It is difficult to avoid reference to epic fantasy series Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland these days. The guide on the Belfast tour bus proudly announced Titanic Studios in the capital’s rejuvenated docklands as the “home of Game of Thrones” and that was only the start of the Game of Thrones film locations I saw while travelling in Northern Ireland.
Right next to the shiny new Titanic Museum in Belfast, die hard GoT fans can do a tour of the studios where filming of the television series is based.
The reason for this is that a Northern Ireland government agency is pumping funding into the project and Northern Ireland is reaping the benefits as tourists flock to Game of Thrones film locations. Similarly to the boost to New Zealand tourism provided by the filming of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.
The Causeway Coast
The stunning Causeway Coast is a major drawcard for travellers in Ireland, whether or not they are fans. The Giant’s Causeway itself is a seriously photogenic natural wonder but is only the start of the appeal of this coastline, which is scattered with quaint villages, seaside towns and beautiful beaches.
The coastal village of Cushenden, with its lovely sandy beach, is also the proud owner of some seriously spooky caves where Red Priestess Melisandre of Asshai gave birth to the shadow baby.
There is more cave action at Ballintoy Harbour, which was used as the landing place on the bleak Iron Islands in series two. In actual fact Ballintoy is a colourful harbour with a charming tea shop.
They filmed the burning of the Seven on Downhill Beach near the town of Portstewart, which is a great place to stay and has many of the traditional seaside town attractions.
The Dark Hedges
A drive inland from Portstewart led to the Dark Hedges, a 200-year-old tunnel of trees that was used as the route Arya Stark took to escape King’s Landing.
Strange how a simple row of trees in the middle of nowhere can become an internationally renowned tourist attraction. The sinisterly-called ‘Dark Hedges’ in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, have become a magnet for photographers and Game of Thrones fans.
I’m sure the Stuart family who planted the trees in the 18th century never dreamed photographers would be lining up for a shot of an empty road overreached by sinewy trees.
They planted this avenue of beech trees simply as a decorative feature to impress visitors approaching their Georgian mansion Gracehill House.
Two centuries later and the fuss over a bunch of trees has been stoked by filming of fantasy series Game of Thrones here in Northern Ireland. The Dark Hedges appear in the premiere of season two. Arya Stark flees from her enemies down this spooky avenue, dressed as a boy and riding in a cart.
Wandering up Bregagh Road a lorry driver (yes this is just a normal road) stopped to say hello. Leaning out of his window he asked “Have you seen the old man?”
“I thought it was the Grey Lady we had to look out for,” I replied, referring to the solitary ghost said to haunt the area.
He grinned and wanted to know where we are from and whether we were enjoying our time in Northern Ireland. Travelling here it often felt like everyone is very keen for you to go away happy with your experience. There is no doubt tourism is important to Northern Ireland.
If you are looking for the Dark Hedges plug Bregagh Road, Ballymoney T53 8TP into your GPS and look out for the brown signs and the Gracehill Golf Club. Enjoy!
Other GoT film locations
Also near Ballymoney is the the Leslie Hill estate, used as a location during the first weeks of filming season one. The field of willows here was used in scenes from the Dothraki Sea.
Other locations in Northern Ireland include the Mourne Mountains, Castle Ward (this stands in for Winterfell), Cairncastle and Shane’s Castle. Last year I was at another GoT film location, at the gloriously medieval Doune Castle in Scotland.
And of course the other-worldly landscapes of Iceland were used for scenes ‘North of the Wall’.
Other country locations used in the Game of Thrones series so far include Essouria in Morocco, Dubrovnik in Croatia and the island of Malta. So it should be easy to combine exploration of George RR Martin’s world with travel!
by Natasha von Geldern
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