Travel Articles

Ireland- Castle Leslie


by Equitrekking host Darley Newman

 and I arrived to Castle Leslie in the rain, not a huge surprise for Ireland. Our GPS had taken us on a roundabout route so we didn’t enter the estate through the main gate, but through the entrance beside the equestrian center. We parked the car outside of the main entrance to the imposing limestone castle and hurried towards the large wooden doors. Candles illuminated the main foyer, where a grand fire blazed and a woman in a plaid jumper greeted us. She handed us each a set of giant, antique keys. I felt like I was in the movie “Clue” at first or a dramatic period film of sorts, as we walked up the grand stairwell towards our rooms, the Blue Room and Eagles Nest. The walls were lined with historic paintings of members of the Leslie family, the owners of Castle Leslie, many in lavish frames.

I entered the Blue Room, where I’d spend the night, and set my bags down to explore. It was beautifully appointed with two fireplaces, one in the main room and another in the bathroom situated across from a large Victorian tub. The peacock blue walls were adorned with more family artwork. I could already imagine myself reclining in one of the delicate white chairs after a hot bath, starring out of the windows at views of the lake.

Julie was up in the Eagle’s Nest, which used to be the boyhood room of Sir John Leslie or “Jack” as he’s called. Sir John Leslie is in his 90’s and still lives in the castle, delighting guests with stories of his interesting life and estate history. He’s the fourth of his line to hold the title of Baronet and the cousin of Winston Churchill.

Julie and I changed for riding and met for tea in the drawing room. Sammy Leslie, Sir John Leslie’s niece, joined us to enjoy scones with homemade preserves and clotted cream. Scrumptious! Sammy is an avid equestrian and has worked to revitalize the estate, turning it into an equestrian’s paradise. There are over 300 cross country jumps sprinkled throughout the thousand acres, as well as an indoor riding arena, courtyard style stable with 56 stalls, mechanical horse for beginners or riders who want to work on their form with an instructor and trails for carriage tours.

Sammy invited us on a carriage ride to explore the grounds. Castle Leslie is right on the border of Northern Ireland, so if you want to use your mobile here, you may find yourself sometimes in the Republic of Ireland and sometimes in Northern Ireland. I decided to turn my phone off to avoid roaming, and to truly escape modern times. The estate is in the small village of Glaslough, which is only about an hour from Belfast and an hour and a half from Dublin. As you drive to the castle, you may pass in and out of Northern Ireland. If you see white lines on the road, you are most likely in Northern Ireland. Yellow lines signal the Republic. Castle Leslie’s location is convenient today, but during Ireland’s Troubles, it wasn’t a popular destination. The eastern section of Castle Leslie’s estate borders the Northern Ireland county of Armagh, which discouraged tourism during the height of the Troubles in the 1960s and ’70s.

Sammy explained that she started attracting guests to their longtime family estate in the 1990’s by opening a tearoom in the castle. Later, Sammy would offer dinner to guests and then began hosting events. Castle Leslie is well known for major weddings, like Paul McCartney’s 2002 wedding to Heather Mills. The estate's list of famous guests includes Bono of U2, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and Prince Pierre of Monaco.

“Jack” was dressed in a long tan coat with a black hat festooned with a large peacock feather for our carriage adventure. I could tell from the beginning that Jack is a character, my favorite people to meet on my travels. He’s led a full life, living around the world including Italy for 30 years, spending 5 years as a prisoner of war during World War II and hitch hiking across America. You know someone has a lot of energy when they spend their 85th birthday clubbing in Ibiza. Jack’s written a book, “Never a Dull Moment” about his life. I read it on my plane ride home and can say that Jack has led a very interesting life.

Our horse drawn carriage rambled down a tree-lined road towards the Old Stable Mews, which have been restored and converted into lodging for groups and families. We passed one of the estate’s three lakes. Oak trees towered above us, as we rambled along past several of cross country jumps. Sammy talked about the changes she’s enacted on the estate to save it and the land from development. Up at the older stables, we got out of the carriage to meet a horse that they’ve got their eye on for racing. 

I love seeing different stables around the world, especially comparing historic stables to modern ones and seeing the innovative designs that different cultures appreciate. The old gray stone stables at Castle Leslie are centered on a courtyard, so the horses can peak out of their stalls and see each other. A couple of horses stuck their heads out above their bright red doors to say hello as we walked through.

We rode towards the new stables, where Julie and I would have to chance to ride! The new stables, on the other side of the estate, are designed around a courtyard as well, adorned with an cool antique weathervane and vibrant blue Victorian lamps. Our first ride would be on Prince, Castle Leslie’s mechanical horse. There are some funny articles and advertisements online surrounding mechanical horses that say if you ride one for 15 minutes a day, you can drop a dress size. I’d rather just ride a horse, but could feel the benefits of Prince after a few minutes in two point as Prince trotted on at a stand still. I ride a lot and my inner thighs were definitely shaking. Maybe that’s because this was my 10th day of riding in Ireland!

Julie and I both took a spin on Prince, while Sammy critiqued our form at various gaits. I can see how Prince would be a very good instructional tool for beginners and more experienced riders like me who want to better their technique or just get a better feel of a horse and more balance before hopping on the real thing.

We walked around the stables and met a variety of Castle Leslie’s horses, including one with a very pronounced mustache. We then went to Conor’s Bar for lunch. I sat beside the giant fireplace in a cozy alcove with Sammy, Jack and Julie, munching on a ham and cheese sandwich. There are many other things to order in Ireland, but for lunch, I just really like a well toasted sandwich in a warm pub. Conor’s is a more relaxed dining option at Castle Leslie and like the rest of the estate has an equestrian theme with old bridles decorating the walls and equestrian artwork. Conor’s Bar often has live music at night.

Sammy took us over to the spa before we saddled up for our ride. The spa is inspired by nature and history. There are Victorian treatment rooms, where you can get wrapped in chocolate truffles, pear steam massages or immerse yourself in a Victorian steam box. Everything is organic. I hoped to have some sort of treatment later, but for now, was anxious to ride.

I saddled up on a tall 17.2 hands high horse. Julie had a feisty pony, and we were off to explore the grounds. We rode through a forested trail down a long straightway with jumps at various intervals and up past one of the older gates to the estate. I could smell garlic as we rode. Much of the forest ground is covered in bright green wild garlic. Smelling it made me think of dinner and how afterwards and after my ten days of riding, how much I’d enjoy sleeping in the luxury of eccentric Castle Leslie. 

Watch videos, view more photos and book this trip to Castle Leslie featured on Many guests pair a few days at Castle Leslie with Ireland's nearby Medieval Village Ride. Join Club Equitrekking for discounts on equestrian vacations and more.

Read an article on Sir John Leslie, "The Oldest Swinger in Ibiza."