Towns / Cities Visited: 81
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 16,206
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,667,138
Although it was Sunday, we would not be having a day of rest, and we were up bright and early for a day we had been looking forward to for some time. You see, we would be joining a tour of Game of Thrones film locations south of Belfast; these locations were used mainly in the first season of the show, after Belfast was selected as the home of the show’s production. Due to the scarcity of weekend public transport our options for buses was either arriving over an hour before we needed to, or arriving with less than fifteen minutes to spare. As I’m sure you can guess, getting up even unmentionably early, then having to try and amuse ourselves for an hour, wasn’t really selling itself, thus we waited for the later bus. We were a little concerned when it didn’t arrive at its scheduled time, but five minutes later it finally trundled up and we hopped on. With a little bit of speed walking at the other end, we made it to the bus with ten minutes to spare. Despite our early arrival, we were still the last people to join the tour, and before long we were on our way.
As we left the city we were driven past the Paint Shed on the dockside, just near the Titanic exhibit which we had visited the day before. This shed, aptly named, is a massive space which used to be used to paint ships before they were set out to sea. When the production team of Game of Thrones were attempting to find somewhere to set up their indoor film sets, they settled on this place; it was large, and private, and there was plenty of Belfast natives willing to work on the project; in short, it was perfect. As we were directed to look across the road we could vaguely make out the outline of the full scale Winterfell set, just peaking out from behind a wall. From what we could see it looked as though it was dressed to make it appear like it had been burnt out, but as the final season has not been released yet, it left us with more questions than answers as to the fate of the home of the Stark family home, and whether it was simply a trick of the production team to mislead curious fans into running riot with theories.
As we made our way out of town, our rough and ready looking guide introduced himself properly. His name was Thorn, yes you read that right, and he has actually been an extra in the show since the very first season; he plays one of the men in the Nights Watch. Back when the show first began, and there was very little hype around it, many Belfast natives auditioned for roles, and our guide did so after a friend encouraged him to, because they were looking for tall scruffy looking men with long dark hair and a beard. Given the fact that he fit that description perfectly, and he regularly participates in viking reenactments and has a knowledge of historical weapons and how to wield them, he was an easy choice for an extra who often has very visual roles fighting alongside the main actors in the Nights Watch. He spent the next twenty minutes or so enlightening us about how the casting system works for extras, and what its like working on the set of a major television program. It was fascinating to hear stories of how close the main actors were to the extras in the first season, and sad to here that later on, the fame went to many of their heads and they interacted with them less and less. Thorn explained how much good the show has done in making Belfast a desirable place to film these days, and all of the benefits its had for the film students in the city, as the producers went in and helped the teachers to change the curriculum to better reflect the practical skills actually needed for modern day film workers. Many people think that actors and film crews have cushy jobs, so it was nice to hear Thorn explaining how much hard work, and how many endless hours go into making a show of this magnitude; from hours of hair and make up, to take after take of the same scene until its perfect, to work days far exceeding eight hours. He even had a few videos to show us what behind the scenes was like, and even a few clips from the show with him in it. By the time the bus stopped I stepped off with a whole new appreciation for a show I already have so much love for.
Where were we at this point, you ask? We had just arrived at Portaferry, which, unsurprisingly, was a port from which we would be taking a ferry. This narrow stretch of water ahead of us is the mouth of the Strangford Lough; a tidal Lough which feeds into the Irish Sea. Although the water may look calm, it was easy to see the dangers of this bottleneck as we watched the car ferry running its engine to the max just to stop being swept back downstream with the ebbing water as it crossed towards us. Hopping on board, it wasn’t long before we made it to the other side to the small town of Strangford. The town and the lough share a name derived from the old Norse word Strangr-fjǫrðr, which means ‘Strong Fjord’, and given the current rushing us across, its not hard to see why. We would be returning to town for lunch, but first we has a few things to see, thus back onto the bus we hopped, and headed off once more.
