I'm seated alone at a table in a small guest house in County Down, Northern Ireland, about to embark on a "Game of Thrones Winterfell Banquet." Despite it being lunchtime on a bright summer's afternoon, hessian wall hangings stretch from ceiling to floor and there are candles alight in the corner.Chunky, green crockery is arranged in front of me and at the centre of my table sits a wedge of butter in the shape of a dire wolf. In this small pub, I've stumbled into a medieval fantasy.
Not that any of the regulars seem to have noticed. A group of elderly local ladies sits at a table behind my solo Winterfell feast, discussing the thickness of the sauce in the crayfish cocktail. They're out for Sunday lunch—no Game of Thrones theme here, just crayfish from the regular menu. "Is there a nice bit of ketchup in the sauce? Not too thick, is it?" one of them asks the waitress. They're happy to learn that the sauce is not too thick, but not too thin either.
"Oh yes, we'll have that," she says. The establishment deftly catering to both medieval fantasy fans and pensioners is The Cuan Inn, which sits in the picturesque village of Strangford. Series one and two of the Game of Thrones HBO series was filmed a mile away at Loch Neagh, which was transformed into Winterfell, the fictional setting of George R. R. Martin's wildly popular tales.
During filming, many of the show's leading cast members stayed in the rooms at The Cuan, making it something of a pilgrimage place for hardcore "Thronies." The inn now hosts huge banquets for fans, which take over the entire rear dining room.As the popularity of Game of Thrones has soared, so too have The Cuan's sales."We've been here for 25 years," says Caroline McErlean, owner of the guest house along with husband Peter—both of whom greet me dressed in cloaks worn by extras on the show. "Before, we were doing OK, ticking along. Now, business really is fantastic. The show has changed things here immeasurably. When the first series began, we were asking, 'Game of what?' Now, it's massive. Nobody could have predicted something of this magnitude."
If only the McErleans had foretold the coming scale of the drama when the likes of Kit Harrington, who stars as Jon Snow in the series, and Sean Bean were staying in their guest house. Caroline regrettably recalls: "One of the housekeeping ladies was cleaning out Sean's room after the first series was over. They found this script in the bin, full of annotations, notes, and messages. We didn't really think anything of it. I mean, it was just a crumpled script really for a TV show nobody had heard of. We threw it away." I can see the pain in Caroline's eyes. Still, things aren't bad at The Cuan. The pair have been running their Game of Thrones dinners for some time, with "much success." Earlier this year, before series seven hit our screens, Caroline organised a "series seven cliffhanger murder mystery," featuring some of the cast and extras.
"We had Sansa Stark [Sophie Turner], Ayra Stark [Maisie Williams], and others all here," she tells me. "Basically, people had to work out who killed Ramsay Bolton [Iwan Rheon.] He drank some 'poison' and dropped down dead on the floor—right over there." But it's the banquets that offer the most intimate experience. Food and dining acts as a vital plot device in Martin's writing, with many key moments happening around feasts and descriptions of meals as vivid as those of bloodshed and lust. There's even a Game of Thrones cookbook, from which The Cuan draws its culinary inspiration. The lunch I'm about to sit down to draws inspiration from the first major feast viewers see in series one, which takes place as Ned Stark welcomes Robert Baratheon to Winterfell. The party is a raucous affair, with plenty of ale and meat. The menu explains: "After all had been seated, toasts were made, thanks were given and returned, and then the feasting began. The Great Hall of Winterfell was hazy with smoke and heavy with the smell of roasted meat and fresh-baked bread. Guests gorged on cod cakes and winter squash."
As I prepare to gorge myself, Caroline departs to see to The Cuan's other lunchtime guests. My food soon arrives, served on a ridged wooden platter. There are thick crisp cod cakes, but also braised carrots, a honeyed joint of chicken with raisins, roasted onion, and thick, brown gravy. I wash it all down with a goblet of beer.I'm enjoying myself and The Cuan's dining room is now beginning to fill up with regulars who've popped in for a casual roast, as well as the odd Thronie. One is interested to see me sitting down to a solitary Winterfell banquet.
"Oh, you're here alone," he says. "I'd love to have a big party doing this." Before I can answer, Peter returns. I ask what the reception has been like for the themed dinners. As an amateur actor, he enjoys playing host.
"We don't want this to be like the Red Wedding," he says, in reference to the iconic massacre scene in the show's third season. "We don't want big drunken orgies back here. It'd damage my reputation. We just want people to have fun, and they really do. It's extraordinary how far people come, too. We've had visitors from all around the world. People have an insatiable appetite for the drama. I think there's longevity with this."As my plate is cleared, it's time to depart. Hopping into a taxi outside The Cuan, I notice two coaches pulling up, depositing hordes of Game of Thrones super fans eager to see where the magic happens. Here, at a pub in a quiet village in Northern Ireland.