‘Nock! Draw! Loose!” our leader shouted at us. Our arrows flew, some hitting the target, others sailing over the rock wall. We were dressed in warrior garb, layers of cloth and leather, draped with a flowing black cloak and a faux fur collar. “Nock! Draw! Loose!” he commanded again. We set our arrows, drew them to our chins, and let them go.
We were at the 820-acre demesne of Castle Ward in Northern Ireland, the location of Winterfell in the wildly popular HBO “Game of Thrones” series, and home to several GoT filming sites. It’s where the pilot was first filmed in 2011. And, according to well-connected sources, it will be where the series ends.
We weren’t “Game of Thrones” fans at first, but Pam’s daughter, Sadie Wright-Ward, and daughter-in-law, Kelly Glass, got us into the often-gruesome tale of kings, queens, white walkers, direwolves, and dragons. “It’s nasty and violent,” Sadie said. “But keep watching. The storytelling is great, and there’s a lot of women power as it moves along.”
We kept watching, and are now eagerly awaiting the final season premiere, set to air April 14. The filming of the first seven seasons included about 25 locations in Northern Ireland. When we heard that more than 90 percent of the final season was also filmed here, we thought: why not explore an area we hadn’t visited before, and spend some fun time together. We flew direct from Boston to Dublin, rented a car, and headed to Castle Ward, our first stop on our DIY GoT tour.
Castle Ward is a pretty place to visit even if you’re not a “Game of Thrones” fan. There’s an 18th-century mansion, sunken gardens, and stone walls surrounding a courtyard with a 17th-century clock tower. Trails skirt expansive valleys and dense forest, overlooking Strangford Lough. We took bow-and-arrow lessons in the Winterfell archery range movie set, stood in the farmyard where Tyrion slapped Joffrey in season one, and in the spot where Lady, the direwolf belonging to Sansa, was killed.
“That was a very sad moment,” said our bearded and costumed guide, who’d worked as an extra on the set (as a member of House Bolton — boo! hiss!) “I don’t like to dwell on it. Take the men, take the women, take the kids, but everyone hates when a direwolf dies.”
That evening, we dined in a small pub in Belfast, surrounded by hairy-faced men. “Anyone with a beard got a job as an extra on the GoT set,” one local told us. “Better yet if you could ride a horse.”
The next morning, we headed north to the coast, traveling the Causeway Coast Route, considered one of the most scenic road trips in the world. It’s also home to several “Game of Thrones” filming locations. The landscape was stunning: sweeping, deep green glens butted up to the rocky shoreline, dotted with tiny fishing villages. Our first stop was the Ballygally Castle Hotel, a seaside inn and restaurant where several “Game of Thrones” crew members hung out. It was also our first Dark Hedges door sighting. The Dark Hedges is a beautiful tunnel of 18th-century beech trees, planted as an entrance to the Gracehill House in Ballymoney. “Game of Thrones” fans will recognize it as the King’s Road. In 2016, when a storm brought down some of the beech trees, the salvaged wood was used to create 10 hand-carved wooden doors representing key scenes from the show. The doors are found on pubs and restaurants throughout Northern Ireland, connecting key filming locations. The Ballygally Castle Door 9 represents the “Battle of the Bastards,” with swords and shields, and the scarred face of a direwolf. The craftsmanship was stunning.
Just up the road, we stopped at Steensons Jewellers, in the village of Glenarm. The family-owned jewelers handcrafted several of the “Game of Thrones” pieces, including Joffrey’s golden crown and Daenerys’s dragon brooches. They offer an official “Game of Thrones” collection, and we were considering purchasing a bauble or two. However, the store and workshop were closed when we got there, which probably saved us a boatload of money.
We continued to Carnlough Harbor, a pretty port on the Antrim Coast, where the fictional village of Braavos was filmed.
“This is where Arya escaped!” Sadie said, as she crawled up the small harbor steps, mimicking the scene.
A nearby interpretive sign showed scenes from the show, and explained the story: “Having been given the go-ahead by Jaqen H’ghar to kill Arya, the Waif repeatedly stabs Arya who only manages to escape by jumping off the bridge into the river. She surfaces, gasping, and crawls up the steps into the streets of Braavos.”
It was only a short distance to Cushendun; nestled at the foot of Glendun, one of the Nine Glens of Antrim, and designed in the style of a Cornish village. We stopped at Mary McBride’s for a bite to eat and a look at Door 8, representing Arya Stark’s struggles in Braavos, and her decision to return to Winterfell. After, we visited Cushendun Caves, formed over a period of 400 million years. It was a pretty coastal site; we also recognized it as the Shadow creature’s birthplace.
We were running out of time and daylight, but didn’t want to return to Belfast until we’d seen the Dark Hedges. We took a quick look at Door 7 at Gracehill House, showcasing the three-eyed ravens, and then crossed the street to the picturesque alleyway of trees. The Dark Hedges is one of the most photographed areas in Northern Ireland, and that was true even before “Game of Thrones.” It was crowded, and we struggled to get a decent photo. No matter, we happily walked the King’s Road, with the others.
“Hey, isn’t there a door in Belfast?” asked Kelly on our drive back to the city. Yep, there was: Door 10 at the Dark Horse pub, where we hoisted pints of Guinness and toasted to the upcoming season of GoT.
For more information, visit www.discovernorthernireland.com.Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.