Takeaway

One for the Thronies

Ashwin Rajagopalan | Updated on January 20, 2018

Dark Hedges in Antrim   -  Ashwin Rajagopalan

Castle Ward in Belfast   -  Tourism Northern Ireland

A trail in Northern Ireland is tantalising for Game of Thrones addicts

An eerie silence fills the air as dark clouds gather on the horizon. I’m in Castle Ward near Belfast, where I’m greeted with a replica of the Longclaw sword. Game of Thrones ( GoT) fans (aka Thronies) know all about this sword but I’m not sure they will recognise the gentleman who has placed this dummy sword to my neck. He thinks he is Jon Snow and helms one of the GoT trails in the area. This is where it all began. Local legend has it that the first episode was filmed here after the HBO production team reworked an old tower structure, added temporary structures and CGI (computer generated imagery) to create Winterfell. The temporary structures have disappeared but the influx of Thronies hit the tipping point in 2015. The tourism potential of a GoT trail only took off around Easter 2015 when Season 5 premiered and, almost overnight, fans arrived from as far and wide as the Philippines and Japan.

Castle Ward is almost always the first stop to let off some steam — pose with cloaks and swords, or click those mandatory selfies before setting out on a quieter path. The area around Castle Ward itself has some of these quieter spots — such as Audley’s field used as a location for Rob Stark’s camp or River Quoile used extensively for battle scenes.

The show has used other stunning locations in Morocco, Croatia, Iceland and Spain, but it’s Northern Ireland’s array of locations that prompted the production team to set up base here. Titanic Studios (near the massive Titanic museum) in Belfast is now one of Northern Ireland’s most closely guarded sites. It’s here that most of the indoor sequences were filmed and where the rumour mills about the plot start to churn before every ensuing season. I’m at the legendary Duke of York whiskey bar and the conversation eventually drifts to GoT; the impact of the show around Belfast is incredible. Almost everyone I bump into knows someone who has starred in the show because most of the supporting cast are from the area. Kristian Nairn (plays Hodor) used to be the resident DJ of Kremlin, a gay club in Belfast, while Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark) also calls the city home. I also run into two Chicagoans who’ve never watched the series but are doing the trail for a simple reason — stunning, photogenic locations.

I meet them again the next afternoon along the instantly recognisable Dark Hedges. The Stuart family planted an avenue full of beech trees in the 18th century with the intention of creating an impressive pathway to Gracehill House, their stately mansion. Over the years this avenue earned its haunting moniker, making it ‘sinister’ enough to become the setting for ‘Kings Road’ in the show.

Not all the sights along the trail are outdoors. It’s customary for fans to make a stop at Steensons, a boutique jewellery house in Glenarm that has crafted some of the show’s iconic jewellery (including King Joffrey’s intricately designed crown). This jeweller has just moved into a larger location, where visitors can watch the Steensons team at work.

It’s the trail’s coastal locations that truly shine. There’s Murlough Bay with clear views of Rathlin Island (the same island where Scotland’s King Bruce is supposed to have sought inspiration from a persevering spider to regain his kingdom in 1314) and the Stormlands, Cushendun caves that were formed over a period of 400 million years, thanks to extreme weather conditions. These caves formed the backdrop for the famous scene in Season 2 where Melisandre gives birth to a ‘shadow’ baby.

There’s the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, a lifeline for local salmon farmers for centuries in the Stormlands area, that was the setting for Renly Baratheon’s camp in Season 2. I spot a Bushmills sign that results in a brilliant detour — the home of the world’s oldest whiskey distillery (1608); after a quick shot of their 10-year-old, it’s time to make one last stop at Ballintoy, one of the region’s oldest working fishing harbours. Ballintoy wasn’t retouched too much to become Lordsport harbour, part of the Iron Islands.

Most of the locations are spread around a relatively small footprint of the trail, letting you drive at your own pace and make your own discoveries. But there’s Belmore forest on the Western coast that’s some distance away. Billy (my guide for the day) suggests I leave that for my next trip. I agree on the condition that we drive back via the Dark Hedges just before sunset. He obliges.

Ashwin Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based travel and lifestyle writer



Travel log

Getting there

Belfast is connected by frequent flights from London. It’s two hours from Dublin by train.

Getting around

You can join one of the Game of Thrones tours

( www.discovernorthernireland.com)

or hire a car and do your own exploring (your Indian licence works).

Stay

The Malmaison ( www.malmaison.com) in Belfast was an old seed warehouse that has been converted into one of the most fashionable hotels in the city.

BLink Tip

Do deviate from the trail to visit Giant’s Causeway, a complex grid of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns caused by volcanic eruptions (mostly hexagonal in shape).



Published on April 01, 2016

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