We had been wanting a vacation for a long time and figuring that H and I had not truly taken any time off in almost 4 years, decided that we needed some fun. Castle Leslie in Glaslough, Ireland showed up on our radar as a place where we could stay, get equestrian instruction and ride crosscountry all in one destination.
So, after a couple days in Dublin, we drove North a ways to Glaslough in Monaghan county, a roughly two hour relaxed drive through some of the most resplendently green countryside I’ve ever seen. If you need to get there faster, you can get to Glaslough and Castle Leslie in just a little over an hour if you take the main highway, M1. Either way, you will see some amazingly beautiful countryside and its true what they say about Ireland being the Emerald Isle as the color green is almost saturating… So saturating that I had to desaturate the green in some of the images from the point and shoot camera some to make them more presentable.
Castle Leslie itself resides by the village of Glaslough and sits on approximately 1000 acres. I heard someone say that the estate was one of the oldest family owned estates in Ireland. Regardless, it appears that the Leslie family has engaged in an extensive renovation of the grounds and opened it up to guests participating in a variety of activities. Guests can stay in the former Hunting Lodge adjacent to the equestrian stables, or in rooms available in the main house (castle) or the renovated Old Stable Mews which are more appropriate for families and individuals who want to do their own cooking. We figured that since we were there to ride, we’d stay in the Hunting Lodge for more immediate access to our horses.
In the last few years, Castle Leslie has been reintegrating equestrian activities through the repurchasing of the Equestrian Center and Hunting Lodge. We had heard about the equestrian activities at Castle Leslie through Equitours and can absolutely report a wonderful equestrian experience there. Castle Leslie has spent no small effort outfitting the operation with excellent instructors and an absolute state of the art indoor arena where we took our lessons in the mornings. The arena is a rather nice facility with seating for observers and soft recycled fill on the floor in case of a unintended dismount (read: fall). Acoustics are excellent which aids in hearing your instructors at all points in the arena and everything is quite clean and well kept.
The combination of instruction in the morning and riding hacks outside in the afternoon was precisely what I needed to improve my riding and we were most pleased to find that the equestrian staff at Castle Leslie are knowledgeable, charming and polite, yet firm in their instruction. They are also quite flexible in that H and I are at different levels in our riding abilities with H having years more riding experience than me, yet the staff was most accommodating and we were both able to participate in lessons together while focusing on different goals. Many thanks to our instructors and ride leaders Louise, Sarah, Sue, MaryAnn, Sophie and Dermot.
The afternoon hacks were an absolute joy and its outside at Castle Leslie that really makes equestrian activities an absolute pleasure. The ability to take lessons and immediately apply them in a cross country setting with miles of trails through streams, winding forest paths, obstacles and jumps really are a special and unique resource in the equestrian world and we used them as much as possible, riding every day of our stay. We met wonderful staff and other riders including a rather pleasant gentleman, Thomas who was getting back into riding after a few years absence.
The horses at Castle Leslie are a mix of sturdy breeds, some of quite substantial size. My assumption would have been that the Irish horses would have been more like ponies, but I was mistaken. These were good sized, happy and very healthy horses. Because of the diverse number of horses on site, I had the pleasure of riding Bud (Budweiser), Te’uck, Solomon and Wilson while H rode Jane, a horse our new acquaintance Thomas absolutely fell head over heels for, Summer, Paddy and H’s special friend, Blue.
Its funny how some horses and people tend to bond more than others, and for this trip, it certainly was beautiful to watch Blue and H interact as horse and rider. H was particularly fond of Blue and we understood why he was a staff favorite after only a couple of rides. As for me, while I really got along quite well with Te’uck and Wilson, they needed a bit of motivation with Wilson in particular suffering from “pony leg syndrome” even though he is a large horse. He just believes that he is a pony and behaves like it. Bud unfortunately had a lameness episode, so I was only able to ride him a couple of times.
