Game of Thrones experience – the exhibition and Castle Ward (aka Winterfell)

The World Cup is well underway and there’s been nothing but football in the house since it started. I’ve probably seen more football in the past two weeks than I have in the past year – and I’ve already watched more football in the past year than I have in the last 27 years or so.

That said, it’s not all bad. This year’s World Cup has been full of upsets – exciting upsets at that, which is great when you’re not really rooting for any team in particular to win.

In fact, the past two weeks have been eventful. Amidst all the football action, we managed to view the Game of Thrones Exhibition held at the Waterfront this year. It was smaller than last year’s – probably because many of the characters have been killed – but the exhibition area felt more spacious (due to higher ceilings) and the Oculus Rift virtual reality experience of scaling The Wall made it a fantastic experience.

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The weather had been absolutely gorgeous as well – note the past tense, as the sun has gone away now – and I even got a tan from walking to work and sitting out in the sun for about an hour each day for a few days 🙂 I can’t express how happy I am to have just a bit more colour to my skin, and to cap it off we spent a wonderful Saturday at the Castle Ward demesne.

Castle Ward itself is an unassuming structure – Irish castles are more like mansions than the traditional image of castles – but it apparently cost a staggering £40,000 to construct. That’s a huge sum for back then, and even Buckingham Palace that was built around the same period cost less than £30,000.

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The tour of the Castle was conducted by an extremely entertaining guide, and we learnt a few interesting facts such as how Castle Ward has no toilets at all and that it was perfectly acceptable for women in Victorian times to relieve themselves at the dinner table during the 17-course meals they had. The interior itself is an even mix of Gothic and Classic styles – a compromise between the master and mistress of the house – and filled with 24-carat gold-leafed finishings.

It’s actually Old Castle Ward, or what is now known as “The Farmyard” on the map, that is the site of Winterfell in Game of Thrones. Of course, enterprising businesses have cashed in on the series, and you can now pay £25 for the experience of shooting arrows ala Bran et al in the first episode, dressing up as the Stark characters and even having a ‘Jon Snow’ talk to you about the show and share some shooting tidbits.

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For those less keen on taking the tour, the castle grounds makes for a beautiful walk along the shore of Strangford Lough and up into the countryside in the surrounding area. Despite the warm weather, there was a strong breeze coming off the lough that could be quite chilly – you certainly wouldn’t want to be in the vicinity in winter, although it would make for a rather authentic North of Westeros experience!

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Further along the lough but not far from Old Castle Ward is yet another Game of Thrones filming location. Audley’s Castle was where Bran was pushed from the tower, and while it looks rather large and imposing from a distance, it was actually quite a lot smaller when we went up close. Unfortunately the structure is gated as well, which is a pity as I’m sure the view of the lough would be stunning from up there.

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I would definitely recommend Castle Ward for anyone visiting Northern Ireland. The walk was beautiful and varied, and it would be one of the most accessible Game of Thrones shooting locations – both in terms of distance from Belfast and proximity to a town. The tea room on the grounds was beautifully furnished in an English style too, and served a variety of tray bakes, scones and cakes – including a delicious raspberry and white chocolate scone. Mount Stewart at  the other end of Strangford Lough is another similar experience – the property is larger and the gardens are far bigger and more beautiful, but it of course lacks the Game of Thrones association, which may be of more interest to some than others. Visit one or both – either way you won’t regret doing so!

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