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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Riber & Starkholmes

Posted Sunday, May 13, 2007

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Riber & Starkholmes:

The village hamlet of Riber is part of the Matlocks and sits high above the spectacular limestone gorge of Matlock Bath, boasting some of the finest and most dramatic views to be found anywhere in Derbyshire.

Below Riber is the village of Starkholmes, and although separated by the precipitous 1 in 4 switchback Riber Road with its three notorious hairpin bends – a hair-raising challenge to most motorists and an almost impossible climb for an ageing pedestrian writer – the two are also separated by a 250 foot elevation on the steep east bank of the Derwent. Riber is distinguished by the familiar stark and skeletal outline of Riber Castle which stands boldly at the highest point – 853 feet above sea-level and is visible from many miles distant.

Undoubtedly the easiest approach to Riber, which also boasts the mainly seventeenth century Riber Hall and Manor House, along with a farm of similar vintage, is along the gently rising lane which leads westward some one and a half miles from Lea and Holloway.

From this direction the lane leading to Riber runs up through lush meadows, and the tiny settlement of some sixty inhabitants nestles amongst a collection of lime, fir and copper beech trees which surround the ancient walls of Riber Hall.

The Wolley family acquired the Riber estate around the end of the fifteenth century. Indeed, the three-storey east wing of the Manor House with it’s mullioned and transomed windows – which Pevsner described as “a most felicitous picture” - has the initials GW and MW along with a date of 1633 inscribed on the gable-end. Writer & Historian Roy Christian thinks the lower, west range could be ‘much earlier’.

Riber Hall, with its walled garden and wooded grounds stands beside a narrow lane leading into the hamlet, and is dated 1661.

These days, with its twin gables facing the rising sun, it is a rather splendid up-market hotel catering for the well-heeled visitor and particularly popular with tourists from home and abroad for whom it provides a quaint and authentic ‘olde worlde’ English atmosphere.

In recent years the tribulations of Riber Castle have been well documented; built by Victorian industrialist and hydropathic entrepreneur John Smedley at a cost of £60,000, it was originally intended to be an Observatory, but became his family home when it was completed in 1862. Following his death in 1874, his widow remained at the castle until she died in 1888.

Since then the castle has had a chequered history. It became a school until 1930 and then during the Second World War was used as a Ministry of Food storage depot. It stood empty and virtually derelict for a decade until it was purchased by the Hallam family in 1963 and became Riber Castle Wildlife Park. In recent years the wildlife park has closed, the animals and visitors gone, and the castle has become a roofless crumbling ruin whose future was uncertain, until property developers recently won the battle to build houses and flats inside the walls of the ruin, and in the extensive hilltop grounds - despite objections from almost every resident of Riber!

The walk from Riber Castle to Willersley Castle at Cromford along the undulating Starkholmes Road is both exhilarating and spectacular, and it is easy to see why Byron called this area a “Little Switzerland” – perhaps he was travelling along this very road at the time?

Beyond Starkholmes Post Office, which is the village’s only shop, Riber Road rises steeply on the left and spectacular modern dwellings are perched precariously on the hillside. Here there are wonderful gardens – perhaps they could be termed the `hanging gardens of Riber’ - for they cling miraculously to the steep ground and lend colour and beauty to the surrounding landscape. There’s a dip in the natural contour of the land here which allows a fabulous birds-eye view of Matlock Bath and the cable-cars climbing up to the towering Heights of Abraham opposite, an appropriate place to bide awhile and perhaps to ponder what the good folk of this spectacular village might provide to mark Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee celebrations.

Perhaps on my next visit there will be two new seats!

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