The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones won’t arrive till 2019, so what is a fan to do till then? Well, other than re-reading the book series of A Song of Ice And Fire and watching countless GOT fan theories on YouTube, one could go visit the filming locations where the HBO hit fantasy series is primarily shot in – Northern Ireland.
Although Games of Thrones is also filmed in countries such as Croatia, Iceland, Malta, Morocco and Spain, Northern Ireland (a.k.a #GOTTerritory) alone boasts over 25 filming locations that one can get to easily via a group or personalized tour.
On the same week that I caught the spectacular Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience featuring GOT composer Ramin Djawadi in Belfast, I embarked on the Game of Thrones Winterfell Locations Trek (gameofthronestours.com), a full-day tour which took us south of Belfast to locations featured prominently in the ground-breaking Season 1.
An hour-and-half drive down south from the city centre through the scenic Ards peninsula brought us to Strangford (via a ferry ride at Portaferry). Nearby, the 820-acre Castle Ward Estate hosts at least nine GOT film locations, sited relatively close together.
This included a 16th century castle and stableyard (pictured above) that were used for the iconic Winterfell, ancestral home of House Stark, in Season 1. The area where Jon Snow, Robb and Bran Stark practised archery is to the right of the bikes pictured above. The spot where the roofs meet is where young Bran climbed up the castle wall before being reprimanded by his mother. The rest of the castle walls we see in the show are generated by CGI.
A 3km walk through the estate’s sprawling gardens and woodlands took us to other prominent GOT locations. First up was a 15th century Tower House sitting majestically on a small hill which served as one of Walder Frey’s Twins (above left).
Right in front of the mini castle is Audley’s Field, a rolling grassland that was the location for Robb Stark’s camp in the Riverlands and where he meets the love of his life, Talisa Maegyr, after the Battle of Oxcross in Season 2 Episode 4.
Just a stone’s throw away, as we continued along the shores of Strangford Lough, we came to the spot where Brienne of Tarth and Jamie Lannister had a coastal spat in Season 2.
One of the fascinating things we learnt on the tour is how the show’s production team has a knack of looking for “sexy” trees – trees with unusual shapes and forms – as landmarks to locate key sites that can be reused again. The tree above, for example, does indeed looked sexy but its purpose wasn’t – it was where Brienne and Jamie found three tavern girls hung on the branches. Further down this trail is the spot where Tyrion Lannister and Bronn were ambushed by the Stone Crows of the Vale in Season 1.
B. The Cuan, Strangford
Okay, The Cuan is not a GOT film location but the pub where we had lunch. However, it also houses Door #1 of the Doors of Thrones series which comprises 10 specially crafted doors made from wood from fallen beech branches from the Dark Hedges, more famously known to GOT fans as The Kingsroad. Each door depicts a GOT Season 6 event with Door 1 featuring the geography of Westeros from the show’s opening title sequence.
After lunch, it was so cool to meet the canines that played direwolves Summer and Grey Wind (real names Thor and Odin) in the show, along with their well-coiffed owner, his brother and their father who were also extras in the series. Gorgeous beasts!
C. Inch Abbey
After lunch, we traveled westwards to the remains of the 12th century Cistercian Abbey sited in a picturesque location beside the River Quoile. This is where Catelyn Stark (above right) informs Robb that Ned has been executed, and later the young Stark’s bannermen declare him as King in the North. This was also where the tour provided us with Stark cloaks, shields and swords for a fun round of cosplay and selfie-time!D. Tollymore Forest
The last stop which hosts many iconic scenes from the landmark Season 1 premiere is Tollymore Forest, a 630-hectare park filled with beautiful fauna and breathtaking woods located at the foothills of Mourne Mountains. This part of the tour required yet another 3km walk through undulating terrain (steep slopes, rocky paths, stone across streams, etc) right into the heart of the park. (I thank God I had just enough strength and energy to keep up with the rest!)
Before I forget, our wonderful guide Adrian is not only an extra on Games of Thrones since Season 6 (as a Stark/Greyjoy/Lannister soldier), he’s also the stand-in for Liam Cunningham’s Ser Davos Seaworth. (From the picture above, you can understand why!) Throughout the trip, with videos and photo stills, Adrian demonstrated how scenes at each location was shot. It made the tour that much more informative and interesting.
At the wooded “North of the Wall” side of Tollymore Forest, he was telling us how much fake snow the GOT creators had to bring to the park in order to shoot Season 1 Episode 1’s first sequence (pictured above) where the Night Watch members discover the dead Wildings before encountering the White Walkers beyond the Wall. We even got to see the tree stump that Kit Harington as Jon Snow sat on (!) while he spoke to Tyrion Lannister around the campfire prior to reaching the Wall.
As we trekked back towards the more leafy part of the park, we are shown the stone bridge where Ned Stark and the Starks lads first found the dead stag…
… and as we climbed down the slope beside the bridge, we came to a bank that is directly opposite the memorable scene where the Stark clan found the direwolf pups.
There are arguably one or two other GOT film locations south of Belfast that we did not cover but as you can see, there was already so much to see in just one day. Even if you are not a fan, the tour offers a good way of seeing Northern Ireland’s spectacular landscapes and coastlines, parks and private estates. For £50 (about US$65, not including lunch), this tour is for sure totally worth every penny for a GOT enthusiast. If you are keen to cover every location, customized tours are available with various GOT tour groups. Or download the GOT Filming Locations Northern Ireland app which provide directions to the locations and you can adventure on your own.
Things to Note for the Tour:
1. There’s a lot of walking so dress right with proper outdoor shoes and clothes befitting the Northern Irish weather
2. You need to be relatively fit; not recommended for anyone with limited mobility (although you can choose to skip the long trek bits)
3. Bring water, although there are locations where you can buy drinks
4. If you are travelling with kids: As Game of Thrones is rated 18+, this tour doesn’t allow children under 12, while those aged 12-18 require a parent or guardian’s written note. However, some tours (like my next one) do allow children.
(All Game of Thrones images – Credit: HBO)
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* ‘Game of Thrones’: Why Jon Snow May Use Greatsword Dawn to Slay the Night King in Season 8
Next up: Game of Thrones Locations to Visit North of Belfast