The new season of Game of Thrones is almost upon us, and while we wait for this year’s deaths, we visit some of the show’s prime shooting locales in the magnificent countryside of Northern Ireland and realise that it has more than enough to enthrall, even if you aren’t a fan. For Throners, it’s a pilgrimage
Words: ANJUMAN DEODHAR
Photographs: VINOBHA NATHAN
I must admit that before I went to Northern Ireland, I wasn’t a huge Game of Thrones fan. I’d seen a few episodes of Season 1, but the bug hadn’t bit. In fact, I was a lot more excited about the possibility of bumping into an ex-IRA member or two than visiting GoT locations. All those shenanigans over the Iron Throne seemed a bit much to me. Sure, the abrupt killing-off of characters that seem integral to the plot scored big on shock value, and any story that has dragons and naked women can’t be all bad, can it?
By the time I got back, I was hooked. And it wasn’t just the frenzy surrounding the show that had made me a convert. Sure, I came across some serious Throners while I was there. But more than that, it was the places I had visited that made all the difference. Like I said, I’d seen a few episodes. But to visit the exact same place where Ned Stark found the Direwolf puppies, or to dress up as Jon Snow and shoot a longbow at Winterfell, well, that was surreal!
Northern Ireland is breathtaking even without the GoT connection, with the myriad shades of green that make up its countryside, dramatic cliffs that fall into the pounding Atlantic, and scads of castles, and I was even more curious to find out what Benioff and Weiss – the show’s creators – had done with the rest of the places I visited. So, before sitting down to write, I watched every episode of every season – close to 50 hours of TV-watching under the pretext of research. Talk about dedication to the job.
We’d started out at Tollymore Forest Park, the Haunted Forest from where the White Walkers appear in the very first episode. And what a place it is! I’m not much of a city kind of guy. Take me out into the countryside, and, almost immediately, I’ve got a stupid smile plastered on my face. And there I was, on my very first day in Northern Ireland, 40 miles south of Belfast at the foothills of the Mourne Mountains, walking over a carpet of leaves on paths meandering through 1,600 acres of dense forest. The Tollymore Estate was built in the mid-18th century and has some of the oldest trees in all of Ireland. A magnificent avenue of Himalayan cedars lines the entrance to the park, with an imposing Gothic arch complete with turrets and everything. There are ash, beech, birch and willow, just to name a few. Soon Vinobha, our intrepid photog, wandered off somewhere, presumably to get the ‘perfect’ shot of one of the many wooden bridges that span the Shimna River, and our guide Diedra went off looking for him. I found myself all alone in the forest, with just the gentle gurgle of the river and the lilting calls of invisible birds for company. Even if I was told that this was all I’d be doing in Northern Ireland, I wouldn’t have complained. But we were just getting started! After a leisurely lunch of seafood chowder in the sleepy village of Strangford, I found myself in yet another vast expanse of natural beauty and heritage architecture at Castle Ward.
This is one of my favourite things about Ireland – that there’s so much history in evidence wherever you go. It’s one thing going to a museum and poring over artefacts, but seeing old castles and tower houses dating back to Norman times still standing in the exact same place as they have for centuries is something entirely different. Sure, some are a bit crumbly – like Dunluce Castle, which looks like it could drop off into the sea at any moment, but most are surprisingly well preserved. And they’re surrounded by acres of meadow that cover the gently undulating hillsides. The Irish countryside is truly special.
Anjuman and Vinobha wandered through Northern Ireland with a vengeance, seeking out GoT locations and just plain beautiful destinations – and they came back awestruck! Get the rest of their exploration in the February 2016 issue of Lonely Planet Magazine India. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.