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The Enduring Folly of Riber Castle*
One of a series of articles published in "Reflections" more than two decades ago

Riber Castle on the hill above Malock, now regarded as an essential part of the Matlock landscape and an indispensable tourist attraction   It may be one of Derbyshire's best known landmarks and vital for the local tourist industry, but Matlock's Riber Castle is once more facing an uncertain future - and this time it's serious. Now a ravaged though still impressive ruin, the Castle, built by local textile manufacturer and entrepreneur John Smedley, will be 140 years old next year [2003]. There have been several occasions in the building's chequered and, for the most part, rather poignant history when it once teetered on the brink of demolition but just managed to survive. Michael Fay

DOWN THE YEARS there have been numerous schemes to revive its fortunes, ranging from the amusingly crackpot to the seriously interesting. Now, a pro a new development plan is shaping up as the equivalent of the Castle's last drink in the Last Chance Saloon.

Plans for the latest serious project, in its original form, involved converting the castle into twenty-one apartments and building thirty-seven additional homes in the fifteen acres of grounds. They were withdrawn in June this year [2002] when it became clear to the developers that planning permission would be unlikely. The developers, Cross Tower Ventures, promised to prepare a revised scheme 'in the near future' after further negotiations with the district council and local residents.

The main sticking points were the size and scale. A total of fifty-eight homes was considered by most objectors as too large intrusive a development. Others, including the Save Britain's Heritage movement, objected to a third storey - a span between the towers - being added to the original building.

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Ferocious objections
The strength of the objections was an indication of the importance to local people of the Castle, and the ferocity of some of the objections almost certainly took the developers by surprise. As well as residents of Riber village and local conservation groups, there was full-scale opposition from Matlock Town Council. Even Derbyshire Wildlife Trust pitched in with concerns about the possible loss of breeding sites for bats.

When the developers will unveil their revised scheme is not yet clear, but they now own the Castle and, as they are well aware, to do nothing is not really an option.

After years of relative decline the castle is now deteriorating so rapidly that it could collapse within little more than a decade. More than eight hundred feet above sea level and dominating the skyline the castle, essentially a Victorian folly, has been battered by severe weather and subjected to occasional vandalism - with no maintenance for decades. It was built from sturdy locally quarried gritstone but using modern construction methods. Romantic imagery transforming it into some medieval vision capable of lasting for eternity is wide of the mark. A recent structural survey showed that the rate of deterioration accelerated in the last few years since the disappearance of the roof and floors were either removed or collapsed. The potential collapse of the remaining building should be taken seriously.

Although now regarded as an essential part of the Matlock landscape and an indispensable tourist attraction, the Castle's lack of genuine architectural or historic worth lets it down. It is listed as a building of architectural and historic interest - but only just. It's on the lowest grade, which effectively rules out financial lifeline from the Historic Building Trust. Regional Development Agency funding is not a possibility because Matlock is too prosperous for 'assisted area' help. Unsurprisingly, the hard-pressed Derbyshire Dales district council does not have a spare million or so to support the work.

There have been some discussions about the possibility of forming a Building Preservation Trust or similar charitable organisation which would be eligible to seek funding from, for example, the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources not open to a developer or private individual. Recent estimates indicated that to preserve the castle in its present state and make it weather-tight could cost around £1.5 million.

A former boys' school
John Smedley lived in the house for only ten years - he died in 1872 - although his wife Caroline lived there until her death in 1892. On the market for some time, the building re-opened as a boys' school until declining business forced closure in 1930. There were no buyers until 1936, when the then Matlock Urban Council bought Riber at a public auction for just under £2,000 following rumours that the owners intended to demolish it. They were concerned at its possible loss and despite the obvious deterioration and lack of maintenance planned to use it as a local museum and community centre. Little was done apart from some basic maintenance and, in 1940, the building was requisitioned by the Government as an emergency food supply depot, a use it fulfilled throughout the Second World War. When it was handed back, its state of repair was much worse than in pre-war days. Most of the original lead roof had been removed and replaced with zinc sheeting which proved entirely inadequate. Heavy lorries had been run over the ground floor, causing structural damage, and the programme of work needed to bring Riber back to useable condition was daunting. Rather too daunting for the Council it seems, because they spent £1,000 received from the Government in 1948 for the use of the building on other projects which were thought to have greater priority.

For the next fifteen years, the castle remained empty and deteriorating. It was added to the nation's list of buildings and historic and architectural interest in 1950 and, even then, was described as 'a ruinous shell'. The assessor was clearly unimpressed: "Late in date and pure pastiche it may be regarded as a mammoth folly but it is a well-known landmark and, from a distance, has character." (This damning with faint praise echoed the somewhat superior tone of an article in Architectural Review in the 1930s after the urban council acquired Riber. Finding little of any architectural interest the writer concluded that the building "would be unlikely to ever receive planning! permission in our more careful age.")

Not a priority
Apart from having some 'dangerous building' signs fixed to the castle in the 1950s, Riber did not figure in the Council's priorities. But in 1961 a veteran councillor, Tom Neville, complained that the building was in an appalling state and although its future had been under review by the Council for thirteen years, nothing had been done. He thought the County Council, who had moved their headquarters to Matlock into the former Smedley's Hydro five years earlier might be interested (they were not).

A few months later a developer had informal discussions about the possibility of converting the castle into an hotel and building a restaurant in the grounds. That was rapidly ruled out for planning reasons.

Then, quite suddenly in 1962. the castle was sold for £500 to a Sheffield schoolteacher, David Cliffe, who formed Fauna Reserve (Riber) Limited to develop the castle as a wildlife reserve. The project opened the following year and with fluctuating fortunes continued until 2000 when Cross Tower Ventures bought Riber and closed the business.

Looking back through files and Press cuttings about Riber, it is clear that the building has achieved an importance and status far greater than even John Smedley could have envisaged. And he built to impress.

Intriguingly, one cutting reports that when the sale was agreed by Matlock Council in 1962 the authority issued a statement which promised: "The public can safely be assured that we have taken all possible precautions to see that the fabric and the building remains in its present condition. and if at any future times the property should change hands we have safeguarded ourselves again. The public should be assured that this landmark will remain."

Forty years ago that was a confident assurance but as matters transpired it was not fulfilled; the castle continued to deteriorate

Despite the castle's lack of historic or architectural gravitas it is a building truly important to Matlock for reasons nostalgic, emotional and economic. Local people and the town's numerous visitors will no doubt be hoping that 2002 will bring a more secure future for this intriguing landmark. How it can be achieved is uncertain but there is one certainty - time is short.

It is clear that the building has achieved an importance and status far greater than even John Smedley could have envisaged. And he built to impress

*This is a copy of an article published in "Reflections" in March 2002.
"Reflections" is Derbyshire's largest-circulation targeted lifestyle magazine, serving Dronfield, Chesterfield, Matlock and Bakewell areas.
The article is reproduced here with the very kind permission and written consent of the author, Michael Fay, and Bannister Publications Ltd.

There is more on site information

About Riber
Map of Riber
Water Cures
Biographies : John Smedley
Mr. Chippett's School at Riber Castle
Riber Castle, Matlock : A Classroom. One of the postcards produced for the headmaster
Fountain Baths, Swimmers From Riber School. Boys from Mr. Chippett's School attended swimming lessons at the baths
Matlock: A Peep at Riber Castle - the view from Matlock Bath
Riber Hill and Castle, Matlock