Castle Leslie may be an upmarket hotel, but it hasn’t sold its maverick soul, discovers Travel Editor Neil Sowerby in the first of three reports from Ireland...
IMAGINE yourself, as in some old tale, stumbling upon an enchanted mansion and you are the only souls around. Aside from the stern ancestral portraits piercing the lamplight.
Lady Constance haunts the Mauve Room and there are infrequent sightings of a grey and dusty monk, but Castle Leslie feels a benevolent bolthole – despite its nearness to the old badlands of the Ulster Troubles.
The Leslie family’s cluttered Victorian pile is a flamboyant cuckoo in the drumlin country of County Monaghan, just in the Irish Republic. Today, an upmarket country house hotel, much-chronicled retreat of the A-listers (Paul McCartney and Heather Mills were famously married here), it refuses to shed its eccentricities.
That’s why we are sitting in large, faded armchairs next to the stubby christening frock of Leslie cousin Winston Churchill and a framed family snap of him with The Kaiser. Pope Pius’s pen is mounted in the stairwell. Quite surreal.
Footsteps, distant at first, down the panelled hall break the silence. At last a waiter, a tray, a pint of stout. Worth the short walk across the estate, spooky in the moonlight, from The Lodge, where we were staying. Contemporary plumbing, wifi, telly, phones, access to acclaimed equestrian facilities and award-winning Snaffles Restaurant, but lacking the character of the main building, which shuns all modern contrivances and celebrates the past. And what a past.
Bishop LeslieThe family bloodline apparently stretches back to Attila The Hun, but since Your Hun doesn’t feature in those family portraits I mentioned, best start with Bishop John Leslie, who purchased the estate in 1664.This pugnacious cleric was 90 when he rode from Chester to London in 24 hours to celebrate the Restoration of Charles II. He was substantially rewarded by the monarch he stayed loyal to. Fathering five children after the age of 67, he lived to be 100.
His descendant, Sir Jack Leslie – a mere 96, he has never married – has only just stopped clubbing in Ibiza, an activity he adopted a decade ago. “To shake my liver up” as he so memorably put it.
Sir Jack LeslieAfter living in Rome for 40 years he only took up residence again in 1994. It looks like he will never leave now. In a private burial enclosure next to the estate church of St Salvator I came upon his tombstone in readiness, upon it writ “The 4th Baronet of Gaslough and Pettigo. Born AD 1916, Died AD 20** ” To be filled in as and when. So the Leslies are to longevity what a creamy head is to a pint of Guinness – inseparable. And there is a strong dash of eccentricity in the Leslie brew, too, which haunts the estate to this day – and gives it its exceptional charm.
Jack’s younger brother, Desmond, trained as a World War II fighter pilot in America. On a lecture tour a decade later to promote his book, Flying Saucers Have Landed, Desmond took great offence at his family being accused of “mild eccentricity”. This avant garde musician and New Age pioneer insisted the Leslies were, in fact, ‘’very eccentric’’.
The aforementioned Lady Constance certainly qualified on this count. She was the wife of Sir John who built the current house in the 1870s. As he grew older she hated the sight of him, so designed a vast floral table ornament which hid him from view. She called it her “Cache Mari”.
Her haunting patch, The Mauve Bedroom, is naturally painted in vibrant mauve with a silk and tapestry canopy over the bed, much gilt and a white marble fireplace. The bathroom/lavatory, like so many in the Castle, is a spectacular relic of a bygone age of ablutions. Mr Crapper’s celebrated “thunderboxes” are much in evidence elsewhere.
Marianne Faithfull and Mick Jagger stayed in the Mauve Bedroom, also known as The Royal Suite, back in the more bohemian days when the Castle hosted a club called Annabel’s On The Bog and I suspect that McCartney and Mills occupied it for their wedding here in 2002 after Desmond’s daughter Sammy, with her financial nous, had transformed the Castle’s fortunes by expanding facilities.
