Tourism based on TV and pop culture is an odd bird, but I have to admit that Game of Thrones is making me a believer. While its story and settings are brilliantly fictitious, many of the filming locations have their own historic, cultural, and eye-catching charms that can be worth a visit for even non-GOT fans.
In Belfast, there’s a touring exhibition replete with authentic props and costumes, green screen photo ops, a superb audio guide featuring GOT production staff, and a replica of the Iron Throne. The show has been such a boon to tourism in the Northern Ireland capital that stained glass panels are being erected throughout city. While that’s fun to see and experience, it is a bit removed from any history or native culture.
Just 45 minutes south in Downpatrick, the immense, 832-acre estate of Castle Ward was used as the setting for Winterfell Castle as well as several other fictional locations. Part of the Ward family since the late 1500s, the estate was given in the 1950s to the United Kingdom’s National Trust, which has been tasked with overseeing the 18th-century castle, the stable yard, two tower houses (remnants of Old Castle Ward and Audley’s Castle), the gardens and the surrounding lands.
The newer, stately castle of the 1700s is quirky. When you look at the Neo-classical architecture, with its robust columns and palatial, Georgian uniformity, it’s easy to imagine a well-to-do, storied family sipping tea, bedecked in their genteel fineries as a gentle roar of the hearth warms the room. Your state of surprise would be forgiven when you then entered the palace to see one half of the residence done up in classical, refined and subdued elegance and the other “Gothic” half adorned in ornate architectural features, bold patterns, and a “cabinet of curiosities” aesthetic. For a breath of fresh air, step out back and admire the meticulously organized, Victorian-style Sunken Garden.
Walking the grounds is a nature-lover’s delight, and since the acreage is so vast, biking is a popular activity, too. The property rests adjacent the Strangford Lough, a large inlet that connects to the Irish Sea. Winding pathways lead you beside colorfully striated shorelines, through ethereal woodlands, and alongside the lonesome watchtower of Audley’s Castle.
Back at the Old Castle Ward stable yard (which doubled as the Stark family’s Castle at Winterfell), try your hand at archery. I did. The Winterfell Tours Castle & Demesne instructors are skilled and patient, plus you get to dress up in full medievalesque Stark gear, replete with a padded gambezon layer, a plasteron chest protector, and a cloak (your choice: à la Jon Snow or à la Sansa Stark). Try on the chain mail coif just for fun and imagine how (in)effective and (not) agile you’d be if you had to do battle wearing it. I thought my skull would collapse under the cumbersome weight.
The crispness of the air, the chilly breeze, and the sting of rain drops made me grateful for the extra layers, if maneuverably awkward. I had taken several previous archery lessons over the years–in Europe and The States–and found an affinity for it. Still, I’m no expert and it was helpful to have a dedicated instructor coaching me with precision.
As I stood on the very same spot as Jon Snow, Bran Stark, and Robb Stark did in Season 1, Episode 1, adrenaline coursed through my body. It made me rush my release. I began to overthink. The pendulum swung and I was now taking too long to aim, making my arms tremble with fatigue. But not long after, I found my rhythm.
After going through several quivers-full of practice shots, I was ready for the “competition round.” Although I was the only participant, I imagined a fierce enemy as my target: a White Walker, a Frey, a Bolton, the Mad King, a Lannister? Perhaps. My shots were relatively consistent, grouping right and mostly at the right height–that is until my final shot.
When my arrow hit the small white circle in the center of the target, I felt transformed, triumphant. I became a Stark, and a victorious one at that. But more than that, I had just capped a delightful day that was full of history, culture, and nature with a physical activity that made me feel alive and energized. And that is good travel.
For those who doubt, here’s a video of my .09 seconds of glory: