Riber Castle – Life at the top

PUBLISHED: 09:37 11 November 2011 | UPDATED: 20:16 20 February 2013

Riber Castle – Life at the top

Riber Castle – Life at the top

The latest chapter in the story of an iconic Derbyshire landmark. Mike Smith and Christine Marlow report...

Sitting some 853 feet above sea level, high above the Derwent Valley, the gaunt ruins of Riber Castle form a dramatic silhouette comprising 90 feet high towers and over 145 feet of battlement walls. It was built in the 1860s as both a family home and a symbol of his success by John Smedley, the Victorian mill owner and philanthropist.

The castle is the second impressive structure developed by this local entrepreneur. A decade earlier he had taken over a small hydropathic venture, which became so popular by 1867 some 2,000 people were being treated annually that Smedley decided to build the impressive Hydro on"Matlock"Bank. Four storeys high, 200 feet long, 50 feet wide and with beautiful gardens stretching down the hillside, the Hydro continued to offer a world famous water cure until it closed in the 1950s. Today the building is the headquarters of Derbyshire County Council.

Smedley was inspired to construct his great castellated mansion at Riber by the hill-top fantasies hed seen while travelling in Europe. He appointed himself as architect and his workforce constructed an edifice from local gritstone, which, to this day, is almost perfectly square. The pice de rsistance of the interior was the grand salon, occupying the full length of the building with staircases leading to a gallery and the towers at each end. The salon floor was covered by splendid, highly-patterned carpets, its walls were embellished by the finest Italian plasterers and its roof was supported by elaborate iron vaults with illumination chiefly from the roof through patterned stained glass. Smedley also built a deep well for water and gas-works that supplied the castle with light. Local folklore has it that he often took his carriage down into the town at night to admire the impressive sight of his illuminated home. The wealthy industrialist died at Riber Castle in 1874 and his widow, Caroline, continued to live there until her death in 1892. The couple had no children and the castle was left to a distant Australian cousin, John Thomas Marsden, who instructed his uncle, George Marsden, to sell the property.

The castle was purchased by Rev. John William Chippett for use as a private boys school. It remained in business under his leadership until 1924, when it was taken over by Captain Wilson Gorthorpe who ran the school until 1929.

In 1930, Riber Castle was offered at an auction sale but was withdrawn and stood empty until 1936 when Matlock Urban District Council purchased it, almost certainly saving it from being demolished. After many suggestions as to its use, a caretaker was appointed and it was opened to the public. At the beginning of the war, the castle was requisitioned by the War Office but never garrisoned, so the Ministry of Food used it to store food. The Ministry kept it until 1948 when it was returned to the Council. Like many other large buildings at the time, much of the useful timber, stone, iron and other materials were gradually taken away for use elsewhere and in the mid 1950s the roof was removed. Riber faced years of neglect and empty decline, although in the early 1960s the ruin became the centre of a fauna reserve and wildlife park that closed in 2000.

It has been said that nobody with a sense of humour could have built Riber Castle and, over the years, it has been no stranger to controversy arousing strong love it or loathe it views from local people and visitors alike. Several times in its 150 year history, Riber Castle has faced an uncertain future and this Grade II listed building has become more and more at risk.

In 2000, local developers who had ambitious plans for a dramatic rescue operation involving the conversion of the castle and its outbuildings into apartments purchased the castle. The proposal was met by opposition from Keep Riber Rural, an action group that expressed concern about the inevitable increase in traffic on the narrow country roads and what they saw as over-development on the edge of the small village of Riber. The Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) also voiced objections on the grounds that the rural nature of the site would be disturbed. However, English Heritage gave their backing to the proposals because they felt a sensitive conversion would be the only viable means of preserving a building that was deteriorating with alarming speed. After many years of controversy, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister approved the scheme.

The plans entail the conversion of the castle into 26 apartments, the transformation of the outbuildings into a further 10 apartments and the creation of 10 new-builds in the grounds. The new-builds were approved by the Secretary of State as enabling buildings, which are developments constructed in places where planning permission would not normally be given, on the grounds that their sale is a means of generating revenue for a developer who has guaranteed to renovate a listed building at risk. However, the completion of these new dwellings is not permitted under the planning consent until the renovation of the castle has been completed.

Construction on the castle began in a meaningful way in January 2009 with the appointment of Ivan White as Project Director. When we met Ivan in his site office, he told us: I knew from the outset that the restoration of the castle would be a massive undertaking. The external gritstone castle walls had survived well but been unsupported and exposed to the elements for many years, most of the internal walls had crumbled and collapsed because they were constructed from rubble stone and covered in plaster and the sugar that had been stored in the building during the War had turned to molasses and rotted all the floorboards.

Unfazed by these difficulties, Ivan and his team have attacked their task with absolute commitment. Ivan believes that it is absolutely imperative to save a great landmark that is cherished by local people and millions of visitors to the Peak District. Showing a commendable determination to respect Smedleys original vision, he said: We are trying to think like Smedley as much as possible, particularly with regard to the design of arches, entrance ways and roof flashings. Where something has crumbled, we look carefully at the form of a similar structure elsewhere in the mansion before we decide on the details of its restoration.

Before renovation could begin, the bats and great-crested newts had to be rehoused and the external walls pinned together to stop further deterioration. By the end of autumn the castle will be wind- and water-tight with windows and a roof for the first time in more than 50 years. Whenever possible, the construction workers are making use of stone that can be salvaged from the old building, but they are also cutting matching new blocks from locally-quarried gritstone. Local suppliers and manufacturers are used wherever possible and the 119 windows are being hand-made by local craftsmen from Gowercroft Joinery with each window carefully styled and coloured to match Smedleys original designs.

Ivan took us on a tour of the construction site. We passed the cottages where Smedley lived as a temporary measure while his castle was being completed and we then walked through the stable block, where walls and arches have been beautifully restored and the original metal rings on the wall of the stables have been retained as a decorative feature. The sensible provision of a large underground car park for residents should help to prevent the grounds from being littered with parked cars.

In the castle, apartments are being created on three levels, with a mix of two and three bedroom dwellings. All the apartments will command superb views, but those that will open up on to balconies in the towers and battlements at the summit of the castle will be blessed with the most magnificent prospect imaginable of the surrounding countryside. Like the original occupants, the new residents of the castle will be able to look straight across to Smedleys other great building in the area, the Hydro on Matlock Bank, which has survived into the present century because it was adapted to a new use. That example is now being followed with the utmost care at Riber Castle and the developers are sure that John Smedley would approve of the preservation and restoration of his wonderful home.

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