There aren’t that many things which make me break out into an uncontrollable grin, but riding around the Castle Leslie estate on Fernando the hunter on a beautiful late spring day is right up there. A two day trip to a premier equestrian centre in county Monaghan, in the lush Southern Irish countryside, was a very good idea indeed. Eighty minutes drive from Dublin, Castle Leslie boasts a combination of luxury accommodation in the Castle, the Lodge and in self catering cottages plus a leading equestrian centre. The estate has over 300 cross country jumps for all abilities and the riding centre has a first class indoor school, outdoor school, highly experienced instructors and even a virtual horse! They can cater for everything from the novice to the advanced rider in beautiful surroundings. The horses are all, well, happy. They are well schooled and forward going, a dream to ride. They are beautifully turned out, well shod by the regular farriers, and have a visit from the chiropractor every week. I loved my my huge Irish hunter Fernando who gave me lots of confidence, enough even to try a few modest jumps.
Hot shoe shuffle
The virtual horse Prince is a mechanical version of the real thing and ideal for giving non riders a first go at how it feels to be on horse back without the risk factor. Even so, Eireann my instructor did say some people had managed to slide off him. Prince is also very good for the more advanced rider to try some trickier manoeuvres and particularly useful for strengthening those ‘core’ muscles that everyone seems to be trying to get to grips with these days. Eireann’s opinion was that everyone ought to have one of these in their living room to practice on while watching Coronation Street. My opinion is that it would probably just turn into a clothes horse. Prince’s buttons take him from walk to trot to canter and if you kick in the right place you can get the idea of how you might give aids to a real animal. Sometimes Prince just doesn’t want to play the game (also like a real horse) and after a bit of furious kicking with no response I managed to get him to leap into life and bolt off at speed, on the spot of course.
Flying on Prince
The estate around the castle has 1,000 acres of rolling Irish countryside with ancient woodland and a huge glittering lake. ‘Glaslough’ the name of the village is translated as ‘calm or green lake’ and here is that very lake where you can fish for pike, take out a boat or just wander your horse into it for a paddle and a drink.
Sophia and Blue in ‘Glaslough’
Ireland is often called the ‘Emerald Isle’ and with good reason. Just at this time of year the green is at its greenest, with banks of white hawthorn hedges and dark pink rhododendrons fringing the pathways through the early summer meadows. It had been raining and was muddy now and again, but the sun was out for the time that we were there and showed the lush landscape at its best. Orla looked after us on the estate ride and Jenny the Equestrian Centre Manager who runs the whole yard and riding school ( together with her Dachshund, Dylan) gave us lessons on the flat, jumping and over the indoor cross country course.
Small dog, big ideas
There was even the chance to try riding side saddle. Riding side saddle involves winding your legs sideways through a leather pommel and balancing in what looks like an entirely unnatural position. Ladies had to use these in days gone by as it was considered unladylike to ride astride. Sitting aside apparently dates back to antiquity as a way for women in skirts to ride a horse in a modest fashion while also wearing fine clothing. It has retained a speciality equestrian niche even in the modern world and Castle Leslie is certainly the only place I’ve come across where you can try it for yourself. Wearing the outfit helps get you into the swing of things.
Advanced skirt management required
Castle Leslie is unique in that there is no other castle estate in Ireland where the founding family still live there. Indeed Captain Sir John Norman Ide Leslie, the 4th Baronet (known as Sir Jack Leslie) is still in residence. At the age of 97 he can still be seen around the estate having dinner or chatting to guests.
Sir Jack Leslie
We came upon Sir Jack reading his morning paper in the drawing room but we didn’t disturb him. His eventful life has included spending five years in a POW camp in World War II, living in New York and Rome and travelling all over Europe. Sir Jack then returned to his family home aged 78. He spent his 85th birthday in Ibiza and apparently inadvertently revealed the wedding location of Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills by admitting to reporters it was to take place at Castle Leslie but that it was “a secret.” We did see their honeymoon suite, the red room in the castle. Very nice.
Home Sweet Home for Sir Jack
Weddings are big business at Castle Leslie. It is a most romantic setting and we were lucky enough to get a tour of the beautiful Castle rooms as they were set out for a wedding that very day. It certainly looked perfect to me with an attention to detail typical of the whole place. A fairytale destination indeed. You can get married in the castle in a civil ceremony but the church on the estate is Presbyterian so Catholics need to visit another nearby church. There are bespoke wedding packages at different prices from the intimacy of the Lodge to the Pavilion at the castle which can cater for up to 260 guests.
We stayed in the Lodge overlooking the stables and were woken in the morning by gentle whinnying and a bit of stomping as the horses anticipated their breakfasts. Our meals were absolutely delicious and as far as possible everything is sourced locally. We enjoyed fine dining in Snaffles restaurant (also frequented by Sir Jack) and my Kilkenny crab starter was to die for. We also tried a local pub in the picturesque village of Glaslough and of course there is one thing you must always try whenever you’re going Gaelic..
Thank goodness it’s Guinness!
Apart from riding, there are an incredible amount of other things to do at Castle Leslie. Falconry, hot air balloon rides, clay pigeon shooting, fishing and boating on the lovely lake, and there are even some Victorian Treatment Rooms at the Lodge providing a whole range of pampering beauty treatments. I’ll have to try those next time.. Whether you want to hack out, jump cross country or learn to ride from scratch, the riding packages are really good value and the facilities are the best I’ve ever experienced. It really is quite a special place where you get the warmest of welcomes and the best that Ireland has to offer. Karen the Sales Manager at Castle Leslie summed it up for me when she said ‘I don’t think I could work anywhere else it’s so nice here.’
Horses are happy here
Paddy and me at Castle Leslie
(additional photos from Suzanne at Zanni Photography)