A short while later we pulled into the car park of our first location stop; the Castle Ward Estate. As we walked up to to the main house, and the stable yards behind it, it seemed just like any other old stone country house from the 16th century. There was nothing particularly obvious about what this location had been used for until our guide began holding up stills from the show and relating them to the scene behind him. You see, with the help of a healthy dose of CGI and clever editing tricks, this location had been used as the location for the exterior and courtyard shots of the Stark family home; Winterfell. The large clock tower which stands beside the gate to the courtyard, for example, was digitally mirrored on the other side to make a matching set, and inside the courtyard they had built a temporary second balcony level to make the castle appear higher, and also to give them empty sky behind on which to lay over CGI upper levels. With all of these visual aids no longer there, it would be easy to pass this place by without even noticing the resemblance. So why film there at all? The estate of course offered them the privacy of a filming location away from the prying eyes of the public, reduced the set building and CGI costs, and also meant that they could film in an actual location as oppose to in front of a green screen in the studio, which of course, in turn, aids the actors immensely in immersing themselves in the role fully.
From here we continued on to visit a number of other sites on this estate used throughout the series. As we ascended up a hill in the grounds surrounding the castle we came to a 15th century stone tower house which overlooks the lough below. Although empty inside, this unassuming but beautiful structure was used as the basis for the exterior shots of Walder Frey’s Twin towers, with the clever CGI crew taking the image of this tower and digitally putting an exact copy of it on the uninhabited bank on the other side of the lough, then digitally adding a bridge to give the desired effect. As like most scenes in the show, all interior shots were filmed on purpose built sets in the Paint Hall in Belfast. As we looked across at the other bank, at the top of the wooded hill, Thorn pointed out one particular tree which sticks up above all of the rest. Without it being pointed out you kind of just ignore it, but then Thorn showed us a series of stills from the show, from different places in the fictional world of Westeros, and it wasn’t long before we realised that this beautiful, undisturbed landscape was so well liked by the production team that they used it several times. The result of course being that there is seemingly a tree which moves around the world photobombing the main characters poignant scenes; a rather amusing little fact which I fear we will never be able to unsee. The most famous tree in Ireland, our guide calls it.
Just down the hill from here is a clearing in the woods, which was used as the backdrop for Robb Stark’s camp in the Riverlands, and passing this we moved along down the dirt path which cuts through the trees on the side of the lough. As I’m sure you can imagine, when a production team gets the green light to film on a location site as large and as private as this, they want to use it for as many scenes as possible, and as we continued along the path, we were stopped several times and shown stills of different scenes which used this beautiful loughside walk. From the spot where Brienne of Tarth dispatched three Stark bannermen, to the tree where she and Jaime found the three hanging tavern girls, to where Tyrion and Bronn were ambushed by the Stone Crows of the Vale, these trees have seen a lot of action.
Not everything noteworthy sight pertained to Game of Thrones though, and Thorn pointed out a hewn rock just behind one of the trees which is thought to have been a makeshift altar used as a secret place of prayer for Catholics during times of persecution; made useful both due to its private location, and its access to the lough for a quick getaway should they be discovered. Thorn also told us about the superstition regarding oak trees in centuries past, due to the fact that they are often found standing alone in the middle of clearings in the forest. You see, their roots have the rather macabre habit of poisoning the surrounding ground so that other trees cannot grow and steal their sunlight and nutrients. The result to the unknowing passerby looks like a place of worship for pagans or witches. This little fun fact was probably the inspiration for GRR Martin to model the weirwood trees in his novels.
With the locations of the Castle Ward Estate ticked off the list, we jumped back on the bus and headed to a little pub in Strangford called The Cuan, which, unsurprisingly, was frequented quite a lot by the actors and crew of the show during their filming just down the road. The pub is quaint, and the staff give you a warm welcome and some good old fashioned country hospitality. As we sat and ate our delicious pub meal, downed some mead, and admired the carved Game of Thrones inspired wooden door (one of six given to different pubs around the country by the production team), the manager even came over and asked us all where we were from and if we were enjoying our tour.
