While horse-riding in Ireland, ride the range but remember: 'grip fast'

David Ryan feel like Clint Eastwood, but it soon turned into 'The Truman Show'
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The Independent Travel

So many things about Castle Leslie put me in mind of the movies. The 90-minute drive up from Dublin to Glaslough, Co Monaghan, had an unreal quality as we flitted from blue skies to thick fog, then back to crisp winter sunshine. This is the county of small hills and you can see the purple-tinged mist gathering in its moody valleys from miles away. All very Barry Lyndon.

We stopped in Monaghan town at The Squealing Pig. You had to recall The Slaughtered Lamb, only this place was much friendlier, with not a werewolf in sight. What can be seen in town at the weekend, however, is disco-dancing 91-year-old, Sir Jack Leslie. Back in 2002 he told the world's media that Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills were indeed to marry at his family's castle that week, adding "but it's a secret".

It was dusk when we arrived at the estate. As we made our way to the old Hunting Lodge, now an excellent four-star hotel, we were serenaded by thousands of shrieking rooks. My daughter Annelie, 19, muttered "Hitchcock".

We were here for the horses, not the birds. After a €10m refurbishment masterminded by Sir Jack's horse-mad niece, Sammy Leslie, the castle's 1,000 acres now hosts one of the best equestrian centres in Ireland. The Hunting Lodge has 35 bedrooms, and stabling for more than 60 horses. There's a massive indoor school; a hi-tech virtual horse for training; a mile-long, all-weather gallop; 21 miles of bridleway, plus cross-country jumping over some 300 fences.

Sinead McGleenon, the host up at the castle, which is now a club offering overnight accommodation to members, said: "There is no universal rating for riding facilities so people don't always know what to expect. They are pleasantly surprised. We aim to turn this into one of the top equestrian centres in Europe."

The Leslie family motto is "Grip Fast". It dates back to Bartolf, a Hungarian noble who saved the life of Scotland's Queen Margaret in the 11th century. They were crossing a swollen river on horseback when the queen got into difficulties but was spared after gripping on to Bartolf's belt buckle.

My horsemanship has always been more blessed with enthusiasm than technique but my horse, a big Irish hunter called Truman, knew what he was doing, as did our guide, Janet Heaney. Truman made light of my 16-stone bulk as he cleared every jump with ease.

My only problem was stopping him with both stirrups shaken loose and reins long enough to hang a week's washing on. Not my finest hour in the saddle. After two hours, the saddle and I finally parted as the noble steed darted right and I exited stage left. "Grip Fast," I thought, but it was too late. I was flying straight into Annelie's mount, Scooter, who scooted off on full throttle.

Once the carnage abated, Janet praised Annelie's skill in bringing Scooter back under control and then red-carded me, muttering something about John Wayne. I always felt I had more of a Clint Eastwood thing going on. Anyway, it was time to hit the cantina.

Conor's Bar, the watering hole at the Lodge, is perfect for recovering from a nasty shock. It is built in the old Victorian kitchen area and you can enjoy warm food, cold beer and a raging peat fire while surrounded by all things horsy.

Upstairs, Snaffles, the Lodge's brasserie, offers fantastic locally sourced beef, venison and salmon. A three-course meal will cost around £30 each, plus drinks, but it's worth it.

The next day Annelie basked in a facial at the Victorian Spa while I walked around the estate. Eucalyptus and camomile for her. Mud and more rooks for me. Annelie's face was still glowing on the drive back to Dublin. Ryan's Daughter was deeply impressed.

HOW TO GET THERE:
Weekend riding packages at Castle Leslie (00 353 47 88100; castleleslie.com), include two nights at The Hunting Lodge with breakfast, one evening meal and a two-hour cross-country ride, cost €285 (£214) per person. Self-catering in cottages for up to 10 is also available.

FURTHER INFORMATION:
For more details on holidays in Ireland, go to discoverireland.com or call 0800 039 7000.

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