Escape to the Chateau: A Rural Retreat at Castle Leslie
The lowdown: Castle Leslie is no ordinary hotel - set in a wooded estate overlooking Glaslough lake in Co. Monaghan, it's an experience in its own right, choc-full of history and stories. The lands have been occupied by members of the Leslie family since the 1660s, one of the few examples of a castle estate still in the hands of the original family. If those walls could talk... Despite being one of the most luxurious estates in Ireland, it's got a relaxed and unpretentious atmosphere, where guests are more likely to be wearing muddy hiking boots instead of Manolo Blahniks. It doesn't try too hard, and it doesn't have to. You can leave your notions at the door.
Castle Leslie was opened up to visitors in the nineties after a major refurbishment project was undertaken, starting with the bedrooms and bathrooms in the main house at the castle. Each one is uniquely and eclectically decorated (you can take a peek here), all the while maintaining the original features. Not surprisingly, word spread: Castle Leslie shot to fame in 2002 when it hosted the wedding of Paul McCartney and Heather Mills.
If the Castle rooms are a little out of your price range, the Lodge rooms, which we opted for, make for an affordable, though no less luxurious, alternative. You can have a look at what they offer here.
So what was our experience of staying here? In a nutshell, we absolutely loved it. The grounds were a selling point in themselves. Set on over 1000 acres of sprawling woodland and overlooking a lake, the views on a blue-sky evening were pretty spectacular. Sitting on the pier, legs dangling above the water and listening to the sounds of nature is an absolute tonic for the soul and a recipe for instant calm.
Castle Leslie is located in the supremely picturesque and charming village of Glaslough. With traditional stone-faced houses, brightly coloured flowers and hanging baskets, not to mention the perfectly preserved facades and original phone boxes, it’s not hard to see why it’s a frequent winner of the Tidy Towns competition. It's definitely worth a wander during your stay. It's a short five minutes' walk from the Lodge, or a slightly longer walk from the Castle. Upon arrival, the estate looms ahead at the very top of the village. Below is the scenic avenue which goes from the entrance gate to the lodge, terminating at the Castle.
Holidaying during a global pandemic:
Like most people, we were somewhat apprehensive about taking a hotel break during the Covid-19 outbreak. However, our fears were allayed in the lead-up. We were asked to return a health check form and guests are required to book all meal times in advance to allow for social distancing allocations. Greeted at the gate lodge by a very nice gentleman who took our temperatures on arrival (we were informed by email that this would happen), we felt safe and reassured from the outset. We opted for a package which included all of our meals - if you're staying somewhere as beautiful as this, you want to spend as much time on site as possible. We arrived just in time for our lunch booking and were directed straight to the Castle for our reservation.
Here's a little glimpse of castle life. A stately entrance with wooden doors leads the way to a whole other world. Grand drawing rooms and dining rooms line the corridor, with huge bay windows showing off the stunning views from all angles. The Fountain Garden is worth a stop off en-route and can be found within an inner courtyard.
Lunch and afternoon tea is served in the Pavilion, a huge marquee-type structure which overlooks the lake. Set out like a wedding venue with draped white lace curtains and fairy lights, it felt a little at odds with the rest of the estate. However, it has additional outdoor seating on a terrace to take best advantage of the views. Unfortunately on the afternoon we arrived, the rain was bucketing down so we were seated indoors. On day two, we lucked out. Though the sky was grey, the day was warm and we bagged ourselves the last outdoor lakeside table.
Lunch on the first day was excellent. The seafood chowder was pretty much perfection in a bowl with huge chunks of fish, plenty of flavour and just the right amount of cream. Equally so was the asparagus risotto - a big luscious bowl of creamy goodness - just the ticket for a miserable wet afternoon. The red wine list in the Pavilion was a little underwhelming (there are better options in the main restaurant), so we opted for two glasses of a deliciously crisp Picpoul de Pinet. Our afternoon tea on the second day was exactly as you'd expect - mini sandwiches, warm scones with cream, lemon curd and jam (my favourite part) and a good selection of mini pastries and cakes, all washed down with a glass of Prosecco and a coffee. It was tasty but not particularly inspired. The view made up for it though.
After all that food, it was time to chill out for a while before our next meal - the joys of being on holiday eh? As I mentioned before, we were staying in the Lodge (above). This is where you'll find the bar, the spa and the main restaurant Snaffles. It's home to fifty rooms, all of which are tastefully designed and very much in keeping with the overall feel of the estate and its period features. Though they are a little more restrained than the Castle rooms, they are no less plush.
We were chuffed with our room, which was called Bumper (they don't have room numbers). Even their standard Classic Lodge rooms are a really decent size, with huge comfortable beds and original art work by local artists on the walls. However, the best feature was the huge wraparound courtyard, complete with table and chairs for our own private use. The backdrop was a stripped brick feature-wall with creeping ivy wrapped around an ornate trellis, backlit at night so you can take full advantage of a warm evening al-fresco. Potted plants and shrubbery added a pop of colour and the lanterns were a lovely additional touch – our own little oasis of tranquility for two days.
