‘Winter is coming’, as the mantra goes. And frankly it is not a moment too soon.

For those devotees of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, the last ten or so months have been a long and uncomfortable wait. But on 12 April US fans can once again thrill to the programme’s booming opening music and shout loudly at the television in disbelief as the show’s characters are dispatched in brutal and gruesome ways.

Proof of the show’s popularity and breakout appeal can be encapsulated in one moment – the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the show’s sets in Belfast last June. There, the UK’s reigning monarch looked over the fictional Iron Throne (made up of thousands of swords, melted together by dragon breath) but politely declined to take a seat.

Game of Thrones is a truly international production, filmed in Croatia, Malta, Morocco, Iceland and Spain. But the majority of filming actually takes place in and around Northern Ireland. The province’s relationship with the programme’s makers began in 2008 when personnel from Northern Ireland Screen met with HBO’s executives in Los Angeles. The agency was keen to lure the production to Northern Ireland and invited the HBO team to the country for a familiarisation tour of the area, even contributing £3.2m ($4.75m) to the show’s pilot in the hope it would be ordered to series.

While the series’ interior scenes are shot in the expanding dockland environs of Titanic Studios in Belfast (the largest studio was once used to help in the construction of the Titanic) the show has made real use of the surrounding countryside. Countless locations across Northern Ireland have stood in for fictional areas and kingdoms within the show, many aided by visual effects that help to transform them into something truly otherworldly. For a show like Game of Thrones, the ability of a location to offer a variety of looks and styles is invaluable.

Location, location, location

I spoke with Robert Boake, the show’s supervising location manager, as he drove around the country scouting for locations that will be used in season six. He says there are huge advantages to filming in Northern Ireland. “One of the things in the landscape is that there is such a sense of antiquity, there are old castles and ruins that lend themselves so well to the storylines. Often we can find structures that are inhabitable or find ones that are intact enough that we can just use them as sets.”

In the first season, viewers were invited to the North of Westeros, in particular the land of Winterfell. Home to the Starks (possibly the unluckiest family in a show full of unlucky families), Winterfell is actually Castle Ward in County Down. Belonging to the Ward family since the 16th Century, the 820-acre estate is one of the largest demesne landscapes to survive in Ireland. It features several styles of architecture throughout its grounds, which range from the Gothic to the Georgian. It was here that Ned Stark welcomed King Robert Baratheon before accepting his ill-fated position as Hand of the King.

Boake admits that each year presents a challenge in finding new locations to show to viewers. “On one hand it is easier because you have the track record and you know where you are going. On the other hand you think, is this going to be the year that you turn up some blanks.”

He says season five has the most locations yet. “We keep on finding absolutely superb new things, so long may it last – and I don’t think we have got anywhere near the mother lode of what the countryside has to offer yet.”

With each season the cast and crew have branched out and explored more of the province, including the rugged Northern Irish coastline. Downhill Beach in County Londonderry, an11km stretch of sand and surf looking out into the Atlantic Ocean, provides the location for Dragonstone and contributes to one of the most haunting scenes in the series. . It was here in season two that in the Seven Idols of Westeros were burned and the Red Woman, Melisandre, proclaimed that the “night is dark and full of terrors.”

The landscapes all feel like they could exist in a land of giants and dragons, a world where you can walk for days without meeting another soul. For such a fantastical show, the locations lend an air of authenticity. If a character stands on top of  a hill with the wind sweeping around them, we know they are really there experiencing the elements in all their frustrating glory. And if a scene or location seems remote, it is likely the production team have spent a great deal of time, energy and money getting there.

Drawing crowds

The locations have now even spawned their own mini-industry. Several Game of Thrones tours now show tourists the areas that were used in filming. Larrybane headland (where Renly Baratheon set up camp in season two) and the caves at Cushendun in County Antrim (where the priestess Melisandre gives birth to a shadow creature) have now become bona fide tourist attractions.

Boake finds the entire experience slightly surreal. “I never ever have thought that I would be passed by tour buses which are heading to places that I was looking for in 2008. Places like the Dark Hedges… that I photographed back then in 2007 and 2008. And now there are always a lot of cars there and tour buses with people walking around taking pictures.”

The show itself has been notable for the benefits that it has brought to Northern Ireland, having created 900 full-time and 5,700 part-time jobs and pumped more than £80 million (almost $120 million) directly into the local economy. That doesn’t take into account the unquantifiable benefits that are accrued from being associated with one of the biggest and most popular shows on television.

For many fans of the show, Northern Ireland has become the real life embodiment of Westeros. HBO executive Jay Roewe once described the country as a “sleeping giant” in terms of film and television production. With the fifth season about to begin and production already underway on season six, it seems that sleeping giant is now truly awake.

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