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Yorkshire Helmsley, North Yorkshire

Yorkshire’s answer to the Cotswolds.

Helmsley is an extremely attractive market town on the edge of the North York Moors. With its stone buildings, River Rye and Borough Beck, Helmsley is Yorkshire’s answer to the Cotswolds. Life is centred round the Market Place, still with its market cross and big monument to William, Second Lord Faversham 1798-1867, which was ‘erected by tenantry, friends and relatives, who cherish his memory’.

Market day is Friday and it is always busy with locals and also tourists. Although there is a small Co-Op, Helmsley has kept a wide range of small family owned shops.

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There is something for everyone from Castle Stores wool shop selling hats hand knit in Helmsley to Farm to Fork Butchers selling meat from local farms. Thomas of Helmsley is a very good bakers while Hunter’s of Helmsley has an excellent deli and also sells a range of local produce aimed at both locals and tourists. This is the place to visit for your holiday gifts. There is a traditional newsagent and tobacconist, a wine merchant, as well as boutique dress shops, cafes and fish and chips. Brown’s of York, the up market department store, also has a shop here.

Helmsley Brewing Company is a small brewery making very good beers. They have a small shop and also offer tours on a Wednesday.

Culture isn’t forgotten and the Helmsley Arts Centre has a regular programme of theatre productions, music, cinema, talks and workshops.

The Black Swan Hotel stands at the top of the Market Place and provides high quality accommodation and a gourmet dining experience. Classic afternoon teas are served in the tea room.

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If your tastes run to something a bit simpler, there are two other pubs in the Market Place, the Feathers and the Royal Oak, which provide accommodation and serve food and real ale. We can recommend the steak pie and the beer in the Royal Oak.

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The Crown next to the Black Swan still has its sign but closed many years ago.

To the west of the Market Place is Borough Beck flowing through grass lined banks bright yellow with daffodils in March.

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All Saints' Church (#2) near the Black Swan, is a large church with an interesting selection of C19th wall paintings depicting the coming of Christianity to the north of England and Helmsley’s importance.

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The ruins of Helmsley Castle (#3) peer over the roof tops. Dating from the early C13th, this had a curtain wall with massive square keeps on the east and west walls.


It only ever saw military action during the English Civil War, when it was besieged for three months before surrendering due to starvation. It was slighted by the Parliamentary troops to prevent further military use, although west apartments continued to be lived in until the C18th.

Below the castle is Helmsley Walled Garden (#6) which has been lovingly restored over the last 20 years, with Victorian greenhouses, fruit trees and conserving old, rare and endangered garden plants. The Stick Man has a workshop here making handmade walking sticks.

There is also Duncombe Park, built in 1713. The house is the family home of Lord and Lady Feversham and is closed but the gardens and parkland are open in the summer months. In the grounds is the International Centre for Bird of Prey which is open from February to Christmas and has three flying sessions a day.

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Not only is there plenty to do and see in Helmsley, it also makes a good base for exploring the North York Moors and Vale of Pickering. Rievaulx Abbey is just a short walk from Helmsley along the Cleveland way. Byland and Ampleforth Abbeys are a bit further to drive and also worth visiting. Ampleforth Abbey also has a very good tea room! Pickering has a ruined castle, a church with some of the best Medieval wall paintings in the country and is the terminus for the North York Moors Railway.
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All Saints’ Church, Helmsley

There has been a church in Helmsley since before the Norman Conquest. St Aidan is supposed to have preached here in the C7th. Little is known about the history of the church. The present building is a C19th rebuild, although it still has the Norman south doorway and chancel arch. It is a big church and the murals painted by the Victorians show a triumphalist view of Christian history with Helmsley at the centre.

Set to the north of the Market Place it is surrounded by trees and almost impossible to photograph.

The Victorians kept the style of a C13th church with very tall square tower with corner turrets at the west end, nave, north aisle, transepts and chancel. It is built with ashlar blocks and there are neat corbels round the top of the walls.


Entry is through the south porch which still has the original Norman round arch with chevron carvings. The pillars on either side have carved capitals.


Inside it has a wood barrel ceiling and complex pillars with pointed arches separating the nave and north aisle. At first sight it is a fairly plain church with Victorian bench pews.


Our eyes went to the walls of the north aisle, which are covered with murals depicting the spread of Christianity in the area. These are shown by a series of ‘trees’.


