IF YOU WALK to the top of Riber and look across the Derwent Valley
to the great dramatic sweep of Matlock Bank you can still see how
totally Matlock was once dominated by the hydros and the hydropathy
A positive obsession to Victorians and Edwardians, and a fashionable
frolic in the twenties and thirties, hydropathy was a victim of the
Second World War. Shabby and outdated, some of the hydros struggled
on for a few post-war years, but their era drew to a close half a
Surprisingly, given the 1960s enthusiasm to tear down Victorian buildings,
almost all the old hydros survive to this day. The first, largest
and arguably, least attractive architecturally, Smedley's has been
the County Council's headquarters since 1956; Lilybank is a residential
home for the elderly, Chatsworth is a County Council office, Jackson
House is an hotel, and Derbyshire Records Office is in the former
Oldham Hydro which served as the Ernest Bailey Grammar School for
many years. They're all still there in new roles with reasonably assured
And then there's Rockside - once one of the most glittering and fashionable
of them all but now reduced to a ravaged, vandalised shell, an awful
testimony to failed promises, neglect and indifference.
Still from the top of Riber you can see Rockside in a prominent position
on the hillside above Smedleys. It looks different, more impressive,
more stylish - tall and elegant twin towers and altogether more modernlooking.
Appearances aren't deceptive.
The original buildings date from the 1850s, so were in almost at the
start after John Smedley, returning from European business visits,
decided that Matlock was quite capable of emulating the German spas
and fired with his usual zeal, set about building his own hydro.
A continental spa
The original Rockside building was perfectly adequate and typical
of its time but, by the turn of the century, the owners decided they
needed something really striking, something that would quite literally
stand out over the town. Unlike Smedley, they appointed professional
architects who, after visiting health resorts and spas in Switzerland
and Germany, devised the twin-tower block which nearly a hundred years
later is important enough to be a Grade II listed building. Unsurprisingly,
it's in English Heritage's register of buildings at risk.
Rockside's golden age was in the first half of the 20th century, rather
than in the 19th when Smedley's philosophy that hydropathy had to
be worthy, improving but not necessarily enjoyable, held sway.
After its ultra-modern revamp in 1906, Rockside was different - it
was for people who wanted some fun and enjoyment. If your health improved
- then so much the better, but you rather gained the impression that
the infirm and elderly would be better off booking into Smedleys.
An elegant art-deco-style advertisement for Rockside from the 1930s
summed it up in its headline: For a weekend or a year; don't break
up the party. The text goes on to emphasise that Rockside is a
modern hotel with choice cuisine, luxurious lounges, dancing, tennis
and other pleasures.
But the party was broken up, permanently as it happened, from September
1939. During the war, Rockside like other hydros was requisitioned
for military purposes and, for a time, was a convalescent home for
injured service personnel. It never re-opened as a hydro but was sold
to the County Council whose leader, Charles White, was extremely keen
to see his home town of Matlock benefit from new developments.
In October 1946, along with the nearby Chatsworth Hydro, Rockside
opened as a teacher-training college for women with just 100 students.
It shed the women-only status 12 years later, and eventually expanded
to accommodate around 400 students. But it wasn't large enough and
could not offer the range of courses increasingly demanded and closed
The County Council, ironically the protector of listed buildings of
architectural and historic importance, found to its increasing unease
that one of Matlock's finest buildings was rapidly and visibly deteriorating,
right on its own doorstep. The building was targeted by vandals, would-be
arsonists, and thieves who were not slow to recognise the value of
the original art-nouveau style fittings. The building was systematically
stripped of most of its attractive and unique furnishings.
A developer arrived on the scene in 1995 with a plan to convert the
landmark tower block into ten apartments, renovate much of the older
building, and provide ten new homes in the grounds. This was an enabling
package through which new building financed the cost
of restoring the original. The developer was not allowed to build
more than six homes before re-roofing and carrying out many permanent
repairs to the old hydro.
But the developer went into liquidation after building five new homes
and without carrying out any restoration work. Another developer,
the London based Dubarry arrived on the scene and proposed a restoration
package but it too ran into difficulties. In December 2001 their managing
director claimed: "We are very keen to start work on the development,
but the Council are making it difficult."
In its prime: advertising circa 1936
A few months later Dubarry's financial backers
pulled out of the scheme, and the site was sold on to another
company, Essex-based RockwelI Hall developments.
Their application has now been approved in principle by Derbyshire
Dales District Council and awaits final approval - because it
affects a listed building - from the Department of Transport,
Local Government and Regions. It is, by common consent, the
last remaining chance to secure Rockside's future.
Even so, some local people aren't too keen, because they consider
the conversion of the tower block to eleven apartments, the
construction in the grounds of an apartment block housing 15
two-bedroom apartments, and a block of three three-bedroom town
houses is too intensive and will lead to traffic congestion
on nearby roads.
On the plus side, however, a building which just over a year was
condemned as a time bomb, and drew a 345-signature petition from
local residents urging its demolition, will be saved.
As a report to the District Council points out: "Many of the
original features have sadly been lost or fallen into disrepair. The
conversion of the tower and hydro will safeguard the future of a listed
building at considerable risk for many years. The proposals respect
the integrity of the building."
For a once-proud building - now reduced to such a state that the fire
brigade regard it as too dangerous to enter - some respect and integrity
seems long overdue.