Thursday 18 July 2019

When Northern Ireland becomes Westeros: On the Game of Thrones trail

Jason Kennedy

With dragons, a massive ice wall and exotic, far-flung landscapes, it would be understandable to assume that the massively popular television show Game of Thrones is filmed somewhere far away from our shores.

In reality, a lot of the fictional land of Westeros is filmed only a few hours away in Northern Ireland, where the beautiful natural landscape plays a part in itself.

Earlier this week, Game of Thrones: The Exhibit launched in Belfast's Waterfront, where it will remain until June 15. The exhibition, which sold out in around two hours, homes props, clothes and armoury from all seasons of the HBO show, as well as offering people the chance to get a picture taken on the coveted iron throne.

The free event also allows people to try oculus technology, a virtual reality simulator which was recently purchased by Facebook for a huge amount of money. Fans of the show are immediately placed on The Wall, a massive icy structure depicted in the show when they put the goggles and earphones on. Fireballs and arrows whizz by their head as they try to keep their cool during the eerily realistic experience.

At the exhibit's launch four of the actors popped along to meet fans and visit the attraction themselves. Actress Sibel Kekilli who plays Shea said returning to Belfast for the exhibit is like coming home.

"It's absolutely [like a second home now]. I've been here four years," she said.

One of the show's executive producer's Frank Doelger also gushed over Northern Ireland.

"I can't imagine any other city or any other area where we could have done this show. Anything we throw at Northern Ireland, they deliver. It's really been a wonderful experience," he said.

"I think that everything this region has to offer has greatly benefited the look and the feel to the show."

Northern Ireland tourism has really capitalised on the GoT phenomenon that has taken the world by storm.

Castle Ward is a UK National Trust property not far from Strangford in Co Down. The reclusive area, which is open to the public, played the role of numerous locations in the hit show, but it is probably best known as Winterfell.

Home to the show's main protagonists, Winterfell is the first location we really get to know on Game of Thrones. The main action in season one takes place here. Tourists who venture to Castle Ward these days are now treated to the genuine Game of Thrones experience.

The guides at Castle Ward's on-site Clear Sky adventure centre treat their guests to archery similar to that on the show and prepare meals straight from Game of Thrones cook book and yes, that is a real thing. From there, cycling tours take fans to filming locations on the ground and grounds of nearby Tullymore forest. Eagle-eyed viewers may recognise points where the dire wolves were found, where the Starks first heard about their patriarch's death and where Bran was pushed from atop a tower.

There are similarities being drawn between Northern Ireland and Game of Thrones and New Zealand and Lord of the Rings. Locals are hoping that the tourism Peter Jackson's trilogy brought to NZ will be mirrored in Down and Antrim.

Earlier this month, it was revealed that Game of Thrones is HBO's most viewed series of all time, with an average of 18.4 million viewers per episode. This figure does not count the vast amount of illegal downloads and streaming websites that people use to watch the show.

It's looking like Northern Ireland is onto a winner.

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Irish Independent

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