The Game of Thrones effect - how Belfast became the new Hollywood
Superfans and LA producers have flocked to Belfast since the hit HBO showcased its spectacular environs
Would you like a Game of Thrones wedding? You’re not alone – Winterfell Castle in County Down has had dozens of enquiries from wannabe Sansas and Joffreys wanting to tie the knot in its grounds.
It already does Thrones-themed stag dos and hen parties, which are especially popular with English brides- and grooms-to-be. This year ten couples even got engaged there. “Typically they have the costumes on and propose in the courtyard with the castle as a backdrop,” says Andrew Porter, Managing Director of Winterfell Tours.
"Winterfell Castle" is actually Castle Ward, a National Trust property with a historic farmyard that doubles as Winterfell in the hit HBO series. It’s also the location of the Whispering Wood and Robb Stark’s camp, and was the backdrop for the brutal Baelor battle.
Downhill Beach in Londonderry doubled as Dragonstone in Game of Thrones
Porter first sniffed an opportunity when a group of people approached him shortly after the first series aired, asking where the filming had taken place. “There was a couple that had travelled from Anchorage in Alaska. That was the first tip-off that there was an interest in coming out to visit these locations. Ever since that day, the momentum has gathered and more and more people are coming.”
Last year, Castle Ward attracted 10,000 visitors; in 2015 that figure has more than doubled. The most common nationalities are Americans, Canadians and Australians, although Asian fans have also made the trip. Castle Ward’s “glamping pods” – which allow fans to sleep in the "Winterfell" forest – are particularly popular with the US market. “We’ve had people that have booked the pods before their flights because they want to secure the date.”
Castle Ward is just one of the many unofficial Game of Thrones attractions that have mushroomed in Northern Ireland. Viewers who want to see the ancient forests, Jurassic coastline and caves that have cameos in the show can choose from a variety of coach tours, cycle trails or treks (Iron Born cloaks, swords and shields are provided at no extra cost). Those with a taste for role-play can try archery, dragon-boat racing, horse-riding or feasting at a medieval banquet.
An avenue of beeches known as The Dark Hedges in County Antrim is where Ayra Stark made her escape from King's Landing in series two
“Certainly it is a growing phenomenon,” says Judith Webb, of Tourism Northern Ireland. “Over the last three years, we’ve really seen the tourism industry responding to the market demand. We now promote over 20 visitor experiences based on Game of Thrones, and that’s grown from zero. The indications are that the business will continue to grow.”
But it’s not just enterprising tour operators that have benefited from the Game of Thrones effect. Ten years ago, Northern Ireland didn’t even possess a film studio. Now it has three, and regularly has Hollywood producers knocking at the door.
“On the back of Game of Thrones, the industry globally sat up and took notice,” explains Moyra Lock, Head of Marketing, Communications and Audiences at Northern Ireland Screen. “It really cemented our reputation and it gave the industry confidence that we could deliver a large-scale television show, which has grown into the biggest show in the world.”
Castle Ward in County Down is the home of Winterfell
Lock says that one of the chief attractions is that Northern Ireland has a wealth of stunning natural backdrops coupled with the fact that it’s “tiny” – about a tenth of the size of England. “It's very compact, which is very attractive for filming because if you base yourself in Belfast, the variety of locations within half an hour to an hour’s drive is tremendous. Productions like that because it cuts down on logistics, resources and costs.”
Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller and Charlie Hunnam were recently in town to shoot a film by Brad Pitt’s production company The Lost City of Z, while Jamie Dornan is currently back on home turf to film a third series of The Fall. As a result, it isn't just Game of Thrones fans descending on Belfast these days.
“There have been more paparazzi in Northern Ireland this year than ever before! We’ve never had paparazzi. No, seriously, we never have. It’s all very strange to us. It gives people something nice and positive to write because we have had a past and this is a whole different story about Northern Ireland.”