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
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
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
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.