Glaslough's Grip: Castle Leslie and its magical Monaghan village
It's taken years, but Castle Leslie has evolved into one of Ireland's best country escapes, says our travel expert.
Set the mood
That's the Leslie family motto, bestowed by Queen Margaret of Scotland after a young Bartholomew Leslie rescued her from a river by suggesting she do exactly that.
Almost 1,000 years later, it's just as apt.
My nine-year-old daughter is gripping fast to the reins of her horse. I am gripping a gin menu that lists some 60 varieties. My son has gripped the Monster Munch from our welcome pack; my wife the menu of spa treatments.
Sammie Leslie's grip is pretty fast, too. Twenty-five years ago, she opened a tearoom on her family property. Since then, she's overseen the evolution of an estate known for its eccentricities (UFOs, hippie communes, ghosts) into a unique, tasteful and accomplished escape that stands up to any of its Blue Book colleagues.
I am very pleasantly surprised.
Guests at Castle Leslie can stay at the tasteful 30-bedroom Lodge, the self-catering mews houses a short drive or 15-minute walk away (pictured), or the Scots-baronial-style castle itself, where Gordon D'Arcy and Aoife Cogan were married.
If you fancy the castle, where rooms are individually decorated but eccentricities (was that Winston Churchill's christening gown I saw?) do not hamper the elegance, you're probably better booking midweek to avoid weddings.
There's no pool, but spa treatments include the 'Grip Fast' massage (€85), and attention to detail - from heritage colours in the lodge to seafood platters in the two AA Restaurant - gets the balance of elegance and engaging just right.
Castle Leslie sits on a 1,000-acre estate - perfect for hacks both horsey and human. Big old trees dot the drumlins, and we delighted in deer bouncing through our high-beams, satellites crossing a widescreen sky, and frogs hopping through the grass (the self-catering wing is pet-friendly, too). It feels a world away.
Glaslough itself (glasloughvillage.com) is gorgeous - try a pizza at Ambledown Cottage, a stone building bearing gorgeously eclectic nooks and crannies in the cosy little cafe/restaurant within, or grab a pint of local Brehon Blonde amidst the cosy snugs and time-worn woods of the Coach House and Olde Bar.
Don't miss the Glaslough Chocolate Company, a tiny shop run by Trish Murphy-Thom. Trish handmakes her goodies (try the milk chocolate speckled with raspberry), and made the fancies for Tommy Bowe's wedding - he hails from nearby Emmyvale.
Castle Leslie's equestrian centre is right up there with the best I've experienced in Ireland at Mount Juliet and Ashford Castle. The horses were perfectly chosen for our daughter, instructors were encouraging while recognising her limits, and there's a warm indoor arena too. Private lessons cost from €45/€35 for 45 minutes. It's a super facility, but the staff and animals make it special.
Occasional touches jar - such as the huge TV playing looped footage of the estate in the bar, or the strangely small double beds in our mews accommodation. But overall, this Blue Book property is deliciously consistent in its tone.
Get me there
Glaslough is roughly a 1.5 hour drive from Dublin; 60 minutes from Belfast.
The Old Stable Mews two-night family break at Castle Leslie (castleleslie.com) includes breakfast, one three-course meal in Conor's Bar, beer & wine for the adults, ice-cream and chocolates for the kids, plus a box of treats, for €700. Midweek breaks in the Lodge start from €95pp, and the castle from €105pp. Equestrian packages are also available.
See also monaghantourism.com.