Why Game Of Thrones is destroying Northern Ireland’s natural beauty.
‘The Real Westeros’, this is TourismNI’s strap line when showcasing the country to the world; a world in which more and more people are becoming avid viewers of the Game Of Thrones TV show (just shy of 11 million tuned in for the most recent 6th season).
Much of the show has been, and continues to be filmed on location at sites around Northern Ireland, because of the spectacular beauty these areas posses and the fact that they fit so naturally with the medieval era and fantasy style of the show. Much of the Northern and Eastern parts of Northern Ireland have filming locations dotted around them.
Rewind to a few years ago before Game Of Thrones had been turned into a TV show and became the multi-million dollar franchise it is today. I would enjoy spending an Autumn afternoon at one of my favourite places on the North Antrim coast — Murlough Bay, a few miles outside Ballycastle. To get to the bay itself you have to navigate your car along narrow country roads before turning onto what is more of a track, over a cattle grid and through barren, weather beaten rocky fields, waiting for the sheep and cows to clear the path ahead before you can continue. After a few hundred yards this track then seems to disappear over a cliff face in front of you, with the distant horizon out to sea, far below. But as you approach the edge the track is revealed again only to continue down to sea level as a steep and winding lane, with ancient rocks and the skeletons of haggard trees on either side.
Only when you reach the bottom can you take your foot off the brake, and there, where the trees are leaning and reaching inland from years of standing against the Atlantic winds and where a mobile phone signal is a thing of the past, can you really appreciate the beauty that comes with this isolation. A short walk takes you along the seafront with the imposing rock face of Fair Head looming in the distance behind you and the green covered cliffs in front of you, more reminiscent of Jurassic Park than Northern Ireland. The small beach at Murlough Bay lies a short distance away at the foot of the cliffs, with large, polished boulders acting as seating for the person enjoying the solitude there. Along with the beautiful natural scenery here comes escapism from the modern world, including any form of mobile connectivity and for the most part any form of other human being, and it is for this reason that I chose to come here, after discovering it by chance some years ago.
There are other places on the Northern Irish coast which had similar qualities, remote, quiet, and naturally beautiful. Ballintoy Harbour for example, especially in the autumn and winter was the perfect place to spend a day in the peace and tranquility of the quaint, traditional harbour.
Today we have maps of the filming locations around the country, making it simple for tourists to work their way along the coastline from point to point, and if they don’t want to do it themselves there are a number of coach companies offering to take them, and many of these beauty spots have had additions of large plaques stating the fact that they were used as locations in game of thrones, with images from the show. They weren’t placed discreetly on site either, they’re right at the forefront of the view.
A friend of mine was visiting the ruins of an old Abbey built by John De Courcy (Inch Abbey) in County Down with a couple of her history student friends, as they were leaving and navigating their way by car down the tiny lane which leads back to the “main road” which still barely allows two cars to pass each other, along came a tour bus, adorned with the Game of Thrones logo, full of Game Of Thrones fans. So onto the verge went my friend’s car to allow the bus to pass.
Another hotspot for tourists ever since the show aired is called ‘The Dark Hedges’ where the old trees lean over the road and touch in the middle, creating a tunnel of green in the summer and quite a spooky effect in the autumn and winter. This road is a few miles into the countryside and is in a rural area used mainly by the local farmers and residents. Nowadays, after the road appeared on Game of Thrones for all of 10 seconds, cars and tractors are being forced to drive over the verges either to get past parked cars or to allow tour buses past.
In these verges are of course the roots of the tress which will only be exposed and eventually damaged as more vehicles drive over them. As well as the roots getting damaged, tractors and higher vehicles are said to occasionally damage the branches as they can no longer take a path along the middle of the road to avoid this, with numerous cars parked on the verges at any time. The weakened roots and damaged branches leave the trees more susceptible to the elements and last year when a storm hit the area, a few of these trees came down onto the road. When you think of how many storms those trees have withstood over their lifetime, it seems too coincidental that they came down after a few years of Game of Thrones fans visiting the road. And what did the Irish tourist board do with these fallen trees? They arranged to have them made into doors, hand carved to depict various themes from the series and placed in pubs and buildings in areas which are linked to the filming, effectively attracting more visitors, but with no obvious methods of protecting the remaining trees. Recently, the Dark Hedges were used in another movie franchise; the latest Transformers movie. It seems this particular location is becoming so famous it might not be here at all in a few years time. When the Transformers fans start to visit the Dark Hedges and further weaken the roots and damage the branches will the tourist board fund the creation of wooden Autobots and Decepticons from any fallen trees, instead of attempting to reduce the traffic flow on the road?
The same problem exists at Inch Abbey, it’s no big deal for one car to have to mount the verge to allow a bus to pass, but over the years how many cars will be forced to mount the verge and what damage might this cause to the surrounding area?
At Murlough Bay now it is almost impossible to enjoy the peace and isolation that existed there before. If you visit the secluded beach on an afternoon pretty much any time of year now don’t be surprised if you find yourself sharing it with a dozen others, sporting GoT t-shirts and even dressed in costumes. The same goes for Ballintoy Harbour, in the summer months especially. I recently saw a video on social media of a group of visitors, all dressed in costume at the rocky bay beside Ballintoy Harbour, where one enthusiastic fellow decided to perform some kind of self-baptism in the sea, fully dressed in his fur. Presumably this had some significance to the series, as did the “what is dead may never die” being shouted by other folk in his group, but just imagine trying to enjoy a family picnic or a romantic walk along the beach and having to put up with that, especially if you’d never seen nor had any interest in the show. The increase in numbers of people visiting these areas is detracting from their beauty and turning them into almost fictional film sets when they’ve been here for thousands of years.
I know that tourism is a good thing, and the financial benefits of tourists visiting an area are important, but so is managing the impact that tourism has on an area. Game Of Thrones will end, and so, eventually, will it’s legacy. The fans of the show will stop coming to these areas and so the country’s tourism bodies seemingly want to get as much off the back of the show as possible in this indeterminate lifespan of the production and its draw of film tourists to the locations. The important question is will the natural beauty of these filming locations withstand the onslaught of increased visitor numbers before they inevitably drop away to what they were during life before Game of Thrones. Local councils and national tourism bodies have a duty of care to their “products” and with the promotion of their areas should come a substantial means of protecting it, from providing temporary parking facilities nearby so as to ease the traffic, to even having discreet but clear signage abut the impact of driving and parking on verges.
There is no doubt that Northern Ireland as a whole benefits from an increased number of tourists — my point is not that I think they shouldn’t come, but that the relevant people should start to think about the effects of continued promotion paired with the continued lack of tourism management, for the future generations of local people who will still want to enjoy these beautiful areas long after Game Of Thrones is forgotten.