If the Finn McCool’s tour on Day 1 of my Game of Thrones location vacation was a sightseeing experience suitable for both Game of Thrones fans and regular people, the Game of Thrones Tours trek to Winterfell on Day 2 was for hardcore fans only. The first indication this was going to be a different experience was the bus, which was painted black and grey with the show’s logo across the front windshield; it looked like a regional transit vehicle for The Wall. The second was our tour guide Lar, who looked like he’d just stepped out of a wildling camp, and was in fact a wildling extra on the series. Whereas the previous day’s tour guide presented basic commentary about Irish history and culture, Lar’s narrative was all Game of Thrones from the get-go.
The opening theme was playing as people got settled on the bus, setting the mood for the day and making me thankful I’d saved my House Stark t-shirt to wear on this tour. After some welcoming comments, Lar passed around a lunch order form for our midday stop at The Lobster Pot in Strangford Village (I ordered the Winterfell venison sausages, because when in Westeros…), and assured us he would send a raven to ensure our food would be ready by the time we got there.
As on the day before, it was about a 2-hour drive to the first location. That time was filled with behind-the-scenes videos and a trivia game called “Brain of Thrones.” The people with the top five scores would receive a reward at the end of the tour, so the competition was fierce. I tied for fifth place with 7 out of 10 correct answers, which was disappointing, but still a respectable showing, I felt, considering the fanaticism of this particular group.
Our first stop was Tollymore National Forest Park. Upon exiting the bus we were presented with a breathtaking vista of dewy, sun-dappled mountains looming above the treetops. And if that wasn’t gratifying enough, Lar then gave each of us our very own Night’s Watch cloak to wear for the day. After we were all properly suited up, 50-plus Jon Snows set off down a picturesque path (as far as I was able to ascertain, pretty much everything in the Northern Ireland countryside is picturesque) and into the forest on the way to the first filming location site.
After hiking past bubbling streams and waterfalls and through a mossy stone tunnel or two, we arrived at the site of the Haunted Forest, where Will discovers the decimated wildling camp in the opening scene of the first episode. The trees that comprised the Haunted Forest towered above us, shutting out the sun and creating a spooky, atmospherically appropriate gloaming. Like yesterday’s tour guide Tara, Lar used visual aids to help anchor what we were seeing in the world of Game of Thrones. In this case, he pointed out a jagged tree stump, then produced a tablet where he played the scene of Will riding through the Haunted Forest past that very tree stump.
Lar next drew our attention to a circular pit, which was where the White Walkers laid out the wildling corpses in their then-mysterious, now-familiar spiral pattern. He played the scene, in which it was clear by certain landmarks that we were indeed witnessing the site of the wildling slaughter.
Having been an extra on the series for years, Lar was a font of behind-the-scenes information; he explained how the production brought in reams of biodegradable paper and ran it through shredding machines to blanket the forest with “snow.” Then we all clambered atop the wall ringing the pit for a group photo—there would be a lot of group photos taken throughout the day.
Just down the slope from the wildling pit was the location where Jon Snow and Tyrion had their heart-to-heart on the way to The Wall. Lar pointed out the stump Kit Harington sat on during the scene and a few of us, including myself, sat on it. So now I can say I sat on the same stump Kit Harington sat on. I guess we’re cosmically connected now—sorry, Rose Leslie.
After leaving that site, we continued to the bridge where Ned Stark and company come upon the dead stag in the premiere episode, and the streambed just below it where they discover the direwolf pups. Aside from being the location of one of the best scenes ever, it is beautiful in its own right. Again, Lar played the corresponding scene as we viewed the site, so it was easy to mentally immerse yourself into those iconic moments of the series.
That was our last stop in Tollymore National Forest Park, so we headed back to the bus. All in all, it was a 4 kilometer (about 2.5 mile) trek with a steep descent/incline, and tripping hazards like protruding rocks and tree roots, so wear the proper footwear if you’re planning to go on this tour. And those Jon Snow cloaks are heavy, so take that into consideration as well.
Back on the bus, we drove through County Down, past Downpatrick Cathedral where St. Patrick is buried, and on to Strangford, the Lobster Pot, lunch and the DIREWOLVES! The real Grey Wind and Summer (aka Thor and Odin) were there to greet us outside the restaurant, but we had to wait to meet them until the Belfast contingent of the tour had had their chance. After lunch (the Winterfell venison sausages were delicious, but the mashed potatoes were suspiciously similar to instant in consistency and flavor), everyone went outside where Grey Wind and Summer’s owner explained how his puppies came to be featured in Game of Thrones.