My favorite horse of the trip however was Solomon, even after a bit of a spook and minor upset at one point. Its amazing how many things go through your mind in rapid-fire succession in moments like this. I remember the stream of consciousness going like this: “Nice canter, lets try a gallop…. nice power and speed, but Solomon feels like he is holding back, so lets give him his reins and see what he can do…….” At this point I got in two point position, giving him his reins and it felt like he exploded like a rifle shot out of a barrel. I remember thinking “Wow…. This is as fast as I’ve ever gone on a horse…. ever.” As we approached the top of a grassy hill coming back to the lodge, there were the standard obstacles and jumps to navigate, but there was also a cow standing there chewing his cud. “No problem” I thought, but Solomon saw the cow late, jerked his head up to better position the cow on his visual streak and…. spooked. Solomon dove right and I came out of my right stirrup. “No big deal” I thought at which point he veered left and I came out of my left stirrup trying to get my right stirrup back on. “well, if I have to eject, this is the place to do it” I thought, but decided to stick with it by reining him in and gripping with my legs for all I was worth as being thrown from my mount would not have been an ideal outcome. Solomon and I got it under control pretty quick and another rider coming up behind me said “Nicely done”, which felt like a far more generous compliment than was deserved as I was both a bit irked at myself for letting that happen and felt that my recovery was more than a little awkward. Though keeping the sunny side up in such circumstances is always the desirable outcome and I’ll graciously take that for all that it is worth.
All was good however and Solomon and I rode again the next day and with further confidence, we again rode up the grassy hill with style and speed. Amusingly enough though on this gallop up the hill, a small girl named Moira of about 13 on an equally small pony threaded the needle in-between two much larger horses and sped ahead, winning the race to the top which seriously amused me. “No fear in that pony *or* rider” I thought.
My most important lessons of the trip were: Look where you want to go. Maintain more contact with the horse through the reins and remember leg positioning as my heels need to be down more…. and no chicken arms when transitioning from a canter into a gallop which results in poor contact and is apparently some weird hangup I have from watching too many Westerns growing up. The whole contact thing is tougher to figure out than I thought and I need to find balance between too much and too little contact.
Unfortunately, photos of this part of the trip are a bit limited and I did not get as many photographs of the grounds or the riding as I wanted which was a shame. But given that I was on horseback for most of the stay, all I carried with me was a point and shoot camera or my iPhone. This got me thinking. What Castle Leslie needs is a staff photographer that makes photographs of the guests as they ride, hike and walk through the estate grounds. That would be a tremendously nice service and also provide for more photographic material for their website. In fact, if I could have brought some equipment with me, a few days at the estate just doing photography of the grounds and equestrian activities would have been tremendous fun.
The rooms at the Hunting Lodge were quite nice. Our room, the Prince room was one of several in the lodge that were named after horses and are in close proximity to the stables where a simple walk downstairs affords you the easy access to your ride for the day. Our room was very quiet and came with a lovely separate shower and huge clawfoot bath that is perfect for a hot soak after working hard on horseback. Additionally, the spa is conveniently close at hand down on the main level should you wish to engage their services to ease any muscle fatigue brought on by a hard days ride.
Our only dissatisfaction with the experience was in dining as the pub food at Castle Leslie was wanting a bit. While the fish and chips were quite tasty though spare for the price, the meats were way overdone. The duck was thready and dry even though prepared confit. At another meal, the steak was cardboard rigid even though ordered medium rare and yet another meal resulted with an absurdly simple roast beef sandwich. Granted the roast beef sandwich is pretty typical of what is found in pubs across the U.K. and Ireland, and perhaps that is what is expected of the patrons, but I was hoping for something a bit more than a single, thin slice of roast beef, especially given that there was also a cookery school on the estate. Thankfully the Guinness was excellent as expected, but given what we experienced with the pub food, I was reluctant to eat in the higher priced restaurants upstairs or over in the castle proper. I was also surprised at the lack of sophistication of the menu given that there is also an onsite spa. One might expect that with a spa, there might be something close to spa cuisine with lighter menu items, salads, and more vegetarian options for the crowd that enjoys that cuisine. At the least, back off a bit on the cooking time eh? It would have been lovely if we could have obtained some of the culinary options of Cornucopia in Dublin (I never thought vegetarian cuisine could be that good) though I’d caution against too much menu complexity, particularly for a pub. It’s too bad really, as i really was a bit intrigued by some of the restaurant options, but just could not bring myself to go there after 3 mediocre meals in the pub. What I really wanted to just go back into the kitchen and show them how it is done. Perhaps a visit by Gordon Ramsay is in order, I don’t know… but all the resources are there for a spectacular culinary experience and simple, yet exquisitely tasty pub food should be the teaser that brings patrons into the other restaurants. The capacity might even be there in the not too distant future for hyper-local cuisine as on one of our rides, we rode past greenhouses that were being restored. That could make for an ideal situation with fresh local produce grown onsite. Get some chickens up at the farm portion of the estate and partner with local purveyors of beef, pork and lamb and you could have a penultimate culinary experience. I’ve had amazing pub food at The Boat Inn in Aboyne, Scotland and the pub in Castle Leslie should be at least that good.
