The Rear View
John Betjeman, Winston Churchill, Marianne Faithfull, Paul McCartney, W B Yeats and Lavender’s Blue have all been. The great and the good, in other words. In recent years thanks to Sammy Leslie and her uncle the 4th Baronet, Sir John (forever known as ‘Sir Jack’), Castle Leslie has flung open its heavy doors to the hoi polloi (albeit the well heeled variety) too, rebuilding its rep as a byword for sybaritic hospitality. Visitors from Northern Ireland could be forgiven for experiencing déjà vu – it’s the doppelgänger of Belfast Castle. Both were designed in the 1870s by the same architects: Sir Charles Lanyon and William Lynn.
Together these architects captured the spirit of the age. Lynn produced a majestic baronial pile with chamfered bay windows perfectly angled for views of the garden and lake simultaneously. Lanyon crammed the house of Italian Renaissance interiors and designed a matching loggia to boot. Fully signed up members of the MTV Cribs generation will find it hard not to go into unexpected sensory overload at this veritable treasure trove of historic delights. Castle Leslie is all about faded charm; it’s the antithesis of footballer’s pad bling. But still, the place is an explosion of rarity, of dazzling individuality. Sir Jack’s brother Desmond Leslie wrote in 1950:
“The trees are enormous, 120 feet being average for conifers; the woods tangled and impenetrable; gigantic Arthur Rackham roots straddle quivering bog, and in the dark lake huge old fish lie or else bask in the amber ponds where branches sweep down to kiss the water.”
We caught up with Sammy in the cookery school in one of the castle’s wings. “Although I’m the fifth of six children, I always wanted to run the estate, even if I didn’t know how. After working abroad, I returned in 1991. The estate was at its lowest point ever. My father Desmond was thinking of selling up to a Japanese consortium. There was no income… crippling insurance to pay… The Troubles were in full swing. People forget how near we are to the border here.”
Nevertheless Sammy took it on. “I sold dad’s car for five grand and got a five grand grant from the County Enterprise Board to start the ‘leaky tearooms’ in the conservatory. They were great as long as it didn’t rain! And I sold some green oak that went to Windsor for their restoration. Sealing the roof was the first priority. Five years later we started to take people to stay and bit by bit we got the rest of the house done. So we finished the castle in 2006 after – what? Nearly 15 years of slow restoration. “The Castle Leslie and Caledon Regeneration Partnership part funded by the EU provided finance of €1.2 million. Bravo! The house and estate were saved from the jaws of imminent destruction.
The Leslies are renowned for their sense of fun. An introductory letter sent to guests mentions Sir Jack (an octogenarian) will lead tours on Sunday mornings but only if he recovers in time from clubbing. In the gents (or ‘Lords’ as it’s grandly labelled) off the entrance hall beyond a boot room, individual urinals on either side of a fireplace are labelled ‘large’, ‘medium’, ‘tiny’ and ‘liar’. Take your pick. A plethora of placards between taxidermy proclaim such witticisms as ‘On this site in 1897 nothing happened’ and ‘Please go slowly round the bend’.
Bathrooms are a bit of a Leslie obsession ever since the thrones and thunderboxes were introduced upstairs. “The sanitary ware in the new bathrooms off the long gallery is by Thomas Crapper. Who else?” she smiles. “We’ve even got a double loo in the ladies so that you can carry on conversations uninterrupted!” Exposed stone walls above tongue and groove panelling elevate these spaces above mere public conveniences.
In the top lit gallery which runs parallel with the loggia, the 1st Sir John Leslie painted murals in the 1890s of his family straight onto the walls and framed them to look like hanging portraits. Always one to carry on a family tradition with a sense of pun, this time visual tricks, Sammy has created a thumping big doll’s house containing an en suite bathroom within a bedroom which was once a nursery. It wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Irvine Welsh’s play Babylon Heights.
A sense of history prevails within these walls, from the amusing to the macabre. The blood drenched shroud which received the head of James, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, the last English earl to be beheaded for being a Catholic, is mounted on the staircase wall. “It’s a prized possession of Uncle Jack’s,” Sammy confides.
Our conversation moves on to her latest enterprise: the Castle Leslie Village. “An 1850s map records a village on the site,” she says. “Tenant strips belonging to old mud houses used to stretch down to the lake. Our development is designed as a natural extension to the present village of Glaslough.” In contrast to the ornate articulation of its country houses, Ulster’s vernacular vocabulary is one of restraint. Dublin based architect John Cully produced initial drawings; Consarc provided further designs and project managed the scheme. Consarc architect Dawson Stelfox has adhered to classical proportions rather than applied decoration to achieve harmony. Unpretentiousness is the key. At Castle Leslie Village there are no superfluous posts or pillars or piers or peers or pediments or porticos or porte cochères. Self builders of Ulster take note!
That said, enough variety has been introduced into the detail of the terraces to banish monotony. Organic growth is suggested through the use of Georgian 12 pane, Victorian four pane and Edwardian two pane windows. There are more sashes than a 12th of July Orange Day parade. Rectangular, elliptical and semicircular fanlights are over the doorways, some sporting spider’s web glazing bars, others Piscean patterns. “We’ve used proper limestone and salvaged brick,” notes Sammy. “And timber window frames and slate.”
We question Sammy how she would respond to accusations of pastiche. “They’re original designs, not copies,” she retorts. “For example although they’re village houses, the bay window idea comes from the castle. The development is all about integration with the existing village. It’s contextual. These houses are like fine wine. They’ll get better with age.” It’s hard to disagree. “There’s a fine line between copying and adapting but we’ve gone for the latter.”
