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Game of Thrones transforms Northern Ireland into Westeros and more

Sharleen Crossin is a tour guide for a bus company that organizes "Stones and Thrones" trips through Northern Ireland, where a big chunk of HBO's Game of Thrones is filmed. The petite blond has the inside scoop on everything about the series. 

Game of Thrones tour

Visitors board a minibus to embark on a Game of Thrones tour in Northern Ireland. (Kas Roussy/CBC)

By the time I'm on this guided tour (last fall), the HBO mega-hit had just wrapped up seven weeks of filming for the upcoming season 6 — which premieres this Sunday.

"Very hush-hush," said Crossin. "HBO owns Ireland," she declared to her captive audience. 

Game of Thrones

Tour guide Sharleen Crossin, fourth from left, works for a company that organizes 'Stones and Thrones' trips through Northern Ireland, where a big chunk of HBO's Game of Thrones is filmed. (Kas Roussy/CBC)

There's about 30 of us on the bus tour making our way out of Belfast up the coast to the Irish Sea and into Game of Thrones territory, a.k.a. County Antrim on the northern coast of Northern Ireland. Or, in my world, Westeros.

It's a stunning and rugged backdrop hosting more than half a dozen Game of Thrones shooting locations.

That crack about U.S. cable TV network HBO owning Ireland is not a joke. About an hour out of Belfast, we roll by an abandoned quarry. In the distance, there appears to be a series of buildings. We all want a closer look, but we can't — the area is fenced in. There's a padlock at the entrance gate and a somewhat threatening red sign that reads: "Strictly No Photography."     

Game of Thrones

The Game of Thrones set featuring Castle Black and the Wall is located behind these padlocked fences, at a location about an hour outside of Belfast. (Kas Roussy/CBC)

From inside the bus, I snap a quick shot. It's unfocused, of course — the bus is moving after all. 

Believe it or not, those black buildings in the distance — where there's a blob of white, likely fake snow — is Castle Black. You know, where Jon Snow hung out when he wasn't fighting the White Walkers. 

So if that's Castle Black, where's  the famous wall? On TV, it's a towering slab of ice and snow. 

In real life, it's a dull, beige-coloured hillside. Yes, a bit disappointing, but CGI will fix it all up in post-production.

Speaking of Jon Snow — our favourite, brooding member of the Night's Watch — our tour guide has met him. She bumped into him in Belfast. It's a small city, relatively speaking, and many of the Game of Thrones cast members stay there during shooting season.

Jon Snow

Kit Harington appears as Jon Snow in a scene from season 5 of HBO's fantasy series Game of Thrones, based on the novels of George R.R. Martin. (HBO Canada/Bell Media)

"I met Kit Harington, who is tiny in real life," Crossin said. 

And just in case I didn't quite get that last part, she emphasizes: "Very tiny."  

She's not done. He was also a "wee bit grumpy."

OK, he's about five feet six inches tall. I Googled it. And grumpy? I don't blame him. Did you see what his Night's Watch brothers did to him in at the end of season 5?

Game of Thrones

Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister) appears in a scene from season 5. (HBO Canada/Bell Media)

The actress who plays ultra-mean Queen Regent Cersei Lannister fares better, as far as Crossin is concerned. 

"Lena Headey is such a lovely woman!" 

Crossin bumped into her walking down the street one day and says she was star struck. Headey stopped and the two "had a conversation." 

'Like Fort Knox secrecy'

HBO and the show's producers are very secretive about plot developments with any of the Game of Thrones characters, like "Fort Knox secrecy," a Belfast cabbie tells me. So the cone of silence is a requirement.

Carnlough Harbour

Carnlough Harbour in Northern Ireland was used to film Game of Thrones season 6 scenes featuring Arya Stark (Maisie Williams). (Kas Roussy/CBC)

The bus stops in Carnlough. It's a quaint little harbour, but we wonder why we're here. 

Crossin will only say that somewhere, in this harbour, Arya (the youngest girl in the Stark family) takes a swim. We're not told why. We'll have to wait for season 6.

"She was freezing," revealed Crossin. 

Apparently, actress Maisie Williams — who plays Arya — was a real trouper.

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Maisie Williams, who plays Ayra Stark on Game of Thrones, films a water scene in August 2015 in Carnlough, Northern Ireland. (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

A boost for locals

The showrunners may demand full secrecy from their employees, but Game of Thrones has been good for the local economy, creating about 900 full-time jobs and some 6,000 part-time jobs.

"I was an extra," revealed Crossin, which in journalism circles is the equivalent to burying the lead. 

"You were an extra?"

"A wildling in season 5", she says, oh so matter of factly. "The Hardhome episode." 

For the uninformed, that's the one where all those undead creatures, the wights and White Walkers attacked our still-brooding Jon Snow and his gang.  And, of course, it's also the one with that great shot of the creepy Night's King with his arms outstretched. 

The Night's King

Richard Brake appears as the Night's King in a scene from season 5. (HBO Canada/Bell Media)

It was a gut-wrenching episode. But Crossin said she had "loads of fun." 

She said HBO has a rule that any extra has to be from Belfast or from Northern Ireland. 

"So many people from Belfast are extras on Game of Thrones, which is great for the economy." 

Though the pay for extras isn't that good, apparently, Crossin didn't seem to mind. She said she got an amazing inside look at the HBO operation.  

Her friend was also an extra, she continued, adding with a wink: "She was in Littlefinger's establishment."  

By that, I take it to mean her friend probably required little clothing for her scenes. 

The Dark Hedges

Even before Game of Thrones, the Dark Hedges was one of the most famous routes in Ireland, with 300-year-old beech trees lining the pathway. In the HBO show, it's known as the Kingsroad. (Kas Roussy/CBC)

Over a quick lunch, I chat with Doug and Helen. They've travelled from New Zealand for a holiday in Northern Ireland and seeing where Game of Thrones is shot was a must-do on their list. 

Well, for Doug anyway. Helen is here for the breathtaking vistas. 

"I don't go around the house dressed in leather, swinging a sword," Doug said. But, yeah, he's a fan.  

"I've read all the books, I've watched the whole series."  

So have many, many others, considering the average audience for season 5 was just under seven million viewers.

Winter is here. Bring on season 6.

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