EQ Life Masthead - 2019
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Riding with history

This article has appeared previously with Equestrian Life. To see what is in our latest issue, please click here.

Leslie Castle 


By Libby Price // Photography Supplied by Castle Leslie Estate
Ireland’s Castle Leslie has survived through centuries of turmoil, financial misfortune and more than a few eccentric overseers, but today its remarkable transformation into a luxurious tourist destination, with horses at its heart, is testimony to one family’s remarkable efforts at restoration. Libby Price paid the estate a visit.
Mention fine horse flesh and one of the first equine nations to spring to mind would have to be Ireland, where Thoroughbreds, as they tend to be in Australia, seem to be born of sterner stuff. If their hunting, steeple chasing and point-to-pointing is anything to go by, it's not just the horses, but the jockeys who seem to have a natural ability to tackle just about any hurdle or hedge, no matter its shape or size, or indeed the unnerving number of gargantuan ditches placed precariously in front.
So, where better to head, particularly after a despairing Australian performance at the London Olympics for a horse lover, than the rolling green of Ireland for a bit of equine-related R & R and to drown some sorrows in fine Irish Guinness. And, while it isn’t difficult to find equine-related venues in the Emerald Isle, there is one particular, spectacular gem here that fulfils every tick box.
Located in Glaslough, Monaghan, 80 minutes from Dublin and 60 minutes from Belfast, sits over 400 breathtaking hectares complete with castle, equestrian centre and as wide a range of horse holiday packages – from complete beginners to advanced – that you could want. This is Castle Leslie – one of the last great estates in Ireland still owned and run by its founding family. Couple that with the ancient woodlands, lakes and more history than you could study in a short visit and welcome to another world.
For me, it was a last minute decision and with a limited budget, I wasn't able to book into the grandeur of the Castle for accommodation. But, the Lodge just beyond the front gate was no poor man's quarters, but a wonderfully character-filled building converted into if not first, then certainly a close second class accommodation. Another man's trash in the form of a depressed Irish economy is an Australian's treasure, with the total cost for five days riding and accommodation with breakfast just a little over $A1000.
I had little intention of spending more time than necessary in my room and immediately headed to the stables and found horsey heaven. Row after row of stable doors with happy horses' heads greeting riders in search of their perfect pony. I quickly found mine in a Thoroughbred who'd retired from eventing, but alas, my last minute booking left me with only one chance to ride her as she was of course a favourite and usually fully booked.
As you'd expect in Ireland, most of the horses have some cob or warmblood in them and a few were truly clumpers, but all kind and well schooled. The choice of ponies for children was also very impressive and they truly had horses for all levels, and even an electric horse which you couldn't get near for all the kids wanting to have a ride.  Pity, as I never got to test drive it to see if it really is like riding the real thing.

Each day brought a new training session and either a hack or cross country ride. The resident instructors are all British Horse Society qualified and very good, though not for the really advanced rider, not because they don't have the ability, but more because the vast majority of riders are only novices. I have to confess that jumping a riding school horse is challenging as they know all the tricks of the trade, but I did learn a lot about never taking a horse for granted, keeping the leg on, and making sure the horse was well and truly in hand.  It also made me appreciate my own horses and the relationship I've established with them.
Having said that, the instructors knew which riders could be challenged with more difficult fences, which included plenty of banks, steps, water and ‘skinnies’.  While it wasn't like galloping around Badminton, it was fabulous fun and always exhilarating, with fences from intro to about pre-novice level.  For riders who don't have the desire to tackle cross country fences, the lessons in Show Jumping and Dressage were very good, and the hacks across the Irish countryside probably the highlight.  There's nothing quite like galloping through the shallows of the lake with a backdrop of the Castle on one side and centuries old elms and oaks on the other.
I didn't partake in the famed fine dining of the Castle as to be honest, I was so exhausted from four hours riding each day that all I wanted to do was catch the odd Nana nap and grab some good solid Irish food. No offence intended to the Scottish, but the Irish are leagues in front when it comes to pub grub.  No stodgy fish and chips or bloodied back pudding.  I had no complaints about the food and have to confirm that the Irish are indeed a very relaxed, friendly and down to earth mob. And as every worn out horse rider knows, a big bathroom with an even bigger bath is just bliss. Next time I'll bring an extra supply of bath salts to melt away the aches and pains.

Just part of the Leslie family history that imbues the walls of the estate includes:

•           Horses have played a formative role in the Leslie family history. The first Leslie was Hungarian nobleman, Bartholomew, who became Chamberlain and Protector of Queen Margaret of Scotland. Queen Margaret fled from her enemies on the back of Bartholomew’s horse, but fell off while they crossed a river. Bartholomew threw her the end of his belt and told her to ‘grip fast’. Having saved her life, she bestowed the ‘grip fast’ motto on the family.