Quirky features abound in these rooms and the bathroom was no exception with its elaborate tap fittings and towel hooks. The claw-leg bath is deep and big enough for two - just sayin'.
Things we loved:
The toiletries were sourced from the Handmade Soap Company, It's good to see their support for small, independent Irish businesses but not only that, they smell bloody good too with gorgeous natural scents.
The large flat-screen TV was hidden from view behind two wardrobe doors (above). I sometimes think modern fixtures can look really jarring in a traditional room so this was an excellent compromise. Not only that, the TV has a ChromeCast port which allows you to access Netflix or other streaming sites from your phone and watch on the TV. Such a simple idea but one that few other hotels have cottoned on to yet. Top marks to Castle Leslie.
Hidden in the real wardrobe is both a full-length and make-up mirror, complete with soft lighting. Oh, the unbridled joy when I discovered that the plug sockets were right beside the mirror. Might sound like a small thing but if you've ever tried to dry your hair in a mirror that's located on the other side of the room from the socket, you'll know what I mean.
High-quality original artwork, not only in the bedrooms but on sale in the public areas in the Lodge. Wonderful to see local artists being supported in this way. You can view the available works here.
Exploring the grounds
If you can drag yourself out of your lovely room (and I recommend you do), there are many wonderful walks to take on-site, as short or as long as you wish. Mere minutes from the Lodge, close to the 19th century water tower, you'll find St Salvator's Church and graveyard in a very picturesque setting. If you continue up the tree-lined avenue from here, you'll end up at the Castle. Even if you're not staying in one of the Castle rooms, you absolutely should pop up for a visit. The common area rooms are richly decorated and filled with eclectic objects and artworks.
Step out of the French doors and take a moment to survey the grounds. Oh my! It's quite a jaw-dropping vista. An Italianate colonnaded walkway hosts a series of high-relief classical-style sculptures mounted on the wall, while on the other side, foliage grows wildly and winds itself attractively around the columns. From here, stroll down to the lake and breathe it all in.
Follow the lake shore and just after the boathouse, take a stroll up the newly-restored walled garden marked by an ornate entrance gate. The air is redolent with the scent of herbs, plants and wild flowers and from the top of the garden, views of the lake are revealed through gaps in the trees.
If you're still feeling energetic, then a longer walk up to the early 19th century Gothic Gate Lodge is a must. A word of advice though. It's incredibly muddy towards the end of the laneway so perhaps some sensible footwear is in order. Note to self: gold trainers = not sensible footwear.
The Gate Lodge can be found on the outskirts of the Estate, at the western-most wall which runs parallel to a main road. It'll take about ten to fifteen minutes to walk and it's a really pleasant route, passing fields of horses on the way. The lodge and gate are currently in a ruinous state but still very pretty and surrounded by overhanging trees, and an unexpectedly lavish bunch of pink flowers had sprung up at the front. Something I found out afterwards - the lodge and gate were designed by none other than John Nash, the renowned British architect responsible for the layout and buildings of much of Regency London including Marble Arch and St James Park, to name but a few. He even had some involvement in the design of the state rooms and the western front of Buckingham Castle. Fascinating.
If you peek through the bars of the gate, you'll see a little arched wooden door in the wall across the way (kind of like a Fairy Door - you might just be able to make it out in the second image above). This is Harry's Well which apparently still has drinkable spring water. There is no access from here though: the gate is locked and there is no footpath on which to safely stand at the roadside. One for admiring from afar.
A map of the various different walking routes on the Castle Leslie estate can be viewed here.
Food and Drink
As I previously mentioned, lunch and Afternoon Tea is served in the Pavillion in the Castle while all other meals are served in Snaffles restaurant in the Lodge. Breakfast each morning included freshly squeezed orange juice and a little tray for sharing with bread, warm pastries, yogurt with compote and fresh fruit salad. A hot breakfast was also on offer. Over the two days we had buttermilk pancakes with maple syrup, Eggs Benedict, a full Irish and scrambled eggs with smoked salmon.
As part of our package, a three-course dinner was included each night. My favourite meal of all was a starter of Fighting Bishop gin-cured salmon with pickled veg and saffron aioli. If you like salmon, you definitely need to order it when you come here. It's super-fresh, melts in your mouth, and the gin gave it a gorgeous flavour. The cheese board offers a very generous selection of Irish cheeses with chutney, grapes and mixed seed crackers. There is a good wine list, and we tried both the Portuguese red and the Pinot Noir: reasonably priced and very drinkable. The Pinot is also available by the glass in Conor's Bar. Just to note: because of Covid restrictions, the bar is not open as normal. However, you may enjoy a drink for an hour, either before your meal or after your meal, which is a nice civilised compromise.
Two nights B&B with 3-course dinner included on both evenings. Lunch on the first day, and Afternoon Tea on the second day was also included. Described as a 'light lunch' on our booking, I was expecting soup and a sandwich. What was actually on offer was a choice of a starter and a main course, or a main course and a dessert from their extensive lunch menu.
Package cost €660 for two nights which we thought was excellent value considering how luxurious the estate is. Everything except drinks was included.