In terms of the Castle’s public rooms and bedrooms, it’s still a case of if it isn’t broke don’t fix it. That inclides the plumbing. The blue sitting room is my favourite, with delicate gold, white and blue decorations and windows overlooking the outdoor courtyard and lake. Next is the orangery, fragrant with jasmine and then the long gallery, a series of painted rooms leading to yet another drawing room and the original library. Somewhere there’s a private cinema. We never found it.
The bedrooms are all individually named after a member of the Leslie family, each with its own history. Take Norman's Room, which boasts a bed dating from 1607 which is known to levitate its occupants during the night, and the Chinese Room whose secret passage from the wardrobe leads to almost anywhere in the house.
Utter peace is the aim with many rooms boasting views over the wind-ruffled expanse of Glasough (it translates as Green Lake). The presence of 25,000 rooks, one of Ireland’s biggest colonies, works against this. They chided me harshly as I escaped for a ruminative glass in the shabbily perfect Olde Bar in the estate village, also called Glaslough.
The estate’s 1,000 acres form one of Europe’s finest equestrian playgrounds, perfect for treks and eventing. Over £10m has been spent on revamping the Equestrian Centre and the adjacent Hunting Lodge with its 29 bedrooms (all named after resident horses) and it shows.
There are 100 cross-country jumps, 21 miles of meandering bridleways, a mile-long all-weather gallop 56 stables, 50×30 metre indoor arena with indoor cross-country fences and even a virtual horse for beginners.
The Castle is a great wedding venue. Naturally, it being Leslie, the happy couple are encouraged to slice into their wedding cake with the sword once wielded by Norman Leslie, who died in battle during World War I (He charged a German machine gun with a sword because he felt it ungentlemanly for officers to carry guns).
Luxurious Victorian Treatment Rooms offering chocolate facials, hot air balloon rides, cookery lessons, even pike fishing for the bold, complete what is a highly efficient hospitality package.
Still the old ways die hard. As my wife cantered through woods and streams I sauntered more sedately through less spruced up corners of the estate, failing to locate the remains of the fabled marijuana greenhouse from the Sixties or the supposed UFO landing field.
I only discovered afterwards that the boathouse on Glaslough was built specially for the McCartney wedding and never pulled down. I sat in a rough wooden gazebo by the reeds and read Sir Jack’s feckless, name-dropping memoir, Never A Dull Moment, glad there were no alien encounters to strain credulity.
That great sardonic Irishman, Jonathan Swift, a frequent visitor, wrote:
““Here I am in Castle Leslie
With rows and rows of books upon the shelves
Written by the Leslies
All about themselves”
Well, a wee bit of self-publicity never did any maverick dynasty any harm.
Read Neil Sowerby's second instalment of his Irish Odyssey: Wineport
Bedroom in The LodgeEmerald Experiences: Castle Leslie Estate:
Castle Leslie Estate is part of Emerald Experiences; a new collection of stylish hotels and resorts across Ireland. Enjoy a two-night country retreat at this magnificent estate from just £136 per person sharing, including full Irish breakfast each morning and a relaxing candlelit dinner on one evening in the 2 AA Rosette award winning Snaffles Restaurant. To book visit www.emeraldexperiences.co.uk.
Fot more information about holidays and visiting Ireland see www.Ireland.com or call 0800 039 7000.
Castle Leslie website: www.castleleslie.com
Neil Sowerby flew from Manchester to Dublin with Ryanair. www.ryanair.com and chose car hire from Hertz www.hertz.co.uk. It’s a 90-minute drive from Dublin.
Manchester Airport parking:
Neil Sowerby left his car park in T2 Long Stay.
Here are all the options:
VIP Valet – drop and collect your car right next to the terminal and get fast tracked through security. Your car is parked on site.
Meet and Greet – drop your car off with staff next to the terminal and collect on your return. Your car is parked on site.
Multi-storey car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ultra-convenient multi-storey car parking right next to the terminal. Park and walk under cover to reach the terminal.
Long stay car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ground surface car park offering free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
Shuttle Park – secure parking at great rates for cost-conscious travellers. Free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
JetParks – low-cost parking option run by Manchester Airport, fully manned 24/7, parking from £2.99 per day. Visit this link.
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