After the penultimate episode of Sky Atlantic’s Game of Thrones last Monday –featuring a grim plot twist and cast member culling I seriously was not expecting – I was left in dark and sombre mood.
My first thought was to fly to Los Angeles, track down the Game of Thrones creators DB Weiss and David Benioff, and throw a number of shoes and items of putrid veg at their houses.
Then I wondered about just boycotting the show, thus missing this Monday’s season finale. But this was never going to happen. At the moment, I love Cersei Lannister and Olenna Tyrell more than several members of my own disappointing non-dragon-owning family. So I took the third – and most exciting – option: I could fly directly to Belfast, where much of Game of Thrones is filmed, and seek out people who understand my Westeros-related pain by joining a location coach-trip.
So, there we were, just myself – Grace of the House Dent – and 30 or so other totally sane superfans from Italy, Spain, Denmark and the USA, trundling along the byroads and dirt tracks of Ballymena, Larrybane and Murlough Bay in a coach for 10 hours, perusing hills and hedges while cooing: ‘This is the Kingsroad! These are the actual hedges Gendry and Arya went past on the cart!’
We are the sort of superfans who will jump out of a coach on the B15 coast road beside Ballintoy Harbour, County Antrim, and become wholly giddy that this location was used in season two when Theon Greyjoy sailed in on his return to the Iron Islands.
Obviously, the harbour will quickly be Instagrammed, Vined and tweeted about so that all our friends back home can share our joy. And we have got friends, seriously. Tons of them. They just haven’t been returning our emails since last Monday, when the goings-on of the Red Wedding sent us into a spiralling, snotty-nosed depression.
The trip was organised by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Northern Ireland Screen – the people who, in 2008, schmoozed HBO into using their castles and coastal splendour for the show’s pilot. But they’re not the only ones aware of the business potential Thrones geeks offer, with San Francisco travel company Viator offering tours in Dubrovnik – another location – and Northern Ireland.
The Dubrovnik tour lasts around three hours. But that’s for lightweights really. The Belfast tour – very much like the one I am on – lasts approximately nine hours. I pity the fool who has caught a few episodes and decides to tag along with a Thrones-obsessive partner.
That, for clarity’s sake, is not me. My commitment is so great that I have decided to overlook my general rule about never setting foot on coaches. I like to uphold some standards, and it’s impossible to channel Daenerys Targaryen, queen of several thousand Unsullied warriors, on a 50-seater coach with a cupboard for a toilet and no loo paper. I have watched Daenerys grow from demur Dany to bold Khaleesi, and not on ONE occasion has she been asked to urinate in a cupboard.
Still, I am chipper. We leave Belfast and head towards the caves at Cushendun, where – as you may know – Davos Seaworth and Melisandre landed at night and Melisandre gave birth to the shadow baby. By this point on the trip I have realised that speaking to anyone is perilous: we’ve all read or watched George RR Martin’s epic tale to varying extents and we are all petulant about spoilers. Yes, Lotte from Sweden, you are very pleasant, but if you accidentally tell me one more thing about Brienne of Tarth I may accidentally cause you to be left on the road-side as we wend our way onwards to the Shillanavogy Valley.
We pass fields where the Dothraki made camp, and the tree where the Catelyn and Bran dream sequence was filmed. We stand on the very bridge where Brienne and Jaime had their swordfight; I Instagram the bridge and receive churlish comments from friends calling me ruder variations of the word nerd. I make mental notes to cut all of these people from my social group and only associate with Thrones convention people from now on.
Then it’s Tollymore Forest Park, where the opening scenes of season one were filmed, and then later at Pollnagollum Cave we get to see the outlaw hideouts of the Brotherhood Without Banners. It’s all great fun, although even I stood a few times squinting at an unremarkable patch of grass thinking: “What on earth am I doing?”
The nice thing is that the tour is wholly untouched by sales or merchandising. The locals treat us like harmless idiots, doing their best not to squash us with tractors as we stand in the middle of country roads pulling noble Stannis Baratheon poses.
I left Dublin at 9.30am and was delivered back – resembling Khaleesi at the gates of Qarth after her time in the wilderness – at 8.30pm. I was tired, hungry and had a flat iPhone battery, but I was a survivor, and that means something. When you play Game of Thrones, you win or you die.
The season three finale of ‘Game of Thrones’ airs at 9pm on Monday on Sky Atlantic HD