The internet is ablaze with chatter about the best thing to happen to the world since gravity. I’m talking about ‘Game of Thrones’, of course, the delectable and grandiose tale of fantasy and fury with kings and queens, dragons and zombies (they’re called white walkers in the show but, come on, they’re zombies).
Series seven was released almost two years ago, and yet the amazing scenes are as vivid in the minds of fans across the globe — myself included — as if it was just yesterday. The past few months have been tough for us all. However, the one saving grace for me is that I live in Northern Ireland, where much of the spectacular show is filmed — a fact that almost makes me feel like I live in a type of Westeros, a post-apocalyptic world of rain and perennial winter. Ireland, in a word.
So now that the final season has begun, I decided to grab the dragon by the horns and track down the places that the stars have tread, the sights and sounds from the series that have made it the hit it is today.
On my ‘GoT’ travels, I hoped to find a discarded prop, a forgotten footprint by Jon Snow himself or the Hound (a dark, brooding giant of a man who rouses lovable feelings in me in a rugged, terrifying kind of way).
There has been tight security surrounding anything and everything ‘GoT’-related, and even requests for a tour of the Titanic Studios in Belfast, where the show is mostly filmed, have been met with a flat ‘no’).
However, visiting the locations of the phenomenal show is free and practically on my doorstep and so the top of my list was the Dark Hedges, which is the road that leads to King’s Landing in the series.
My journey began on a bright-yet-grey Saturday morning, which was beginning to see the first droplets of the day’s rain — a perfect backdrop to my destination. The eerie trees, which are more than 300 years old, stand in a place called Stranocum in the town of Ballymoney.
The trees were planted by the Stuart family in the 18th century and they hold a mystical reverence that is palpable when you walk among them — although the sight of random tourists from across the world slouching all over the trees in their jeans and T-shirts diminishes the atmosphere somewhat.
The distinctive trees on either side of the long, thin, tarmacked road lean towards each other, their yearning branches brushing against those on the other side, the tantalising touch of an anticipated embrace that may never be, as elusive as peace in Westeros. There was a melancholy about the area; a memory, a feeling of life as fleeting as the ageing trees would be there for much longer than any of the throngs of people feverishly taking their strained selfies.
Near to the Dark Hedges a hotel has appeared and the area has been regenerated to make it more tourist-friendly. Although a recent ban on cars driving through the road has caused some controversy. But if it will protect the trees from over-excited Thronies who climb all over them then what’s the harm?
‘GoT’ has boosted tourism in Northern Ireland and local entrepreneurs have jumped onto the bandwagon hoping to get a piece of the action. An annual ‘Game of Thrones’ festival has also sprouted up, giving people the chance to experience life in Winterfell, the Stark homestead, which is located just outside Belfast.
After visiting the Dark Hedges, my gusto for ‘GoT’ grew and I headed to Belfast city centre, where I tried to hunt down some of the stars who have been spotted in the city while the series was filming. But despite my enthusiastic efforts asking various strangers walking the streets if they’d seen anyone from the show, I failed to get a glimpse of the silver-haired Emilia Clarke or the charming Peter Dinklage.
My only hope now is to book myself a ticket for the Winterfell festival in September and continue my journey through the TV screen as the final season airs.
In Northern Ireland, there are lots of opportunities to immerse yourself in the wonderful world of Westeros through the many locations across the region, bringing Winterfell, Castle Black and King’s Landing to life.
Check out the Discover Northern Ireland website for information on all the fantastic places to visit. And maybe you can discover something from the series yourself.
No doubt we’ve got more Westeros to come in the form of prequels, spin-offs, perhaps a few more movies, but there’s nothing like wandering through the rugged terrain that has inspired and continues to inspire countless writers, artists and visitors. Come and wander with me.
'Game of Thrones' touring exhibition come to Belfast
Rally the Realm! The highly-anticipated ‘Game of Thrones: The Touring Exhibition’, including two-never-seen before sets, has arrived at TEC Belfast for its debut visit to the UK and Ireland. The dramatic exhibition features costumes, authentic props and settings from all seven seasons, as well as the Winterfell Crypt and Dragon Skull Pit, which have been exclusively added for Northern Ireland.
Running Until September, fans can have an up-close and personal look at the ancient dragon skulls, ranging in size from about that of an apple to the one belonging to Balerion the Dread, which decorated the throne room in the Red Keep until King Robert Baratheon had them hidden away in the catacombs. Visitors can also see publicly for the first time the vast and sacred crypt of Winterfell, guarded by stone direwolves, to pay their respects to six of the Stark ancestors as well as explore the settings and view artefacts from ‘The wintry landscapes of the North’ to ‘The frozen lands Beyond the Wall’ and ‘the Iron Throne Room’. Tickets are available on gameofthronesexhibition.co.uk.