As a boy George RR Martin was a big reader. Tales of fairies, mist-covered mountains and ancient Celtic ruins triggered his imagination.
It’s only fitting, decades later, that the cult TV series of Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice saga is mainly filmed in Northern Ireland.
HBO’s fantasy TV show is one of the most popular ever. Eight million watched the season five finale. It’s not surprising that fans are seeking out the real-life locations that star as the mythical world of Westeros.
Shut off from the world for years because of the Troubles, Northern Ireland’s countryside has been rediscovered. After almost two decades of peace, locals are proud of where they live and have come to accept the actors and crew as fixtures in and around Belfast.
On the Game of Thrones itinerary, places don’t require much imagination to transform into Westeros.
These days Dee Morgan, one of the biggest GoT fans in Belfast, spends much of her time guiding people through the filming locations. We set off to explore County Antrim on the Causeway Coastal Route, one of the world’s great road trips. Our first stop is Cairncastle, up a winding road to a windswept but beautiful spot high in the Antrim plateau.
The wild mountain sweeps away below, with rocky hills and the ocean in the distance. This was a good location for Ned Stark to behead a Night’s Watch deserter and for Catelyn Stark to capture Tyrion Lannister.
Series brings benefits
The HBO Emmy-award winning series has brought great benefits. Steensons Jewellers, in the village of Glenarm, is run by Brona and Dan Spencer. They are known for making Celtic-inspired jewellery, and created original pieces for the series: the Lannister lion pendants, Daenerys’ dragon brooches and Joffrey’s crown. When I visit they’re hard at work on a top secret piece for the new series.
The fishing village of Carnlough was cordoned off a while ago for a scene where Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) was thrown into the sea. Cushendun Caves, formed 400 million years ago, are eerie despite some nearby houses and a solitary tethered goat munching grass. This is where sorceress Melisandre gave birth to a spectre.
Larrybane’s stunning white cliffs and quarry have hosted several important scenes such as Brienne triumphing over Ser Loras in a tournament. Here we get another hint about season six. A ranger confides (spoiler alert) that a coronation scene was filmed.
You don’t have to be a Thrones fan to be entranced by the scenery. The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge (Storm’s End) was used by generations of salmon fishermen.
The harbour of Ballintoy doubled as the Iron Islands when Theon Greyjoy returned home. Stars Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark) and Conleth Hill (Varys) – both locals – are known to drop in for an occasional drink to the Fullerton Arms in Ballycastle.
The road soon leads to the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO world heritage site. Though not in the series, the landmark and the $39 million visitor centre is an essential stop.
The mysticism of the landscape is palpable at Armoy’s Dark Hedges, an avenue of 300-year-old beech trees whose giant branches interlace above a dipping road. These were used as a backdrop when Arya escaped from King’s Landing. Thrones fans clutter the road with parked cars and take selfies as farmers go about their work.
Where the direwolf pups were found
County Down, on the other side of Belfast, also hosted some key scenes. Next day we pass the Mourne Mountains en route to Tollymore Forest. This park has gothic-style gate arches and various follies by 18th-century designer Thomas Wright. We stroll by the Shimna River until we reach the “haunted forest” (transformed with fake snow) where the white walkers first appeared. Further on is a hollow where the direwolf pups were found.
Dee has heard that Grey Wind and Summer (direwolves played by Northern Inuit dogs) will be calling to Paddy’s Barn pub. There’s a bus of “Thronies” fans, hanging on young owner William Mulhall’s every word. William senior, a striking bearded man, was asked to play a Dothraki and another son, Ross, is also an extra. More than 10,000 locals signed with Extras Northern Ireland and thousands turned up for the big battle scenes.
No tour is complete without a visit to Castle Ward’s 18th-century farmyard and tower that served as Winterfell, the home of the Starks. Here William van der Kells (also an extra) of Clearsky Adventure Centre runs several Game of Thrones experiences.
I’m booked in for an archery lesson. I don Bran’s leather vest and swing a cloak over my shoulders. William is a patient instructor and, standing where the Starks shot their bows in the first episode, I discover a hidden talent. After three tries, I hit a bull’s eye. I have to be dragged to my next stop, Audley’s Field and Castle, which served as the backdrop to Robb Stark’s camp in season two. Nearby the River Quoile doubled as Riverrun and 12th-century Inch Abbey ruins were transformed into the Freys’ twin towers.
The series has added an estimated $235 million to the local economy, created 900 full-time and 5000 part-time jobs. At Castle Ward, an extra 10,000 people visited last year. Many GoT tours run from Belfast and Dublin. Locals hope the series will do for Northern Ireland what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand.
The writer was helped by Tourism Ireland. Visit www.ireland.com
Belfast: The Europa (expensive); Park Inn (mid price); or Cathedral Inn (budget).
County Down: Slieve Donard, Newcastle.
County Antrim: Ballygally Castle Hotel, Ballygally.
Winterfell archery experience, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Giant’s Causeway, Co Antrim.
Season Six of Game of Thrones screens on Foxtel from 25 April.
RACV Cruises & Tours saves you 5% on a six-day, five-night Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coastal Route with Back-Roads tour. Visit racv.com.au/cruisesandtours or call 1300 850 884 for details
At RACV shops, you can save on guides, maps, luggage and other items that can make your trip to Northern Ireland easier and more enjoyable.