The eighth and final Game of Thrones series opens Sunday April 14.
We were on a quest to a spooky place, deep in the countryside. Night was closing in. Malign forces were messing with our satnav. Or were we just out of signal?
The clammy Northern Ireland mist did not help. Now, what did she say? First on the left, and turn right? Or right, then first left?
A little bewildered huddle of true devotees, caught in our headlights, was the give-away. They stood at the entrance to the ancient tunnel of entangling beech trees. This is the Dark Hedges. one of the prime stops on the Game of Thrones circuit.
I would love to have been in the car with the HBO location scouts when they first set eyes on this eerie and magical spot. Today millions who will never come here, and the thousands who do, will know it as the King’s Road, where Arya is captured in Season 2, episode 1. Everybody else need only marvel at it as a famous landmark, planted 300 years by the Stuart family to mark the entrance to Gracehill House.
The Dark Hedges was the appropriate place to end the first day of our Game of Thrones-themed Northern Ireland tour. We began in Belfast, 60 miles to the south, where they film interior sequences for the series in one of Europe’s largest film studios. It stands next to the Titanic Belfast, opened in 2012 as the province’s first big 21st Century tourist attraction, to commemorate the city’s great ship building history, and the ill-fatted vessel built here.
Game of Thrones is an international TV phenomenon, and it has the budget to film at strange and wonderful locations anywhere it pleases. It has found them in Iceland, in Croatia, in Spain. But it is the castles, woods, lakes, forests, mountains and moorlands scattered across the four corners of the six counties, that keep drawing the production team back to Northern Ireland.
This is the travel phenomenon of our times. Only New Zealand, promoting the locations where Lord of the Rings was made, can boast as much film-generated tourism.
Let me confess. I have never seen a single episode, or read a word of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels on which the series is based. And I don’t think it matters a jot. So even if you know nothing of Sansa and Littlefinger, of Jorah and Tyrion, and can’t tell the Sept of Baelor from the Frostfangs, follow the tourist board’s copious directions to Game of Thrones locations, and you will still take in a powerful mixture of landscape, little ports, wide sandy beaches, and ancient buildings, just as they are, free of fantasy.
Driving north out of Belfast, our first destination had been Glenarm. This is one of the string of drowsy little ports on the east and north coasts, sheltering under the Antrim Hills. On our visit all was still, save for a single seal patrolling the little harbour. The beautiful 18th Century walled garden in the grounds of Glenarm Castle was a bonus. They gave us the famous Northern Ireland warm welcome in Steensons Jewellers, where they make the brooches for the series.
Just to the north is Cushendun. This pretty village was once the terminus for the shortest ferry crossing from Scotland (14 miles). Today much of it is in the care of the National Trust.
It was designed by architect Clough Williams-Ellis in 1912. He has his own link to TV fantasy, as the creator of Portmerion in N Wales, the setting for the perplexing series The Prisoner.
On the north-facing coast, Game of Thrones filmed on the immense empty beaches. Portstewart Strand and Murlough Bay are wide and golden, but Downhill, an endless sweep of sand stretching all the way to the Foyle Estuary is the leading lady – it is Dragonstone in the series. There is space for an army of fans. even in high summer.
Nowhere is far away in N. Ireland. A drive of a few hours drive took us to the deep south west, to County Fermanagh. Game of Thrones came filming in Pollnagollum Cave, recently designated as part of the UNESCO Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark. We skipped the subterranean darkness and played our alternative Game of Stones, tracking down the C6th (two-faced) Janus stone in a quiet churchyard on Boa Island. Our most spectacular find was the C12th round tower on Devenish Island at Enniskillen.
Best of all were the mighty views from the hills above Lough Erne, which is as wide and beautiful as any water in the Lake District but so little known. Sheltered among the mountains, it was the ideal safe base during the war for the RAF Catalina flying boats that protected the Atlantic convoys. It was an ideal location, too, for the G8 world leaders, who met at the secluded Lough Erne Resort.
On our last day we drove back the east coast, to the quiet countryside 30 miles south of Belfast, around the foothills of the Mourne Mountains. There are enough Games locations here to detain and please the most besotted fan, as well as the uninitiated non-watcher. Tollymore Forest Park, for example, performs that dual purpose. It could be the Haunted Forest, home of the dreaded White Walker; or just a wonderful place where you find some of the finest decorative trees on the island, on the foothills of the Mournes.
Further north, on the banks of Strangford Lough, is Castle Ward, one of many fine National Trust stately homes in the province. It struck touristic gold when it was chosen as the setting for Winterfell in the series.
Inch Abbey is not far away. Magnificent and empty among the intense green hills below Belfast, it was our last stop. They filmed Rob Stark’s camp here. But, for once, fact trumps fiction. The abbey had a role in the real life Game of Thrones. Who reduced it to a ruin? Our very own Henry VIII.
Gareth travelled to Northern Ireland on Stena Line from Cairnryan to Belfast.