For years Riber Castle, Smedley’s Folly has suffered from neglect and unless something was done to save it from oblivion, Matlock’s benevolent guardian could well have disappeared for ever. That ‘something’, as Brian Spencer discovered is the work currently being carried out by Cross Tower Ventures who, without altering the appearance of Grade II Listed Riber Castle are converting it into upwards of 46 apartments and houses; dwellings that will overlook some of the finest views in the Peak District.
Standing at around 853 feet above sea level, high above the Derwent Valley, with its dramatic silhouette of 90 foot high towers and 1450 foot of battlements, this was mill owner and philanthropist John Smedley’s proudest achievement. An advocate of hydropathy, his ‘water cure’ brought the great and the good to Smedley’s Hydro, the building that is now the headquarters of Derbyshire County Council. Riber was planned by Smedley to be both his home and an upmarket extension to his original hydropathic empire.
A man who seemed to be able to turn his hand to almost anything, John Smedley did not employ an architect, but simply instructed builders to carry out his grand design. This cannot have gone too badly, for despite the years of neglect, the outer stone walls, built from dressed stone quarried a few yards from the castle are, with relatively minor exceptions, still as true as they were in 1860.
When Smedley died in 1874, the already declining use of the castle as a hydro was eventually abandoned, but his widow, Caroline, continued to live there until her death in 1892. As the couple had no children, the property was left to a distant Australian cousin, John Thomas Marsden, who having not shared his relative’s interest in hydropathy, sold the castle in 1892.
For about twenty-odd years, Riber was used as a private boys’ school, but very much in keeping with the fortunes of Riber Castle, this was closed in 1929. Attempts to sell the building drew no serious offers, and so in 1936, Matlock Urban District Council bought the place in order to save the town’s iconic view point. During the Second World War it was requisitioned by the Ministry of Food as a store for bulk foodstuffs such as sugar. Unfortunately it was from sugar finding its way into the floorboards that caused the internal timbers to rot. This disintegration of the building’s fabric was also not helped, when, for some unknown reason, the castle roof was removed. The last time Riber’s shell served as any useful purpose was between the early 1960s and 2000 when the ruin was used as a European fauna reserve. For a time the zoo ran a successful programme of breeding such animals as the European lynx, some of which were exported with the help of RAF Lynx helicopters, to reintroduce them into a Spanish National Park. Regrettably the cost of running the zoo became excessive and it closed at the beginning of the decade.
With the building very much at risk, something had to be done to prevent it becoming a huge pile of stones on Matlock’s skyline. This was when a local businessman, the descendant of a family with a keen interest in historic buildings and interior design stepped in to realise a long-held dream to own Riber Castle. In so doing, he set in motion a dramatic and historic rescue operation to bring the castle back to life. His plan was that whilst keeping the appearance of Riber as near as possible to John Smedley’s original design, the Castle would be converted into luxury apartments served by helicopter from Manchester Airport. Underground car parking, an ultra-modern swimming pool on the site of Smedley’s bath house, together with raised flower beds, croquet lawns and an orangery built on the site of their original forebears.
As with many innovative developments, there was the now almost inevitable campaign, arguing that increased traffic use could spoil the atmosphere surrounding the tiny hamlet, where the buildings mostly date from the seventeenth-century. Valid though this argument may be, the development was backed by English Heritage who believed that the sensitive restoration plan was the only hope if Riber Castle was to be saved. After many years of controversy, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister approved the scheme in 2006.
We were taken round the site by Ivan White, Project Director and Julian Thackray, Site Manager, both men with years of on-site experience. Despite the over £8millions already spent, this is still very much ‘work in progress’. Nevertheless from my untrained eye it was easy to see how the overall scheme is progressing.
We began our tour viewing what will be the third floor apartments based on John Smedley’s massive Grand Salon. Using his original ‘footprint’, the apartments will mostly follow the plan of his rooms leading off the two galleries. To let in light a modern atrium hidden from outside view has replaced the removed roof. Each apartment has its own private outside seating area sheltered by the battlements and where it is easy to imagine the owners enjoying a sun-down drink whilst watching the sun go down over Masson Hill. Heating is underfloor from boilers installed where Smedley’s coal-fired systems once operated; and the state of the art, fire extinguisher systems were, to us, like some science fiction apparatus. Modern double glazing now fills the original window frames. Some of the larger windows cleverly disguise the fact that they cover two floors, but it is the circular windows that magically frame the best views. Completing the theme of Victorian opulence, huge chandeliers will hang from the ceiling, but tastefully gilded plasterwork decoration is already in place around the upper level. This all gives the modern impression of the Victorian era Grand Salon as it once was.
While still fulfilling the idea of something that Smedley would approve, a modern lift will whisk owners up to their high-level castle-based homes. On the ground floor a luxurious endless swimming pool, jacuzzi spa, sauna and fitness equipment, will be part of the leisure center being built where Smedley’s original bath house once stood. Hopefully no longer will visitors be sluiced by high pressure cold water, but instead pampered in the style expected by anyone paying over £700,000 for the privilege of living at Riber.
In keeping with the original, the castle has no front entrance (Smedley and his guests would drive into the coach house and enter through a covered way directly into the mansion). His original orangery is being recreated as the main entrance on the west side. Residents arriving by car or helicopter will access it by way of an underground car park and move up into the orangery to pass through the grand arch entrance into the atrium.
Existing outhouses including the original coach house, stable block and gate houses will form ten further dwellings of varying sizes using stone from nearby Birchover Quarry. All in all they will be part of an innovative plan that should save Riber Castle for generations to come.