My Week In Westeros: Behind The Scenes On ‘Game Of Thrones’
We took a minibus around the Seven Kingdoms and still couldn't find Kit Harington.
The mouth of the Irish Sea is stretched out to my right, glistening like a fresh oil painting, and there’s a small herd of goats to the left. A thicket of lush forest stands before me, and behind is a chorus of young Europeans singing out variations of “this is lovely” (the British accent is implied), “woah“, and “a duck!”. A bike tour is a lot to ask from someone who has recently got off a 24-hour flight but, if it’s going to happen, these are the right circumstances.
Five minutes in, my tour guide swings around to a stop and whips a laminated A3 photo from his backpack. “Just here,” he says, carefully aligning the picture with the sun-dappled clearing before me and seven other writers. He’s beaming. “Just here is where Brienne killed the rapers!”
He points to a tree — a serpentine old oak, with one languid branch draped over us — and traces the outline of the real thing to the photo. His finger rests on the body of a woman hanging by the neck; she’s one of three victims of both sexual assault and murder from a scene in the second season of Game of Thrones. Everyone grins with recognition. A few take photos. For a moment we just bask in it — the silence only broken by the gentle paddling of a family rowing past on the lough.
The guide then flips his bag back on, wraps the presentation with a conclusive “awesomesauce”, and leads us into the forest. The sunshine is slightly harder to see from there on out.
Welcome to Westeros
Game of Thrones has been around for two decades, first as the book series, then the HBO drama, but the past couple of years have also seen it take off as a fully-fledged tourism industry. Thousands of the estimated 23 million people who watch each episode (not counting the substantial torrents) are now making the trek to the show’s filming locations, to the exhibitions, to the studios — to see where the magic happens.
My bike tour is one of many GoT-themed activities offered in Northern Ireland. NI is arguably less exciting than the other locations in Spain, Iceland, Croatia, Malta and Morocco, but it is the show’s heartland. HBO have organised the trip for me and 17 other international journos to focus exclusively on old filming sites.
It says a lot about where Game of Thrones sits in 2016. This is a show with such unprecedented prestige and popularity, it can comfortably fly entertainment reporters from all around the world to explore its past while choosing to simultaneously obstruct them from its present.
Despite filming being underway around Belfast, season seven is kept painfully out of reach. Crew are bound by confidentiality agreements. Cast are unavailable for interview. On one particularly cruel day, our tour bus is veered in the opposite direction of covert pink signs pointing to current filming lots. Later, there’s a tip Kit Harington is staying in my hotel. I’m expected to sleep with the knowledge he could literally be laying next door.
As strange as it may seem, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Game of Thrones doesn’t let critics preview episodes anymore because of leaks; its loyal book lovers have been left at a loss with the on-screen world finally overtaking George RR Martin’s words; the “death” of a major character last year led to a worldwide manhunt. The act of loving Game of Thrones has become as dramatic as the show itself, and everyone striving for peak fandom — researching fan theories, arguing about spoilers in comments sections, performing the ritual debrief with friends each Tuesday morning — has finally found themselves on a level playing field.
This is what I’m thinking as I watch a keen journalist from a long-running London mag navigate the algae-sodden steps of Carnlough Harbour. It’s is the first stop of our tour, it’s windy as hell, and we’re in a small village 50 minutes north of Belfast — one green highway east of Liam Neeson’s hometown.
“This location was used for a scene in season six where Arya escapes the Waif,” a rep from Northern Ireland Screen tells us with pride. “After being stabbed, she jumps in to the water from a bridge in Spain and emerges here to climb up the steps.”
We all exchange stories about our favourite scenes from that season, our favourite characters, and how we started following the series. Then we strategise. How do we curate and stagger Facebook and Instagram posts to get maximum likes from our mates? I don’t know if this one ever makes the cut.
A Minibus across the Seven Kingdoms
Despite being filmed across several countries, the sprawling seven kingdoms of Westeros feel oddly intimate in Northern Ireland. The Braavosi steps of Carnlough are 30 minutes up the road from Cushendun, home to the seaside caves of Storm’s End where Melisandre gave birth to the shadow baby (not its official name) that killed Renly Baratheon in season two. Another 30 minutes west, you can find the Dark Hedges — a surreal rural trail lined with grand intertwining trees or, as it’s otherwise known, the Kingsroad leading to Winterfell.
Slightly north of that is Larrybane Quarry. In the show, it’s been used as both Renly’s war camp in season one and the site of the Iron Islands’ kingsmoot in season six. In real life, it’s a stunning lookout with cliffs that look hand-sculpted from granite, GoT fans with selfie sticks, and a notorious rope bridge that people frequently get stuck on.
As I stood for this photo, in the spot Yara got undercut in the Iron Islands’ election by her brother Euron, someone nearby offered direction. “Think of feminism in Westeros!”