We left in high spirits, but the day was about to get even better. We had been told to meet in a small fenced courtyard in the centre of the town, and as we arrived we saw a few guys setting up. All of a sudden another man arrived , flanked by two larger huskies, which, given their size, were obviously cross bred with another breed, thus making them a bit larger than usual. As we were ushered into the pen their presentation began. You see, these two dogs had played two of the direwolf pups in the very first episode; Summer and Greywind. They told us the story of how they had bought the dogs from a friend, and how HBO had asked to buy them from them. They of course refused to sell them, what with them being their pets and all, and instead offered to lend them for the filming, provided they were allowed to come to the set as well. The two young men to whom the dogs belong, and their older (and rather rough looking) father who accompanied them, have all since been a part of the cast of the show. The father played one of the Dothraki Slave Traders, and the sons have both played various extras roles; one of them even works behind the camera now. The father proudly showed off a photo album of all three of them in their roles, and spending time with the main cast. We were then allowed a chance to pat the dogs who are so dear to all of us fans. It had all come as such a surprise, as the dogs are not always available, and thus this part is not advertised in the tour; but we left absolutely elated by the chance meeting.
Back on the bus we tumbled, and headed to our next stop; Inch Abbey, a 12th century Cistercian Abbey built by the Norman invader John De Courcy for his new Irish Celtic wife as repentance for destroying an abbey not far away during his invasion of her country. This collection of stunning ruins was used as the back drop of one of Robb Stark’s camps on his way to Kings Landing to avenge his father’s death. Funnily enough John De Courcy had proclaimed himself King in the North after his successful invasion, and it is on this spot that the scene where Stark bannermen pledged fielty to Robb, crowning him King in the North was filmed. Game of Thrones may, at its heart, be a work of fiction, but it is easy to see the historic tales which were influential on the works of the author. As we piled out of the bus we were gathered at the rear, and Thorn opened the boot. Before we knew it we were all being handed faux fur trimmed cloaks, much like those worn by the people of the north in Westeros, to wear while we explored the sight. Not only were we clad in costume, but we were also all handed a sword to carry. Now, I don’t care what anyone says but I really think cloaks are due for a comeback, they’re warm, and literally look good on everyone no matter size or shape. Scampering off like children, and mildly geeking out, we spent the next half an hour taking a plethora of photos of this picturesque piece of history, the nearby historic cemetery, and the rolling green fields which surround them both.
Eventually we had to disarm and disrobe, as we had one last stop to make on this film inspired field trip; Tollymore Forest Park. Alighting the bus, and stretching out our limbs, we readied ourselves for an hour long stroll through part of the 1600 acre grounds of this estate previously owned by the high born Hamilton family; it is now, however, the property of the state. We drank in the undisturbed beauty of the trees as we weaved along the path which runs beside the Shimna River, and Thorn told us a little about the history of the forest park. Before long we came to an old wooden bridge and crossed the water before continuing. Here the trees became more uniform, as they are the remainder of an old pine plantation, and we found that the resulting woods looked somewhat familiar. This is, of course, because these towering beauties, with their bare trunks, and their treetop foliage blocking out the light, were used as the back drop of the woods beyond the wall in the very first scene of the show.
Thorn, all of a sudden, turned and began clambering off the track, and into the wilds of the trees, beckoning us to follow. That was when we reached a clearing which will ring a bell in any GOT fan’s head. Just add a bank to close off the circle, and a layer of fake snow, and you have yourself the set where Will’s finds the dismembered wildling bodies in the opening scene. It was surreal, after seeing so many digitally altered sights, to actually be standing in one which has changed very little. Also, given the importance of this scene in the show, its surprising that there is no path, or even a sign, directing visitors to it; but perhaps that’s why it has remained to untouched. If you didn’t know it was there, you would simply pass it by.
