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The Enduring Folly of Riber Castle
One of the dominant presences in Shane Meadows' recent film "Dead Man's Shoes" is an eerie ruined castle, set at the top of a hill overlooking the small northern town where the film's horror unfolds. Glimpsed occasionally above the bleak streets throughout the film, the castle is introduced properly in the terrifying final scenes. A Victorian gothic shell set in the grounds of a nameless, disused leisure attraction, it looks like an urban explorer's dream: remote, unknown, scary, and the setting of brutal - if fictional - events. This is Riber Castle.
Riber Castle is probably one of Derbyshire's best known landmarks. It dominates the country side around Matlock. It is perched on a hill 260 metres (850 feet) above sea level, which is about 200 metres (600 feet) above Matlock. It is a forbidding place, but one I had never been to, even when it was a zoo in a past life. It was time to visit before the developers moved in.
Riber Castle is a steep climb from the town on winding country roads and not easily found. although the presence of the odd old tourist sign for the wildlife park, crudely blacked-out with thick paint helps. The entrance to the castle is shared with the adjacent Riber Hall until the road splits in two and riber Castle is off to the left. There was a locked barrier across the entrance but even I managed to hurdle it with the grace of Colin Jackson.
There were no keep out signs, private property, or anything like that, which surprised me. Although there was a rather large sign that intimated that 18 acres and the ruins were available for lease for D1 and D2 uses-which included golf, pop concerts etc. Oddly the telephone number had been blacked out-so what was happening here?
Walking up the tarmac drive the main part of the zoo was on our left but conscious that the ruin may be security patrolled we pressed on for the main part of the castle. Walking to front of the castle, overlooking Matlock, we were in the shadow of the castle itself, a massive, crumbling and completely hollow Victorian mock-gothic stately home, covered in the remnants of security fencing that through neglect no longer did its job.
On this bright December afternoon the wind was howling around the castle which further added to the eerie feeling. It was easy to see why Shane Meadows chose Riber for his horror film. Inside the building the upper floors were all missing it was just a ruinous but impressive shell. Built by local entrepreneur, John Smedley, it isn't difficult to imagine the splendour of the original building. Smedley died before its completion although his wife lived in it until her death. After her death it was turned into a boys school until declining economics forced it's closure in the 1930's. 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 and hastened it's demise.
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'. 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 it closed with a reputation for cruelty and neglect.
The abandoned grounds of the castle told its own story. Through a dark doorway we entered a dusty hall, formerly the zoo's cafe. This was where the zoo's animals were finally auctioned off, presumably to anyone who had the cash. Corridors led off into dusty rooms, littered with broken glass and bits of furniture. The atmosphere was not good and not a place I wanted to hang around in. Most of the rooms were completely empty and one had been set alight and judging from the smell not that long ago. Any information about the animals kept there had been hastily torn down - glass-fronted notice boards had been smashed open, the glass still littering the floor, drawing pins stuck into corners of torn paper inside. A doorway led into a courtyard ringed with cages. Some of the cages, only a few feet square, held a tyre swinging on a rope - presumably for monkeys. The floor of one cage was littered with cigarette ends and empty lager cans. Who would want to get pissed here I cannot begin to imagine.
The grounds were made up of endless rows of cages, shoddily built from planks, chipboard, MDF and chicken wire, erected amongst and on top of the stone enclosures of more prosperous times. Parts of it, like the aviaries, were completely overgrown with tall grasses and bushes, probably the fruits of spilt birdseed.I had seen enough. It was time to foxtrot oscar. Back down the drive we passed some outbuildings with scaffolding attached and a six berth caravan that had seen better days.
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 council have no funds to invest. It cannot be a desirable option for it to remain as it is so for once common sense prevails.
Plans for a residential development were passed in March this year, but interestingly enough building work has not started. Perhaps the ghost of Riber has struck!
Look at our panoramic photographs to see for yourself.
By Chris Sabian for Peak District View. 11/12/2006
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