We knock all this over in just a few hours — it could even be done via GoT-themed pub crawl — then head to Ballintoy (the Iron Islands), Tullymoore Forest (the woods around Winterfell) and Portstewart Strand (the sandy stretches that get Jamie and Bronn to Dorne in season five) for fish and chips.
Along the way, there’s great insight into how these places were used — getting ‘snow’ on the forest floor for the show’s first episode took a total of 10 weeks, they shot one extended scene, then underwent clean up for another 10 weeks! — but some of the most fascinating things are in the details of how the sites stand today.
The long path to Ballintoy Harbour winds around a hill and piercing screams carry over the slope we walk down. A 1940s-style wedding car rounds the corner carrying a young bride and groom who wave, but there are no guests or crowds in sight. As we get closer to the water, I see a dozen young men leaping into the water in their underwear. They’re laughing and swearing; definitely a more light-hearted tribute to the Drowned God than Theon and Euron performed in the same spot.
Pyke and the Iron Islands look much nicer in real life than they do in the show. The harbour is surrounded by towering green cliffs, the water is so clear you can see the bottom for a good couple of metres, and the sparse crowds are made up of dog walkers, small families, and lovely fans mimicking a picture of Theon in the same spot — hands on hips, cautiously surveying the shore of his homeland.
The other writers and I grab a hot drink, take a seat on the dismal park benches which face the sea, and try to find reason why there’s a little boy on the beach with a trident and red cape in early October. We talk about the show again — the love of it, the pain of waiting for new episodes, the ongoing question of how it will all end. Then there’s a moment of silence.
While the word rages outside with news of spoilers and set photos and Reddit theories all stemming from cameras on a nearby coastline, we sit inside a small shrine to the HBO drama with some wet Irish Setters, a tiny devil and a small tea shop.
Winterfell and the Real World
“This is Bolton land,” a man in a furred cloak says, throwing a handful of arrows at my feet. Jamie, an official tour guide at the Winterfell filming lot, was also an extra in the Battle of the Bastards. He takes it very seriously.
“You want to aim them nice and high — imagine there’s a Stark in your sights.” He grins. Later he’ll tell us the story of what it was like on-shoot. The producers thought it would be funny to kill him with “an arrow up the arse” and he lay face down in the mud for most of it, but he couldn’t be more proud.
Jamie is one of the many people I meet on this trip who really loves their job. He works at Winterfell Tours — a now-extremely popular site for tours and activities based around Castle Ward (Winterfell), Inch Abbey (Robb Stark’s warcamp), and Audley’s Castle (the home of Walder Frey) — with James and William. James is the bike tour guide whose conversations include talk of “rapers” and things being “awesomesauce”. William is, according to pin on his cloak, “the Lord of Winterfell”.
After the archery — I came second in the contest, then hid a sore back for two days — William leads us to more filming sites with an iPad in hand. He brandishes it like a jolly schoolteacher and starts a clip from the show whenever we reach a relevant castle, or stream or group of trees, reciting lines word for word under his breath. Most of these locations were used during the show’s first season; whenever Theon enters shot he holds his fist up and yells “ooooh, ya snake!”.
It’s hard to believe, but William hasn’t always been this way. His interest first piqued when the show’s popularity surged and hardcore fans started to flock to the area. He tells us the past two years have been especially huge for tourism, and the numbers reflect that. At the time of writing, Game of Thrones has brought an estimated AU$240 million into Northern Ireland. That’s a big number by any metric, but bigger still when you consider the country’s population is just 1.8 million and it has a land mass that could fit in Australia roughly 549 times.
When I talk about the other sights and attractions in the area, a local woman puts it straight: “Hope you like pubs and churches!”
This influx of cash, interest and skilled labour (the show is based out of Belfast’s Titanic Studios and there’s a priority to hire as many Irish and Northern Irish cast as possible), is all the more important to the area considering its history. Northern Ireland is historically rooted in violence and division, even more than its name may tell you. I meet people there who haven’t spoken to certain family members for decades. Others who had childhoods filled with regular bombings, murders and terrorist attacks. The Troubles have cast a black cloud over this small nation that stretches in many ways to present day.
This is something William brings up while standing in the remains of Inch Abbey — the crumbling 12th century monastic structure where Robb Stark was named King of the North in season one. He stands before us in a polyester cloak, one hand gripping his leather belt, the other resting on his side and talks slightly too the ground. “We’ve had 25-30 years of real violence that’s decimated our country, now it’s fantasy violence that’s brought us back to life.”
I don’t know if all locals would agree with that — that this show can bring anything or anyone back to life. But, looking around the horde of superfans who’ve literally travelled the world to stand before a man calling himself Lord of Winterfell, there’s no denying it brings people together.
Game of Thrones season six is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.
The writer of this post was guest of HBO.