All of that said, the breakfast menu at Castle Leslie was quite good. High quality fresh fruits, breads and items from the menu including a delicious porridge and a rather respectable Eggs Benedict that were just right to prepare for a day on horseback. It was not the best eggs Benedict I’ve ever had, but it was close.
As an aside, for another flavor, we drove into Monaghan where we found the Eastern Balti House, a source of exceedingly good Indian food. Eastern Balti House is clean with a delicious menu and a competent, delightful and most courteous wait staff. The tandori meals are exceptional and the dal moharah is delicious. Also, while you are there, check out the bathrooms… they are truly impressive.
Its worth taking a day or two to drive through the countryside surrounding Glaslough including the small villages and farmland (mind the cows on the road) are lovely and you get an appreciation for why Irish beef is some of the best in the world. Healthy cows feeding on verdant grasses makes for a sweeter, leaner and more succulent beef than can be found in markets that grow stock on corn and corn byproducts.
And while you are at it, stop by Way Of Life Arts, Crafts & Antiques in Glaslough Village. We picked up a couple of items there and chatted with Wendy, the very lovely owner and her children for some time. She also had a William Morris chair with a claimed original upholstery and tacking that I was looking at very hard. Just could not figure out how to get it back on the plane, but it was lovely.
Castle Leslie also has numerous options for other activities besides equestrian ones. There is a functioning chapel on the grounds with services once a month and as I understand it, weddings can also be performed there. There are also miles of walking and hiking trails, fishing opportunities, cooking lessons at the aforementioned cookery school and more. We took a few leisurely strolls around the grounds including the old farm which had its own residents including dogs, cats, horses and cows. A wonderful time was had watching birds and other wildlife including foxes.
Unfortunately, our week at Castle Leslie went far too quickly and we had to head for home. We had a great time, perhaps one of the best vacations ever and could easily had done another week at Castle Leslie just continuing to advance our skills. H really wanted to spend more time jumping and I could easily have spent more time with the camera gear just photographing on the grounds.
We finished up with our last lesson of the day, cleaned our gear and sadly drove South to Dublin where we had a nights stay at the airport before an early flight the next morning. I figured that closer was better so we stayed at the Clarion Hotel Dublin which had its pros and cons… Up front, I was reasonably unhappy as the non-smoking rooms are not necessarily non-smoking due to the fact that smoking and non-smoking rooms share the same hallway and the smell carries over, effectively permeating everything in the room with cigarette smoke. We thought from the olfactory assault that our room initially was a smoking room, until i opened the door again and looked at the no smoking sign which precluded us from wanting to get any kind of room service meals. We were absolutely exhausted and just wanted to sit in our room and dine on room service pizza while watching Celebrity Masterchef, but after investigation, the hotel did not have any additional rooms to move us to and the thought of having to eat in a room bathed in cigarette smoke was too much.
So, off to the hotel restaurant we went and were rather surprised at the quality of the food. The restaurant wait staff was overworked as they were servicing the restaurant, the bar and sitting area outside resulting in extended wait times for meals, but the quality of the food was quite respectable. My fillet was perfectly cooked along with a simple, but tasty mixed green side salad. H’s sizzling platter of chicken over steamed rice was a pleasant surprise and the desserts were certainly more than satisfactory. So, disappointed with the room, but mad props to the Clarion Hotel Dublin’s restaurant.
The next morning, took the shuttle to the airport and boarded the flight waving goodbye to what was likely the best vacation we’ve ever had. The people in Ireland were gloriously friendly, the horses were sure footed and capable and the countryside was as beautiful as any I’ve seen. Gotta go back…