Diehard Game Of Thrones fans cannot get enough of Northern Ireland
Its storylines have millions glued to their screens. And, as Peter Ward finds out, Game Of Thrones now has fans flocking to the real Westeros
On a cold, windy morning on top of a frost-capped hillside overlooking the sea, a small, shivering group of people gather round a large rock. The ice on the ground crunches as a Chinese tourist wearing a long black cloak with fur trim kneels and stretches her neck toward the rock as a great sword rises above her head.
Fortunately for Cawei Hua, a 24-year-old visiting from Shanghai, the sword is plastic, the cloak a borrowed prop, and the hillside - in Cairncastle, Co Antrim - a regular stop on one of the many location tours celebrating the HBO fantasy show Game Of Thrones.
The stone in Cairncastle marks the point where Ned Stark, played by Sean Bean, executed a deserter in the show's first season. In the nearly six years since that scene was shot the series has become a global phenomenon and Northern Ireland - where the majority of the show's production takes place -has reaped the rewards.
A popular location on the tours is Cushendun Caves, located below the coastal village and formed over 400 million years by Ireland's harsh weather.
Here the red sorceress Melisandre, played by Carice van Houten, gave birth to a sinister magic "shadow baby" in the show.
The caves are also the only entrance to the local convent, where nuns are probably confused to see tourists regularly re-enact the scene for photos.
For Cawei Hua, these tours are a chance to see an often overlooked part of the UK while geeking out at the locations of a show she and millions like her watch back in China.
Northern Ireland has reaped a surprising reward as a result of the drama's popularity. Droves of tourists now flock here, many to see the locations made famous by Game Of Thrones, embarking on eight-hour bus tours that stop off at castles, hills, caves and beaches to grab scenic selfies complete with swords and shields.
But the level of fandom has presented the production with challenges. Though the book series by George RR Martin, called collectively A Song Of Ice And Fire, has so far dictated what happens in its small-screen adaptation, the show will overtake Martin's novels in the upcoming season. Keeping the two stories aligned isn't a problem (Martin has helped write the screen adaptations so that, when he does finish the new books, the two will still basically match), but the fact that the show will now presage the books has sparked even more intrigue among the already obsessive fans, who hunt compulsively for hints, sneak peeks and outright spoilers.
At the height of summer, when the show is being filmed, Robert Boake, Northern Ireland location manager for Game Of Thrones, says the crew turn away an increasing number of buses - up to seven per day - all looking to catch a glimpse of future events in Westeros, the fictional country where the show is based.
"We have more paparazzi following us around", says Boake, who adds that "drones are an increasing problem". "Now we have to consider when we're filming that people would be very interested in seeing what the plotline might be. We get followed around more than we used to."
At first glance Northern Ireland might seem an unlikely location for a hit TV show, but for the Game Of Thrones creators, who needed passably medieval settlements and sweeping landscapes, the province was well-equipped and easy to access. It also didn't hurt that Martin based many of the novel's geographical descriptions on places in the UK.
Eight years ago Northern Ireland gambled on Game Of Thrones having the same effect on its GDP as the Lord Of The Rings trilogy did for New Zealand. Northern Ireland Screen footed the $4.6m bill for production of the pilot and first season. The investment alone returned about $30m worth of expenditure on goods and services back into the local economy.
As of last year's fifth season, Northern Ireland Screen had invested a total of $17.6m in the show, with a return of $162m spent by HBO on hotels, transport and other production costs.
Those figures don't include the money generated by tourism - like the business it has brought to Ballintoy, where the show's Iron Islands scenes are filmed, or to Carnlough Harbour, where Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) was recently spotted filming scenes for the sixth season.
Although two more books in A Song Of Ice And Fire are yet to be released, it's unclear how many seasons of the show will follow.
HBO has guaranteed Game Of Thrones for another two seasons - its creators have said they don't see it continuing far beyond that - yet one of the quarries in Northern Ireland that the show uses regularly for shooting has reportedly been leased for 15 years. It looks like this seam can be mined for quite some time.