The opening score of Game of Thrones (GoT) runs in my head — dun-dun-du-du-dun-du-du-dun as the taxi drives into the gates of Winterfell Castle in Strangford, a 40-minute drive from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Resting on a rolling hillside overlooking Strangford Lough, the 18th century Castle Ward mansion house — home to the Ward family — is a unique blend of both classical and gothic architectural styles. It is surrounded by an 820-acre walled demesne with gardens and woodland, a National Trust property. To be honest, it doesn’t look like Winterfell. Nonetheless, the thought of taking a bow and arrow like Ramsay Bolton in the “Battle of the Bastards” gets us excited. My guide, dressed like Jon Snow, takes me to the dressing area to put on replica medieval costumes. I pick a Jon Snow attire, too, but when it comes to choosing the weapon, I pick Arya’s Needle from among Jon Snow’s Longclaw and Jaime Lannister’s Oathkeeper.
Ready to play my part, we step into the archery range, and it feels like stepping into a GoT warp all right. I casually raise my question. “Some of the Winterfell you see in the show is the work of VFX. The structure of Winterfell is inspired by a castle in Scotland,” my guide says. For those who need a recap, before being burned by Ramsay Bolton and becoming the seat of House Bolton, Winterfell was the seat of House Stark. Here, I join — so what if I am late to the party — Bran, Jon, Robb to practise archery in the courtyard with their father Ned Stark. It is here that King Robert Baratheon and the royal party arrive at Winterfell to make Ned Stark the “hand” of the King and, in doing so, sets off a chain of events which will have far reaching consequences for the whole of the Stark family. As I step into the range to test my archery skills which are likely to lean towards Bran rather than Arya, the scene of Arya’s boredom in sewing class flashes in my mind. In it, she grabs a bow and arrow and annoys Bran by outshowing him. With my feet facing outward, and my body turned inward to face the Bull’s-eye, I hold the bow horizontally at arm’s length, draw the arrow and shoot! “That’s a bouncer,” my guide grins, as the arrow strikes the board and falls to the ground. I invoke the spirit of Arya and take a second aim, the arrow hits the outermost ring. The guide eggs me on. A few aims in the air and beyond, I am on my last arrow. By now, I am comfortable with the weight of the bow, and following the guide’s instructions I take an aim. It hits Bull’s-eye. Finally, Arya will be proud.
Castle Ward, synonymous with Winterfell, was the filming location solely for Season 1. After taking a few selfies with a White Walker statue and a few royal shots on a replica of the Throne, it is time for a cycling tour, sans the cape and sword. The day is crisp, and the skies overhead, clear. The first stop in our cycling tour is the Pathway of King Robert’s Arrival Procession. We pass by the stable where Tyrion slaps Joffrey and make a pitstop at the castle window where Bran Stark falls from. We trudge up the steps in a puff. From the window, the view of the lough is calm and serene. Between trivia and behind-the-scenes stories, our guide reveals he is one of the extra actors on the show. “You will see a glimpse of me in the last one,” he says.
Phorum Dalal is a Mumbai-based writer.