This winter’s walk is one of my favourites, both in summer as well as winter. I can see Riber Castle quite easily from our bedroom window, in fact most of the walk is visible from where we live, high above the Derwent Valley. I followed the walk on a wintery day last February, when the silent fields were covered by softly falling snow. As this offering is to be published in the March 2022 edition of Country Images, let’s see what nature has in store.
Starting in the centre of Matlock by the Crown Square entrance to the Hall Leys Park, the walk climbs steadily up to Starkholmes, one of Matlock’s residential neighbourhoods extending beyond Old Matlock. Metesford’s original hamlet grew around St Giles Church, still the town’s parish church after at least six or seven hundred years. A steep footpath was used by servants every day and in all weathers to reach Riber Hall and later on, Smedley’s short-lived masterpiece, Riber Castle. Fortunately this is the end of steep climbing for the day and the way downhill is by a narrow winding country lane, back into Starkholmes. Here a right turn for about a hundred yards along Starkholmes Road, leads to High Tor Road on the left. This back road takes us into High Tor Grounds, Matlock’s ‘alpine’ park. From the top of a winding lane, an old stony track drops back downhill into the riverside path leading back into Hall Leys Park.
The three major points of interest visited or seen on this walk are, in chronological order, Hall Leys Park, Riber Castle and its Jacobean village, then High Tor Grounds as the final part of the walk.
From Crown Square, Matlock’s busy cross roads, the walk immediately enters Hall Leys Park. It was originally developed from two riverside fields, called the Haw Lees, on land bought from Henry Knowles in 1898 by Matlock Urban District Council for visitors and locals to use as a ‘promenade and pleasure resort’. The park was officially opened on 23rd June 1911, commemorating the coronation of King George V, and is now managed by Derbyshire Dales District Council, through whom the park has won several awards for its appearance and facilities. These range from attractive flower beds, to band concerts as well as a popular skate board park, tennis courts, electrically powered boats and a miniature diesel train, alongside a well-used children’s play area. The Café in the Park makes a perfect place to stop and refuel at the end of the walk.
Matlock’s south-eastern skyline is dominated by what has become the town’s unofficial logo, Riber Castle. This Grade II listed building dates from the 1860s when John Smedley, a local textile magnate who brought fame to the town by promulgating the use of water to cure all manner of aches and pains. From his main hydropathic establishment on what became known as Smedley Street, now used successfully as the headquarters of Derbyshire County Council, Britain’s great and the good, flocked to Matlock for the dubious privilege of being sprayed by powerful jets of cold water, but the town never became another Bath or Harrogate; the lack of natural hot water even stopped it from competing with nearby Buxton. During World War 2, the building already working against impossible odds to attract visitors, became a secret training college for British and allied forces involved in various forms of subterfuge against the enemy. Already struggling to attract wealthy visitors, the birth of the National Health Service with its free medicine to all, drove devotees away from the dubious advantages of the ‘water cure’.
John Smedley decided to build Riber Castle as his personal residence, making a statement, it was the self-appointed accolade commemorating a lifetime’s work, putting Matlock on the map as a spa. Unfortunately the place couldn’t double as somewhere to experience his ‘water cure’ as an added incentive, because the one thing the site was lacking, was water in large enough quantity. When he died without anyone wanting to live at what became known in some quarters as ‘Smedley’s Folly’, the place gradually fell into disuse, first becoming a boys’ minor public school, then as a store for emergency food supplies during World War 2. Finally its ruins were temporarily used as a European Wildlife Zoo. The latest attempts at rejuvenating the place came to a temporary standstill a couple of years ago, but plans are still in hand to convert Riber into a high class block of apartments complete with helicopter service to North Midlands and other regional airports.
The third and final feature of interest is High Tor, a real mountain and within easy access to Matlock town centre. The walk follows trails once trodden by ponies carrying Victorian ladies in crinolines up to its summit café, a place that mysteriously burned down soon after Derbyshire Dales District Council bought High Tor and its woodlands.
Enter Hall Leys Park from Crown Square and follow the riverside path starting from the War Memorial stone and an old tram shelter that once stood at the centre of Crown Square. This was where passengers could catch a cable-drawn vehicle up Bank Road, thereby saving a relentlessly steep climb. (In wintry days before the onset of motorised traffic, small boys used the tram to take their toboggans to the top of Bank Road, from where they had a glorious downhill run).
Go past the foot-bridge on your right and walk on past the boating pool and children’s play area.
Follow the Knowleston Place back-road for a few yards, and then turn right into a small park.
Cross a small footbridge and bear right following Bentley Brook beneath the wooded limestone crag topped by Pic Tor to the brook’s confluence with the River Derwent.
Following the riverside path downstream until it joins a macadamed path immediately in front of the railway bridge, and rising to your left. Use this to reach the Starkholmes road.
Cross the road with care and turn right.
Walk uphill as far as the dual entrances to Highfields Lower School and St Giles Primary School.
Turn left to join a signposted path climbing between the two schools.
The path, frequently paved with well-worn gritstone flags, climbs steeply towards Riber Castle, its facade dominating the skyline.
Cross a side path joining from the left and right, and then continue to climb steeply uphill.
Go past a restored farm house and cross its access track, then continue uphill to reach the boundary of Riber Castle grounds.
All the houses of Riber village are at least two centuries older than the castle, making it one of the least altered places in Derbyshire.
Turn right on to the village access road, going onwards past an old farm house and the Jacobean Riber Hall. Continue forwards at the ‘T’ junction and past a small pond soon to be busy with spawning frogs and newts.
Go past the turning to Hearthstone Farm, then start to swing to the right and go steeply downhill.
The steepest part of the descent comes after crossing the side road down to Starkholmes. Go forwards here and follow the sharp left-hand bend down to Starkholmes Road.
This section of road has been used for a hill-climb section of the Tour of Britain race.
Turn right on joining the main road and follow it gently uphill for about 150yards as far as High Tor Road – (a bus shelter marks the start of this road).
Turn left and walk along High Tor Road, past groups of houses in order to reach a metal gateway marking the entrance to High Tor grounds.
Go through the gate and walk uphill, through mature beech woodland, then go past the entrance to long abandoned roofless lead mines with fanciful names such as Fern Cave, or Roman Cave.
Begin to climb on a winding, macadamed road, right and then left, past the turning to a cluster of telecom mast, in order to reach the open fields above the steep crags of High Tor.
The roadway soon becomes a grassy path. Follow this, along the summits of crags surrounding High Tor, taking care to prevent children and dogs away from the hundred foot drop on the left.
Go through the gateway at the bottom of the path leading from High Tor and turn left, downhill, on the outward path.
On reaching the river and railway bridge, turn right and walk upstream beside the river, back to the Hall Leys Park by way of Knowleston Place. The park café is on the far side of the bandstand, from which an alternative path leads back to Crown Square.
A moderate 4 miles (6.4km) walk through Hall Leys Park, then by field paths and quiet by-roads via Riber Castle and High Tor. One strenuously steep 548ft climb (167metres).
Ordnance Survey Explorer Series Sheet 24. 1:25,000 Scale: White Peak Area.
Matlock Town Centre (Pay & Display).
Trains and buses (TP Bus Service) from Derby
Pubs, cafes and restaurants of all grades in and around Matlock town centre and the Hall Leys Park.