•           Bishop John Leslie was the first to come to Ireland in 1633. At 67 he married a young girl, Catherine Cunningham, and produced five children. He is credited with defeating Oliver Cromwell’s forces at the Battle of Raphoe. At the age of 90, he rode from Chester to London in 24 hours to celebrate the restoration of Charles II to the throne. The reward the King gave him for his loyalty bought the original estate.

•           In 1665, what was then Glaslough Castle was bought by the Bishop, who died aged 100 in 1671. The family still has the original title deed.

•           When Charles Powell Leslie took over the estate in 1743, he set about improving farming methods and became a Member of Parliament. He also helped his impoverished brother-in-law, Lord Mornington, to educate his son, Arthur. Arthur grew up to become the Duke of Wellington and to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.

•           During the Irish famine, it was the widow of Charles Powell II, Helen, who built a famine wall around the estate to provide work. She set up soup kitchens for the starving and fed all the people on the estate.

•           Helen’s son, Charles III loved large parties and entertaining and embarked on major building projects. He died after choking on a fish bone and the building of a new castle fell to his brother, John.

•           John - the first Baronet of Glaslough – built the castle for his wife, Constance, who was said to be the daughter of George IV with his mistress, Minnie Seymour. They went on a grand tour during the building and collected much of the furniture that is still in the present house. Lady Constance tired of her ageing husband and designed a huge floral table arrangement to hide him from view during dinner. It was known as the ‘hide husband.’

•           After their death, the family invested money in Russian Railway Bonds, that subsequently crashed, along with their fortunes.

•           Sir John Leslie, the second Baronet, married Leonie Jerome, whose sister, Jenny, married Lord Randolph Churchill.

•           When Desmond Leslie inherited the estate, he was one of the few surviving World War II Spitfire pilots. In 1991, he handed the estate to his five children, with daughter, Samantha, taking charge.

When we come across the great estates, such as Castle Leslie, it is easy to assume that its modern day guise as one of the great luxury hotels morphed easily out of its former life as a grand family estate that was no stranger to famous guests and the sort of house parties reserved for another era.

That would be to seriously undervalue the incredible effort of the current manager of the enterprise, Samantha Leslie. Her family has lived here since 1665, but when it was passed to her by her father Desmond in 1964 and to be run as a family trust, she could have been forgiven for wondering whether it was a blessing or a curse. The estate sits on the border with Northern Ireland. The effects of  decades of political upheaval and the sheer cost of its upkeep was a daunting prospect. But Sammy, as she is known, saw the commercial opportunity to not only ensure the estate remained intact, but could be regenerated and preserved for future generations.
Sammy’s plan was to make it sustainable through tourism and at the same time work closely with local communities. She started with tea rooms set up in an old conservatory. It made enough to restore the castle roof.Between 1995 and 1997, Sammy restored 14 of the bedrooms and began serving candlelit dinners in the dining room with pre-dinner drawing room drinks. Then there’s the lazy picnics by the lake and no problem if you want breakfast up until midday. There are no television sets, radios or phones here. The tourism commentators at first touted is as ‘utterly enjoyable, but mildly eccentric’.
It wasn’t until the Good Friday Agreement brought peace to a divided Ireland that the Leslies felt confident enough to restore the entire estate. One event put it firmly on the map. When Beatle, Paul McCartney and his former wife, Heather Mills, chose the castle for their 2002 wedding, it attracted the world’s media. Then came the buy-back of what is now a premier equestrian destination and a lifelong ambition of the horse loving Sammy. The estate’s equestrian centre and hunting lodge had been in external ownership, but was re-purchased by the family in 2004. At the same time, funding was secured to regenerate the rest of the castle. Sammy’s next inspiration was to extend the adjoining village of Glaslough back into the estate – based on Pundbury, the town Prince Charles built in England. The village involved heritage architects and conservation specialists and the sale of these houses continue to fund the estate.
The Hunting Lodge and Equestrian Centre were reopened in 2007. Sammy’s father had sold them in the midst of the political conflict, just as Sammy qualified as an intermediate riding instructor. Instead, she set up a facility in the old farm buildings to break and sell and vowed she would get the hunting lodge back, which she did in 2004. The estate began to win prestigious tourism awards and by 2006, with grant aid from the Irish Government and European Union, the project could be completed. Sammy’s original dream had come true – great horses, good food and old style hospitality.

Castle Leslie’s equestrian packages are as adaptable as you could wish. Whether it is a first time ride along the estate’s kilometres of bridle paths or trying your skill over 300 cross country jumps, or an all-weather galloping track, the choice is yours. The jumps cater to all levels and were built by the Willis Brothers of Badminton Horse Trials fame. There’s even a horse simulator if you have never been in the saddle. For those who have, there’s a Dressage arena, an outdoor ménage and 56 stables. If the castle itself doesn’t appeal, then old stable mews or village cottages can be had for self-catering families or groups.

The packages range from three day ‘Happy Hacker’ packages to horse sport offerings for those who want to combine a holiday with improving or maintaining their riding skills.
For further information visit www.castleleslie.com




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