Go Westeros: a Game of Thrones experience fit for a king in Belfast
The immensely popular HBO series has provided a much-needed boost to the tourism industry of Northern Ireland
A dapper hotel manager is all smiles as another busload of visitors pours through his door to pose for selfies in front of his restaurant’s Game of Thrones memorabilia. The landlord of a once-quiet pub beams as his boozer is rammed with Thrones fans who are in town to visit nearby filming locations. Pilgrimaging geeks decked out in medieval costumes brandish axes and swords as they meander past locals in previously anonymous Ulster towns.
I joined those geeks to witness first-hand the staggering effect that Game of Thrones is having on Northern Ireland.
The television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels is widely considered the most successful TV series of all time. It is broadcast in 200 territories and this week’s opening episode of season eight was watched by an estimated one billion people.
Northern Ireland is its home: Game of Thrones was filmed in more than 26 locations here, making the country a prized tourist destination for fans of the show from throughout the world. People who would never have considered a holiday in Northern Ireland now cannot get here quickly enough.
Over breakfast in the pleasant Europa Hotel, excitable tourists from China and India sit chatting in foreign tongues but it’s easy to decipher what brought them to Belfast: their Hindi and Chinese is dotted with giveaway words like ‘Winterfell’ and ‘Westeros’.
Waiting nonchalantly in the hotel’s rotund lobby are Game of Thrones tour guides dressed in cloaks and headgear, looking like they’ve just stepped off set. No one bats an eyelid. The city has very much embraced the fantasy series.
And well it might. Game of Thrones is nearing its conclusion on screen but the financial trickle-down for Northern Ireland shows no sign of drying up. Northern Ireland enjoyed a record year of tourism in 2018, with almost five million overnight trips injecting nearly £1bn into the local economy.
In the same year, an estimated 350,000 overseas visitors made the decision to visit Northern Ireland because of Game of Thrones, splashing in excess of £50m. A country once infamous for only too real carnage is now famous for fantasy bloodshed and the benefits are huge.
Guided tours around the country’s filming locations are the cornerstone of this kerching. Many are conducted by former extras like Robbie Atkinson of Game of Thrones Tours. A long-haired, zealous Thrones fan, he shows us round several locations in one memorable day.
As our bus snakes out of the city, Robbie talks us through his experiences on set, including each of his seven deaths as an extra. Smiling with his whole face, he punctuates his monologue with laughter. Then he suggests we watch a Game of Thrones episode on the bus’s TV monitor. “I just happen to have the episode I appear in,” he guffaws. A wonderful character, he might just be the happiest man on the planet.
We eventually arrive at Cushenden on the Antrim Coast. A pretty village with a Cornish vibe, its huge seaside caves were where Melisandre gave birth to the shadow creature. It’s a relaxing place, with sea water rolling through the rocks and onto the sandy beach. As we pose in full costume, locals stroll past, walking their dogs. They and their dogs have seen it all before. Hundreds of times.
Robbie also walks us across a vertigo-inducing rope bridge in Carrick-a-Rede, which echoes a similar bridge in the HBO series, and shows us into hotels and pubs that feature special Game of Thrones doors. These doors were fashioned out of the wood of fallen trees that once stood in the show’s iconic Dark Hedges scenes. They feature intricately crafted art, which depicts the story of the show.
The doors fair draw in the punters: fans are given special ‘Journey of Doors’ passports, which they get stamped as they visit the pubs and restaurants that hosts such a door. No wonder the owners can’t stop smiling.
Later, we take a helicopter tour over the Dark Hedges and the dramatic Causeway coastline. It’s a bright sunny day and the sea has a gorgeous Mediterranean green tint as we look down upon it. Then it’s all back to Belfast, to its modern restaurants and charming bars, which smell of Guinness and strong whiskey, and all seem to resound with live music. Whether you’re a Thrones fan or not, Northern Ireland is an absolutely cracking place to visit.
The following day, another GoT-extra-turned-tour-guide, William Van Der Kells, drives us to Castle Ward in County Down, where season one’s Winterfell scenes were filmed.
After slaloming around countless winding lanes we pull up at the hallowed ground. He introduces us to Will Mulhall and his two Northern Inuit dogs – Odin and Thor. But these aren’t just any old dogs: a few weeks after Will bought them, HBO approached him to ask if it could cast them in Game Of Thrones. He agreed and his dogs played Grey Wind and Summer, the dire wolves of Robb and Bran Stark.
Now arguably the world’s most famous living dogs, they are insured for hundreds of thousands of pounds and have met over 40,000 tourists, many of whom have become tongue-tied and star-struck in their presence. (They even have their own Instagram account: @got_direwolves.)
After reluctantly waving goodbye to Odin and Thor, we breathe in the familiar sights of the historic farmyard at Castle Ward and the nearby Audley Castle. It’s a cold day and the wintry temperature seems very fitting.
To evoke the show’s combative mood we take part in archery, sword fights and axe-throwing contests in the spots where the likes of Jon Snow, and Robb and Bran Stark stood. We also stage a mock beheading. (I win the axe-throwing comfortably but I keep my distance from the beheading segment.)
Following lunch at County Down’s Percy French (another venue enjoying the Dark Hedges door dividend) we walk through the stunning Tollymore Forest, with its rock bridges, bubbling streams, and stunning views of Newcastle. It was here that Ned Stark and his sons found that the female direwolf had given birth to pups, and where rangers from the Night’s Watch discovered dismembered Wilding bodies.
Gory stuff, and there is also bloodshed aplenty on the vast Game of Thrones Tapestry, which is currently hosted in a dimly-lit room at the Ulster Museum, in Belfast’s pretty Botanic Gardens. An 80-metre long, hand-woven wall hanging, it depicts scenes from the show’s history, modelled on the style of the Bayeux Tapestry.
The show has featured an estimated 174,373 deaths and several of them appear in the tapestry. It includes a pregnant woman being stabbed, a banquet bloodbath and numerous other scenes of butchery. As we walk round, the English museum tour guide boasts that it’s “quite literally the most violent tapestry you will ever see”.
During my stay we also meet three of the show’s stars at the launch of the Game of Thrones touring exhibition at the TEC Belfast venue. The exhibition is based a short stroll from the legendary Titanic Studios, where a lot of the series was filmed.
There’s much excitement as the actors Isaac Hempstead Wright, Ian Beattie and Liam Cunningham arrive to launch the exhibition, which includes costumes and props from the first seven seasons. The bearded, impish Beattie, who plays the villainous knight Ser Meryn Trant, says that as you walk round the exhibition “you can actually smell” the show.
He is better equipped than most to assess the effect Game of Thrones has had on Northern Ireland – he was born here. He remembers the many times visiting fans have approached him in the street, including one couple who flew in from China for their honeymoon. “Who would have thought, 30 years ago, that Northern Ireland would one day become a honeymoon spot?” he chuckles, shaking his head in disbelief. “But that’s what it is now.”
On and on it grows. More than 25 new Game of Thrones visitor experiences have been developed in Northern Ireland over the past six years, ranging from on-set banquets serving ‘Kingslayer Cupcakes’ to self-guided itineraries and cycling adventures.
And an official Game of Thrones Studio Tour is set to open in County Down in 2020. A 110,000-square-foot interactive experience featuring stunning imagery, mesmerising sets, and original props and costumes, it is set to entice even more Thrones fans to the country.
And you know what? You’d need a heart of stone to not be chuffed for Northern Ireland. A place that has known so much darkness is now enjoying its day in the sun and it’s absolutely beautiful to see.
For more information visit Ireland.com