Friday 6 November 2015 6:27 pm

Play your own Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland


I'm the editor of City A.M. The Magazine, and editor of the daily newspaper's Life&Style section. We cover food, going out, art, technology and travel. I like to write about restaurants, theatre and video games.

I'm the editor of City A.M. The Magazine, and editor of the daily newspaper's Life&Style section. We cover food, going out, art, technology and travel. I like to write about restaurants, theatre and video games.

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Thronies, as they call themselves, have known for an age that the city of Belfast, and Northern Ireland in general, is the place to spot Game of Thrones film locations. Now even casual viewers (and readers) are following in the footsteps of the mythological characters, with popularity soaring for these epic, windswept landscapes.

Based on the fantasy book A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin, it follows several families and their various intrigues – which includes plenty of sex, violence and moody Northern Irish landscapes. The dark storyline dovetails perfectly with the hostile landscape on the east coast of the country and it’s here I start my own adventure. A BMW picks me up at Culloden Estate & Spa and a die-hard Thronie greets me with excitement – “Hi, I’m Philip McComb from McComb Tours, I hope you’re ready to geek out.” I half expected him to be in a Game of Thrones costume; maybe it was laundry day. We started in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, where the first signs of the show make themselves visible.

Although off-limits to anyone who doesn’t work on set, a giant shipping shed was converted into film studios and stands next to the famous recreated Titanic hull. We drive past again and again, hoping catch a peek of what’s happening inside but on this rainy Belfast day everyone seems to be indoors – if it wasn’t for some weapons (“Is that an axe?”) and equipment hanging outside, you’d never know what lurks within.

Despite its varied landscape, the fact it often experiences four seasons in a single day and its generous tax incentives, Northern Ireland wasn’t the first choice for Game of Thrones – that honour goes to Scotland. Luckily they wanted too much money and so HBO looked elsewhere. Confirmed for seven seasons, this part of the British Isles has a few more years of being part of one of the most popular TV series of all time.

The stars of the shows are often seen walking around Belfast, providing a sneaky indication of what’s happening in the show. “After all,” says McComb, “the show is notorious for killing off its main characters.”

But I don’t have time to play this guessing game today. “We need to get away from our little city for you to really feel like you’re on the show,” says McComb. Winding our way along the coast, the dark cliffs and sandy beaches contrast with green fields inland. The sky, blackening as we drive, seems more than happy to play along with the Game of Thrones narrative. Finally the windswept freeway arrives at a little town called Ballygally. Here Ballygally Castle, which isn’t really a castle but more of a tower linked to all kinds of ghostly mysteries, is where Gaelic and Celtic fables and legends are divulged by locals. The new Thronies are all ears.

Throwing your gaze up the escarpment behind the tower and beyond Cairncastle (again, not a castle) are the mountains where *spoiler alert * Ned Stark executed Will, the deserter from the Night’s Watch at Knock Dhu.

“People visit as they want to see if they can see behind the scenes, spot some extra features or find secrets that no one else has discovered,” says McComb. And that’s exactly how this slow cruise around the country feels. The magical landscapes, recognisable if you watch the show and just plain beautiful if you don’t, are so otherworldly that it’s a wonder it took this long for someone to shoot a fantasy series here.

My drive continues. Hills and valleys in greens and gold, with dramatic clouds moving swiftly across the dull sky, lends a serene sense of calm. Next up is a rocky beach, Cushendun, where a now infamous cave was the location of choice for *more spoilers – last warning* the priestess Melisandre (Carice van Houten’s character) to give birth to a shadow assassin. McComb explains how they shot the scenes, the angles and views, and how the priestess had to be naked in this freezing, watery cave.


The show has enjoyed unprecedented success, largely down to its unpredictable plotlines, vast cast of intruguing characters and the dramatic landscapes. It’s created an entire spin-off industry – in Belfast banquets reenact the gluttonous feasts; Steensons jewellers in Ballygally create special pieces for the show, which are now also available for purchase.

Not far from the caves is Ballintoy Harbour (forming part of what the show calls the “Iron Islands”) and this is where Theon Greyjoy had his homecoming and baptism, and also where the pirate Salladhor Sann met Davos and pledged his loyalty and support to Stannis Baratheon. If those were too many names for you to remember I must admit I’m feeling the same about the show and its convoluted plotting. But even when you forget who’s who, the beauty of the scenery keeps you hooked.

The day’s most memorable moment is the Dark Hedges. Not that they’re dark or indeed hedges, but rather a path of interlocking beech trees (see main picture), brought to life in Season 2 when Arya Stark (a royal girl pretending to be a boy, played by Maisie Williams) flees her enemies in a cart. It’s now one of Northern Ireland’s most visited sites, where the mystique of days of yore hangs heavy. Celts, Gaelics and even Vikings roamed these lands, lopping the heads off their enemies.

A crow flies through the gnarled trees and watches the onlookers. The crows are everywhere and fans of the show will certainly recognise them. They perch around every location I visited, cawing ominously. Very atmospheric.

The day ends, as I think it often does in Northern Ireland, with whiskey. The town of Bushmills, with its famous distillery, is, according to some, where whiskey was invented, and it attracts avid drinkers. This little town comes not only with a world class whiskey hole but also has an intriguing history – Winston Churchill was second citizen (an honorary title) here, although he was upstaged by the first citizen, Paddy the homing pigeon, who brought news of the D-Day success to these shores. Dunluce castle (a real one this time) is a slightly run-down building nearby. It’s yet to be used on the show but if you ask a Thronie they’ll tell you its their top pick to make an appearance in the upcoming season.

All you need to do is book a flight and you too could join in the Game.

NEED TO KNOW: Hastings Hotels (hastingshotels. com, 028 9047 1066) offers accommodation at The Culloden Estate & Spa from £150 per room per night on a B&B basis. Private Game of Thrones tours are available through McCombs Executive Travel & Tours (mccombscoaches.com, 028 9031 5333). Cheapflights offers return flights to Belfast from London Gatwick from £56 return. Visit cheapflights.co.uk to book. Daniel travelled courtesy of Tourism Ireland (tourismireland.com, 0800 039 7000).

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