“This is the closest you’ll ever get to Kit Harrington’s bum.” The observation is made by Aenne, our tour guide, who is gesturing to a worn tree stump among the beech trees surrounding us. Forty of us stand huddled together in plastic ponchos, November’s icy pellets of rain slowing to a sprinkle, as Aenne pulls out her book of still images to show us where and when, exactly, Kit’s bum called said stump home. My sister, Kaylee, my mom, Brenda, and I slip from the crowd to take turns grabbing a seat and posing for a photo.
I probably say “Oh, my God” a good dozen times in that moment. “Did I swivel my bum around on that stump,” I finally whisper to my sister as the group breaks off for photos and exploration of the river ahead.
This is the first stop we have made on our Game of Thrones tour through Northern Ireland: the Tollymore Forest Park in Bryansford, right outside of Newcastle and just under two hours from the tour’s origin point in Dublin. It is nearing eleven in the morning, and not thirty minutes earlier we were slipping over wet forest grounds, off the paved path, and trying both not to slide our way down or be carried away by the wind. Because of the rain, we aren’t able to don the wool cloaks provided on the tour until the afternoon; but the ponchos, handed out in the bus before braving the weather, tide us over and keep us dry.
Hiking to Westeros
The chance to travel back to a time of lords and ladies, knights and vagabonds, cloaks and castles doesn’t come around too often. So when it does, in the lens of a television phenomenon, you take it. A little Google research nine months earlier, in February, led me to this tour group; and my mom booked tickets for the family when they came over to Europe to visit me. Being one of the only things I had planned while abroad, it was certainly something to look forward to in the months ahead–and not once did it disappoint.
Aenne led us through the park, among morning runners and family strollers, down a shortcut where we couldn’t look up from the ground and had to hold out our arms in case we stumbled, and towards the Haunted Forest, featured in the pilot episode. There was a thrilling, eerie quiet humming in the air as we moved from the opening scene location to the clearing where Wildling corpses were found in their ritualistic patterns.
“If it weren’t wet out, we’d usually have ye’all lie on the ground and recreate the dismembered Wildling bodies!” Aenne said before letting us run around the area, shooting invisible arrows and taking photos at the tree where an Wildling girl’s body was pinned up.
I had already been hooked by our guide’s unshaken enthusiasm for all things Westeros, with her Game of Thrones sweatshirt and direwolf earrings; but this serious exclamation sent me over the edge. It proved the tone of our entire tour, and it didn’t make sense for it to be any other way.
Entering wilding territory
There is a certain intimacy that comes with the authenticity of this experience. The mission of this company is to provide viewers with an exciting look at the real-world settings for the television phenomenon. And they certainly don’t disappoint. Sure, you can reach these points on your own; but it’s more engaging in the fantastical realm.
If you are looking for a tour that pulls out all the stops to make this as worthwhile an experience as possible, do not pass over this one. They never let you forget the reasons you are there, spending ten hours of the day riding through the country and traipsing over hilly land with strangers: a common, fiery love for the Game. Your inner nerd will fly; there are quizzes, fun facts, behind-the-scenes footage, and lots of laughter and oooooooh-ing to be had.
At lunch, in a cozy pub off of a quiet road in Downpatrick, the homeland of St. Patrick, King Joffrey’s crown is passed around for photos.
Sometimes, (we were lucky that day!) the owners of two of the original direwolf pups of season one, Grey Wind and Summer, arrive for a meet and greet. They’re brothers who have both portrayed minor characters in the show, and their father (who was also there) was the inspiration for the giants. He flipped through a photo book of still images from the show and pictures with some of the major players. It is, in its entirety, a community, and that is something special to behold.
The tour is broken up into three major sections: the first of two three-kilometer walks through Tollymore, lunch, the second walk, and driving bookending and spaced between each. The afternoon session brought sunshine and frigid wind, allowing us to each pull on a wool cloak. It was necessary, keeping us warm as the sun creeped below the horizon and the air picked up a chill.
Where the North remembers
We were brought to the location where Brienne of Tarth killed three Stark bannermen, the castle acting as the Twins and Robb Stark’s camp before heading to Castle Ward: Winterfell. My favorite house’s castle was filled with picnic tables and cars, breaking some of the illusion but remaining true to itself. It began raining again as we stood in the place where the Starks lined up as King Robert Baratheon rode into Winterfell, so we ran off to the bathrooms or the bus (but not without a few photos first). All the while, stunning views along the water towards Castle Ward captivated me and made my head spin with its wonder.
To end the day, we stopped at Inch Abbey, where Robb Stark was declared King of the North. There, we were all allowed to take swords that Aenne offered us–I grabbed hold of Arya’s Needle–and feigned duels with one another. Kaylee took hold of Jon Snow’s Longclaw and we battled, the odds certainly in her favor.
…With time to play!
And we declared loyalty to our own King in the North: the winner of a quiz we took earlier in the day. Everyone kneeled, sword in air, and cheered for our new leader as he stood proudly in the manner of Robb. Behind him, the ruins of an abbey reached above and overlooked the greenery further away.
It is a long, long day, but one that doesn’t hit you until the first episode of season one of Game of Thrones is aired on the bus ride home and you close your eyes to find that the second episode is halfway through. It is a day that creates its own caffeine, because there is so much to see and experience that you can’t not be over the moon enthusiastic.
Verdict: DO IT
If the direwolf pups haven’t sold you, I don’t know what will. But if you are a fan in any capacity of the show, you will not be disappointed. Getting to chance to see locations in the context in which they were filmed, alongside entertaining theatrics and a CGI 101, was insanely cool. If I could do it again and again, I would. Seriously. Harsh morning weather was the least of our problems, as we were led through scenes and moments that many of us have experienced on the screen.
You Don’t Need to Watch the Show to Love the Tour
Seriously. As I mentioned before, only my mom, my sister and I like the show; but who doesn’t appreciate a meander along wooded paths, from whose break in the trees can be seen rugged greenery, rushing rivers, castles rising in the distance? What lies at the heart of the scenery rushing past is Northern Ireland and its stunning greenery. Here, nature is on its A-game, where wonders never seem to cease. I wouldn’t recommend taking the tour unless you or someone in your party watches Thrones, as it may not be worth the price when you can individually travel to these locations; but if you are going with no knowledge of the show, you’ll still have an enjoyable day.
Game of Thrones Tour Details
For adults, ticket prices are €55, and for students tickets are €50. For a day long trip, you just can’t beat the price. Especially when travel, costuming, time on locations, and filming extras and episode screenings on the bus ride home are factored into the ticketing. Lunch is not included in the price. Tours depart from both Dublin and Belfast, with slights differences in each schedule. The Game of Thrones Tour company is not affiliated with HBO or anyone involved in the show. Check out their site here. For questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Make sure to book tickets in advance, because seats go quickly.