Maureen, one of my regular Interesting Times tour-guests, has alerted me to the sale of Willersley Castle, which we visited for lunch on our ‘Derbyshire Derwent Valley’ tour: https://christianguild.co.uk/willersley.
It operated as a Christian Guild holiday hotel until the coronavirus pandemic forced its closure. The owners have now decided not to reopen: https://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/news/local-news/stunning-castle-hotel-derbyshire-go-4309370.
Its main claim to fame is that it was to be the residence of the great cotton-spinning inventor, Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), whose pioneering mills lie out of sight within fifteen minutes’ walk of the front door.
Mr Arkwright, as he was until he was knighted in 1786, chose Cromford as the site for his first water-powered factory, which he opened in 1771. He resided at Rock House, tucked on a hill even nearer to the mills but on the other side of the River Derwent. He sought to balance the practical necessity of keeping an eye on the works and workers with the amenities he considered suited to his increasing wealth.
To call Willersley a castle is stretching the definition. Designed initially by the little-known William Thomas [https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/william-thomas-216451], it’s an essentially classical house with battlements and turrets. John Byng, later Viscount Torrington, famously described it as “an effort of inconvenient ill taste”.
When he visited in 1789 Byng was scathing about the location, screened from sight of the Mill by a high cliff, overlooking a bend in the River Derwent:
…really he has made a happy choice of ground, for by sticking it up on an unsafe bank, he contrives to overlook, not see, the beauties of the river, and the surrounding scenery. It is the house of an overseer surveying the works, not of a gentleman…But light come, light go, Sir Richard has honourably made his great fortune and so let him still live in a great cotton mill!
The following year Torrington revisited Cromford and inspected the partly-completed interior of Arkwright’s mansion:
…built so high as to overlook every beauty, and to catch every wind; the approach is dangerous; the ceilings are of gew-gaw fret work; the small circular staircase…is so dark and narrow, that people cannot pass each other; I ask’d a workman if there was a library?– Yes, answer’d he, at the foot of the stairs. Its dimensions are 15 feet square; (a small counting house;) and having the perpendicular lime stone rock within 4 yards, it is too dark to read or write in without a candle! There is likewise a music room; this is upstairs, is 18 feet square, and will have a large organ in it: what a scheme! What confinement! At Clapham they can produce nothing equal to this, where ground is sold by the yard…
The Castle was damaged by fire in 1791, shortly before Sir Richard Arkwright’s death, and his son, the banker Richard Arkwright II, commissioned Thomas Gardner of Uttoxeter to rebuild and improve the house.
The finest feature of the interior is the oval hall, which borrows light from the roof to enhance what William Thomas intended to be the main staircase. Other elegant rooms with fireplaces remain.
The Arkwright family lived at Willersley until 1922, long after they’d abandoned the mills.
The Methodist Guild opened it as a Christian hotel in 1928, and it has remained a holiday retreat ever since, except during the Second World War when the Salvation Army operated it as a maternity home.
Now its future is uncertain, threatened by the economic impact of the pandemic.
The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2016 The Derbyshire Derwent Valley tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.