“Fursie,” said the door of our room, in place of a room number. So, at breakfast or dinner when the server would ask how to label our check, I’d say “Fursie” with a straight face, and it would bring a smile to theirs.
That was just one of the quirks of staying in The Lodge at Castle Leslie, on a historic country estate situated in Ireland’s County Monahan, an hour-and-a-half drive from Belfast or two from Dublin. The Lodge is the castle’s former stable block and now a social hub where guests enjoy Conors Bar for a Guinness or casual dining. There are rooms above where we slept, cozy in English country-house style. It’s a step or two from the Victorian Rooms spa, the stables and the main restaurant, and not surprisingly, new expansion is planned for later this year. It books up fast!
Castle Leslie Estate has been in the Leslie family since the 1600s. But it was Sammy, a daughter of Desmond Leslie and wife Helen, who lived here in the 1960s, who returned home and in 1991 set about restoring the place – from humble tea-room beginnings to today’s portrait-lined galleries, four-poster heritage bedrooms, living rooms and nooks and crannies filled with club chairs and tufted sofas. Sir Paul McCartney put this amazing hotel on the public’s mind when it hosted his wedding to Heather Mills in 2002.
After being wowed by the interior restoration, it’s the history that captures the imagination. Leonard Jerome, a flamboyant New York stockbroker married to Clarissa Hall, produced three daughters, Clara, Leonie and Jennie. All took British high society by storm. All married into old landowning families. Leonie, “the witty,” married John Leslie, heir to one of the largest landed estates in Ireland as well as the baronetcy of Glaslough, and Castle Leslie became her home. Sister Jenny, “the beautiful,” married into the Spencer-Churchill family to become the mother of Winston Churchill, which explains why Winston’s christening gown is on display!
States attorney, senator and Presidential commissioner Henry Clay Ide’s youngest daughter married a Leslie. And Anne Clay Ide (Henry’s other daughter) married William Bourke Cockran to become brother-in-law to Sir Shane Leslie. It was William’s speaking skills that impressed Jennie Churchill, and she sent Winston to stay with him in the U.S. to work on his public speaking. Decades later, via radio, Winston’s voice was such a huge part of the ultimate WWII victory.
Today’s Leslie-in-charge, Sammy, struggled with school and instead focused on equine matters. She was one of the youngest ever to gain British Horse Society II qualifications that set the scene for the later creation of a special equine retreat. Like everything at Castle Leslie, the modern-day incarnation stems from historically rich threads. In the 10th century a Hungarian nobleman became minder for a young woman who would go on to become Mary Queen of Scots, and in the 1940s Anita Leslie married Paul Rodzianko, a Russian cavalry officer sent by Tsar Nicholas II to be trained with Caprille, the father of modern riding.
An equestrian holiday venture in 1974 set up by Sammy’s parents was sold, and in 2004 Sammy bought back The Lodge. Her new fabulous equestrian playground includes 56 stables, 4 tack rooms, indoor and outdoor arenas, intermediate and advanced clinics, a gallery for 200, lecture rooms and a virtual horse named Prince. The estate boasts sand gallops, 25 miles of bridle path and 20 cross-country jumps.
For our two-day retreat here we planned to hike, spa and ride horses. We added indulgent eating and drinking since breakfast beckoned so deliciously – a farm table groaning under the weight of ceramics filled with compotes, cereals and homemade preserves and then a hot entrée; at night, locavore gourmet farm-to-table food enjoyed beside the glow of the restaurant’s wall of craft spirits to celebrate Ireland’s rich hospitality. John Leslie, the fighting bishop, purchased this land with 2,000 pounds gifted by Charles II and a namesake Fighting Bishop Gin is proudly produced today. Its spicy hot flavor describes the taste!
We explored the estate on horseback, mist rising through the trees, our mounts stomping through fall leaves and wading effortlessly through Glaslough Lake reflective with rear views of the Castle standing magnificent against the sky. We’d later soak in the outdoor tub and sip cocktails nesting in couches near the fireplace in the castle library. Here, time stood still.