Later we spoke to Dawson. “Pastiche is copying without understanding. We’re keeping alive tradition, not window dressing. For example we paid careful attention to solid-to-void ratios. Good quality traditional architecture is not time linked. We’re simply preserving a way of building. McGurran Construction did a good job. I think Castle Leslie Village is quite similar to our work at Strangford.”
The houses are clustered around two eligible spaces: a square and a green. Dwelling sizes range from 80 to 230 square metres. “We offered the first two phases to locals at the best price possible and they were all snapped up,” says Sammy. “This has resulted in a readymade sense of community because everyone knows each other already. A few of the houses are available for holiday letting.”
“We’re concentrating on construction first,” she explains. “The hunting lodge being restored by Dawson will have 25 bedrooms, a spa and 60 stables. It’ll be great craic! Between the various development sites we must be employing at least 120 builders at the moment. Estate management is next on the agenda. Food production and so on.” Just when we think we’ve heard about all of the building taking place at Castle Leslie, Sammy mentions the old stables. “They date from 1780 and have never been touched. Two sides of the courtyard are missing. We’re going to rebuild them. The old stables will then house 12 holiday cottages.”
We ask her if she ever feels daunted by the mammoth scale of the task. “I do have my wobbly days but our family motto is ‘Grip Fast’! I think that when you grow up in a place like this you always have a sense of scale so working on a big scale is normal. I mean it’s 400 hectares, there’s seven kilometres of estate wall, six gatelodges – all different, and 7,300 square metres of historic buildings.” Sammy continues, “The back wall from the cookery school entrance to the end of the billiard room is a quarter of a kilometre.”
“A place like this evolves,” Sammy ruminates. “There’s no point in thinking about the good ol’ days of the past. The castle was cold and damp, y’know, and crumbling. And it’s just – it’s a joy to see it all coming back to life. The whole reason we’re here is to protect and preserve the castle and because the house was built to entertain, that’s what we’re doing. We’re just entertaining on a grand scale. People are coming and having huge amounts of fun here. Castle Leslie hasn’t changed as much as the outside world. Ha!” This year there’s plenty to celebrate including the completion of Castle Leslie Village, the Leslie family’s 1,000th anniversary, Sammy’s 40th birthday, and Sir Jack’s 90th and the publication of his memoirs.
That was six years ago. This summer we returned to Castle Leslie. Our seventh visit, we first visited the house umpteen years ago. Back then Sammy served us delicious sweetcorn sandwiches and French onion soup in the ‘leaky tearooms’, looking over the gardens of knee high grass. The shadows were heightening and lengthening ‘cross the estate. Her late father Desmond showed us round the fragile rooms lost in a time warp. Ireland’s Calke Abbey without the National Trust saviour. He would later write on 11 May 1993, waxing lyrical to transform an acknowledgement letter into a piece of allegorical and existential prose:
“I am glad you enjoyed your personally conducted tour. We try to make them interesting and amusing. Thanks also for St John – the only disciple who really understood. His opening verses contain more advanced cosmic science than all the modern theorists bundled together. I also love Chapter 17 ‘that ye may be one’. But now, at least, scientists state it all began with the sudden appearance of light from nowhere, filling the whole of space in a billionth part of a second – The Big Bang. Or more simply – ‘Let there be Light. And there was Light.’ As our old friend Ecclesiastes says, ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ I hope you will come again when you have nothing better to do on a nice weekend.”
On another occasion, Sammy’s sister, the vivacious Camilla Leslie, came striding up the driveway, returning home from London to get ready for her wedding the following week. “Nothing’s ready! I’ve to get the cake organised, my dress, at least we’ve got the church!” she exclaimed, pointing to the estate church. This time round we stay in Wee Joey Farm Hand’s Cottage in Castle Leslie Village, enjoy a lively dinner in Snaffles restaurant in the hunting lodge, and once again, afternoon tea, now served in the drawing room. Meanwhile, Sir Jack is taking a disco nap in the new spa to prepare for his regular Saturday night clubbing in Carrickmacross.
That was four years ago. Visit number eight and counting. More to celebrate as Sammy, still living in the West Wing, turns 50. Sir Jack would have turned 100 on 6th December but sadly died just weeks before our visit. This time, we’re here for afternoon tea in the rebuilt conservatory or ‘sunny tearooms’ as they turn out to be today. The assault of a rare Irish heatwave, 26 degrees for days on end, won’t interrupt tradition. A turf fire is still lit in the drawing room. ‘Apologies for the mismatching crockery as so many of our plates have been smashed during lively dinner debates’ warned a sign on our first visit. The crockery all matches now but the food is of the same high standard:
Miraculously, Castle Leslie still has no modern extensions. It hasn’t been ‘Carton’d’ (in conservation-speak that means more extensions than an Essex girl in a hairdressers). Instead, the hotel has grown organically, stretching further into Lanyon and Lynn’s building. An upstairs corridor lined with servants’ bells – Sir J Leslie’s Dressing Room, Lady Leslie’s Dressing Room, Dining Room, Office – leads to a cinema carved out of old attics. Castle Leslie has had its ups and downs but Sammy Leslie is determined to ‘Grip Fast’! And in response to Ms Leslie’s late father’s letter to us, we will come again when there is nothing better to do on a nice weekend.