Next we were led back down towards the river a little again until we came to the spot where Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister had set up camp on their journey north, to the wall. Thorn showed us the scene on his Ipad, and pointed out the tree stump which still stands there, which was where Jon had sat. He then regaled us with the funny story of a couple of Jon Snow loving girls who had come on his tour, and whom he had had to coax away from the site as they were lagging behind, having stopped to kiss the stump.
Our final stop was back along the river some ways, at a small stone bridge. Just near one side of it, had been where Eddard had found the corpse of a dead stag, mauled by a direwolf. A scene which had actually used a real dead deer loaned to the production team by the park rangers who had found it in the forest just a few days before, and due to the need for conservation had kept it in order to have tests done to determine the cause of death. Just down on the river bank, beside the bridge, was where they filmed the scene in which Eddard and the Stark children stumble across the mother direwolf which had been gored by the stag it killed, and the six pups she had left behind, one for each of the children including Jon Snow.
With all of the locations visited, we made a beeline back to the bus; the day was getting on, and we had to make our way back to Belfast. The return trip flew by as we watched the first episode of the series, which was now doubly as interesting as we spotted all of the places we had just seen. Sadly our tour had come to an end, but we happily bid Thorn farewell, and walked back into the heart of the city, our conversation abuzz with both reminiscing on one of our favourite series, and speculating on how it will all end in the final season when it is released next year.
We had had grand plans to eat at a little seafood restaurant which had been recommended to us, but much to our dismay we found it to be fully booked for the night. Not to be deterred we headed to our second choice, the historic old Crown Liquor Saloon, which is a prime example of a the luxury of a Victorian Gin Palace, most noted for its beautiful 1885 interior; consisting of carved private mahogany booths, stunning etched glass, gas lamps, and mosiac tiles floor. Despite having to replace its windows numerous times during the many bombs detonated close by during The Troubles, it is still standing strong after more than a century. As we walked in it was hard not to be taken aback by the beauty of it; it was like stepping back in time. The place was packed, and we managed to swim through the crowd and grab a pint, before heading upstairs to the restaurant. Unfortunately they were also booked out, so we headed back downstairs to try and decide what to do as we finished our drinks. As luck would have it, by some twist of fate, the people vacated the booth behind us, and we managed to scuttle in before any of the plethora of other people around noticed. We’d managed to snag one of the famous private booths all to ourselves, complete with its old bell call button from when you used to be able to order drinks from your booth, and the old metal plate used to strike matches; you know, back in the day when this place would have been drowned in a smoky haze. We were elated to find out, as my partner weaved through to grab another round of drinks, that we could order food from our booth too. All’s well that ends well I guess, and this sure topped off a truly fan-tastic day.
By the time we rolled ourselves home full of good old fashioned Irish pub grub, it wasn’t long before we were collapsing into bed, as the early start caught up with us. Besides we would be starting early again the next day as we were hiring a car and following the trail of Game of Thrones locations all the way up to the very top of the country. As I lay in bed, my mind drifted back to the family who were so fortunate to have bought those gorgeous husky pups. One simple addition to their lives had triggered the most stunning butterfly effect, and changed all of their futures. They went from being a dad and his two ordinary teenage boys with their dogs, to being a part of one of the biggest television programs ever produced. These young men have been handed a golden opportunity to make a name for themselves in the booming film industry, and that’s just the direction they are headed. It all just made me stop and think about how one small choice, and one leap of faith, can change the course of your life forever. As I drifted to sleep I thought about our novel, as we come into the final stage of editing it, and how much the leap of faith of dropping everything and going on this yearlong journey has altered it, and its yet to be written sequels. Could writing this tale we hold within our hearts, and sharing it with the world be the catalyst for our own lives? Could this lead us down a road we never knew existed? Could this be just the beginning of something bigger than ourselves? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Even if it all comes to naught though, even if it is only our family and friends who read the words we poured thousands of hours into, then I will sleep well knowing that we shared something important with them. Is the rest of the world ready to hear our tale? Only time will tell.