One day he got a call from an American company called HBO, of which he had never heard, inquiring about using his puppies for a new series. Since they would put him up in Belfast while they trained the dogs, and pay him for it, it was a win-win. The dogs are not actually wolves, but Northern Inuits—the closest breed to a wolf you can have without a license. When the puppies arrived in Belfast the production was not sure they’d be big enough by filming time to represent direwolves, so they made little hair shirts for them to wear so they could appear bigger, just in case. It turns out the puppies grew enough so they didn’t need the shirts, but since there is no such thing as insignificant Game of Thrones trivia (is insignificant trivia redundant?), there it is.
Not only were this guy’s dogs in Game of Thrones, the series has become a cottage industry for his entire family. He and his two brothers are all extras, and his father is a Dothraki slave lord. While waiting our turn to have our pictures taken with Summer and Grey Wind, the father entertained us with filming stories and a scrapbook featuring private photos of some of the actors and other memorabilia from the various sets he’d worked on.
Summer and Grey Wind were obviously seasoned professionals, patiently enduring photo ops and languidly accepting affection from a busload of strangers. The dogs may take their celebrity status in stride, but for a lowly fan like me, getting to pet them and have my picture taken with them was a highlight of the trip. And I may finally be able to not cover my ears during that scene from the Red Wedding where Grey Wind issues that awful, strangled yelp now that I know for sure he’s alive and well.
From there it was on to Winterfell, or Castle Ward, as the locals refer to it. The show version of Winterfell involves a lot of CGI. But thanks to Lar’s trusty tablet, we could clearly identify the stone arch Robert Baratheon and his party pass through in the series premiere, as well as the tower beside it.
HBO has since built a Winterfell set at Moneyglass, Northern Ireland and doesn’t use Castle Ward anymore, but the original arch and tower remain part of the exterior. Another interesting tidbit from Lar: before the series aired, HBO couldn’t know how it would be received, so when filming seasons 1 and 2 they tried to save money where they could. That is why so many National Trust sites are featured in the series. Unfortunately, the production caused so much damage to Castle Ward that HBO got a huge bill from the National Trust and figured it would be more cost-effective to build its own Winterfell.
From Winterfell, we embarked on a 3 kilometer (not quite 2 mile) trek through the Riverlands, home to Robb Stark’s camp, the Twins (Audley’s Castle), and the spot where Brienne metes out “two quick deaths” and one slow one to Stark soldiers as she and Jaime are traveling to King’s Landing.
The “river” in the Riverlands is not really a river but an inland sea, and we followed a meandering wooded path to get there. The site of Robb’s camp could have been just a simple, sleepy meadow, but it came to life after viewing a couple of scenes on Lar’s tablet. Even with all the horses, CGI tents and actors, the landscape itself was discernible as being the backdrop for the scenes. The visual aids were especially effective on this tour, as so many of the locations were marked by a tree here, a stump there, or a tower where the finished product was majorly digitally enhanced. None of that mattered, because you really got the feeling of standing where the actors stood and being amidst the iconic sites of the series.
The last stop was Inch Abbey, a crumbling 12th or 13th century monastery made extra-romantic since we arrived at dusk. This was where Robb was proclaimed King in the North, and nearby is the tree he beat with his sword after learning of Ned’s execution. This site was also the culmination of the day’s nerd experience. Before we walked to the Abbey, Lar distributed swords to everyone. Most of them were just basic swords, but remember the rewards promised the “Brain of Thrones” quiz winners? The top five got to choose from replicas from the show, including Ice, Needle and Longclaw. I would have chosen Oathkeeper, but alas, it wasn’t an option, so I deferred to the other fifth-place person (who happened to be my seatmate, and no, we didn’t cheat).
With everyone armed and cloaked, we made the short trek to the Abbey where we re-enacted the “King in the North” scene, and with that bit of nerd heaven dispatched with, it was time to head back to Dublin.
Lar played Episodes 1 and 2 from season 1 during the return trip, and watching them was a whole new, enhanced experience after seeing so many of the locations throughout the day. I have to give major credit to our bus driver, who not only got us safely home after barreling along tiny, twisty roads all day in a giant tour bus, but managed to navigate several impossibly narrow, medieval entrance gates to the various sites.
To sum up, both the Finn McCool’s and Game of Thrones Tours experiences were well worth it. The former provided a more general sightseeing excursion, even though it was chock full of Game of Thrones locations and information; the latter was a dork extravaganza chock full of stunning Northern Ireland scenery. Since each tour had its own character and itinerary, I recommend doing both if you can, but if you only have time for one, either is sure to please.
One more thing—as you’re traveling up the M1 Motorway, pay attention to the road signs, which simply state that you’re heading to “The North.”