up in the Himalayas, they’re watching Game of Thrones, and then they’re coming here to see us in Northern Ireland,” he says, his voice animated with bewilderment and delight.
Game of Thrones Tours run day-long tours out of Belfast that take you on a ferry to the location of Winterfell, Tollymore Forest and Inch Abbey, Dh240 for adults, including transport, visit gameofthronestours.com
A day, or night, at Winterfell
I spent four days set-jetting around Northern Ireland, and my trip to Castle Ward was the most engaging. It is an 18th-century National Trust property set across 332 hectares, just down the road from where Ireland’s patron saint, St Patrick, is buried. It also happens to be the setting for Winterfell – where fan favourites the Starks live.
The property is home to 20 key filming locations: you can see the tower from which Bran took a fall, the tree under which Robb and Talisa get married, and the doorway where Jon Snow meets Tyrion for the first time. You can also immerse yourself in a Thrones experience: don a cloak of the north and camp overnight in a glamping pod. For £250 (Dh1,192) per couple, you will stay overnight in a wooden pod, learn archery and go on a cycling tour of filming locations. There are also bespoke packages, including ones in which you can meet the “direwolf” puppies, who are actually Alaskan Inuit dogs, and lovely, gentle animals.
“This country has been devastated with 40 years of violence, where people have been at each other’s throats,” says William Van Der Kells, who is the Ned Stark of Winterfell Tours, and worked at Castle Black when HBO came to scout out the location a decade ago.
“Now we have fantasy violence, it’s bringing in more money. We have people coming from all over the world just to see where Game of Thrones was filmed, but what they’re leaving with is a sense that this is a beautiful wee island with lots of lovely people.”
Many standard and bespoke packages are on offer at Castle Ward, visit gameofthrones-winterfelltours.com
Dotted around the country are 10 ornately carved doors, each representing an episode from season six, all crafted from a 300-year-old beech tree that was felled in 2016’s Storm Gertrude.
The tree stood in the Dark Hedges in the very north of Northern Ireland, where the famous scene showing Arya escaping King’s Landing was filmed. The Dark Hedges appeared in the show for about 18 seconds, but are now one of the country’s most visited locations.
You’ll be given a passport and be able to get a stamp at each door’s location, which you can probably then sell on eBay. But this is about the journey not the destination. Seeing the doors themselves isn’t really worth driving around a country for, but the birch artworks have created footfall in small towns that may not have been visited before, and seeking them out means you’ll experience Irish hospitality in its truest form.
At Owen’s Bar in Limavady, Damian Owens, the second-generation pub landlord, shows me his guest book, which he asks all Thronies to sign. He proudly reels off the diversity of countries featured: most Thronie tourists are from the UK and US, but in the few hours I was at Owen’s, I met a couple from Argentina, a group from Germany and a few Spaniards. I also heard much debate over “who’s your favourite character?” Arya seemed to be the front-runner.
Other locations to visit
There are a total of 25 filming locations dotted around Northern Ireland, and many are along one of the best drives in the country, the striking, cliff-lined Antrim Coast, from which you can see Scotland on a clear day.
Just 10 minutes from the Giant’s Causeway, the country’s most popular attraction, and 15 minutes from the Dark Hedges – aka the Kingsroad – you’ll find Ballintoy Harbour, which you’ll recognise as Pyke and the Iron Islands. A further 25-minute drive is Fair Head, Northern Ireland’s tallest cliff face, and the location for Jon Snow’s first meeting with the dragons – it is also an excellent spot for hiking.
Another 20 minutes towards Belfast is Cushenden, where Liam Neeson reportedly likes to holiday, and also the home of the cave in which Melisandre gave birth to her shadow baby. Drive down the coast towards Belfast and you’ll reach Carnlough Harbour, where Arya emerged from the water and on to the streets of Braavos.
Good news for fans...
... there's more to come. An official HBO prequel to Game of Thrones is already being filmed in Northern Ireland, and there is currently work being done on more destinations for Thronies. Some of the larger sets are reportedly being turned into legacy tourism spots, and by 2020 the Game of Thrones Studio Tour will open in Banbridge.
After every episode of the finally season airs, a new stained-glass window depicting the episode will be revealed somewhere in Northern Ireland. The first stands just outside Belfast City Hall.
Updated: April 25, 2019 04:06 PM