The Helmsley Tree has branches to the other local parishes. The York tree shows the different dioceses with the date of their foundation and attempts to show the success for St Aidan’s mission. St Cuthbert’s cross hangs from the bottom left branch. He was possibly the most famous of the Celtic saints.

The Rievalux tree shows nearby Rievaulx Abbey with its daughter abbeys at the ends of the branches. The windows in the north aisle depict the life of L’Espec a friend of Henry I who was handed the estate.

The panelled roof of the north aisle is painted with red IHC monograms, black and white patterned ribs and painted shield bosses.

There are more murals in the south transept. At the top is St George killing the dragon, which represent God driving Satan from the Kingdom of Anglia. Along the top of the dragon are the names of Norse gods, Woden, Friga, Thor... The rest of the paintings tell the story of St Aidan and St Oswald bringing Christianity to the north east. This story is continued in the stained glass windows.


As well as the mural, the south transept contains a splendid reredos above the altar. This is set under a blue canopy with gold stars. In the centre set in a scarlet and gold frame is a painted carving of the Crucifixion with the Virgin Mary and St John on either side of the cross. Above the altar is a row of brightly coloured shields.


The organ occupies part of the north transept. Behind is a small chapel with an altar made of Frosterley marble which is full of fossils. On the wall is a double piscina with a painted statue of Mary and the baby Jesus, with a lit candle.

There is a glorious Norman chancel arch with heads carved round the outer arch and chevron and beaded patterns on the inner arches. The capitals have beak head, scrolls and ram’s horns. Above is a round window with flower tracery.


The altar, reredos and altar rails were made by Robert Thompson of Kilburn and have his mouse trade mark. It is a very simple altar with a narrow quatrefoil frieze along the top and a panel of flowered silk in the reredos. Doors on either side lead to the sacristy.

Encaustic tiles on the choir floor have an image of a pelican pecking her breast to feed her young.

Panelling on the walls is the war memorial to the 22nd Dragoons who were stationed at Duncombe Park during the Second World War. Their banner hangs from the wall.

The Victorian font is under the tower.

The guide book mentions the tombstone of Lord Ross of Hamlake which contains the only brass in the church. Don’t get excited. This is small and very worn. Hanging on the walls are the yoke from a liberated slave. This is a long wooden pole with a forked end, used to control chained slaves as they marched. The forked end was placed on a slave's neck and the ends locked with an iron bar. The other end of the yoke was tied to another yoke. Family members would be tied to the same yoke, making it difficult for enslaved men to escape without leaving their families behind. In this way, a small group of guards could control a large number of slaves. and medieval pikes. There is also a letter written by Dr Livingstone to Mrs Gray, wife of the Bishop of Cape Town, thanking her for the mosquito net she sent him.

There are also three medieval pikes, used by constables to keep order during fairs and markets.

The guide book to the church is full of detail about history, but is confusing and doesn’t give a clear description of the church and what to look for.


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Helmsley Castle

Helmsley Castle is a splendid ruined castle built on a rocky outcrop above the River Rye on the edge of Helmsley. It only ever saw military action once during the English Civil War.

A wooden castle surrounded by ramparts and ditches was built around 1120 by Walter L’Espec. It later passed by marriage to the de Roos family who replaced it by a stone castle at the end of the C12th/beginning of the C13th. The castle didn’t have a central keep, only a curtain wall with massive square keeps on the east and west walls. It was designed to impress. The south barbican was added later in the C13th as were internal domestic buildings inside the walls. Later a new building was added to the west tower to provide more comfortable apartments for the family.


In the C16th, the castle passed into the ownership of the Manners family, the Earls of Rutland, who converted the old hall into a comfortable family home.

The castle was held for the King during the Civil War and was besieged for three months before surrendering due to starvation. It was slighted by the Parliamentary troops to prevent further military use, although the west apartments were spared. These continued to be lived in until the C18th when the Duncombe family who were now the owners of the castle, moved into the newly built Duncombe Park.

The Castle is now in the care of English Heritage and is open weekends in the winter and daily in the summer. There is an exhibition with artefacts of domestic life from the castle as well as cannon balls from the Civil War.

The castle had two entrances, either from the north or the south east, both guarded ditch, ramparts and drawbridge.

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Before entering, it is worth walking round the outside of the castle to view the outside of the west tower and chamber block.

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The south east entrance is the more impressive as it has a barbican.



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Outside the south east barbican are three modern bronzed statues of medieval warriors by Malcolm Brocklesby designed to evoke a ‘zen approach’ to martial arts, thus evoking how weapons merged with the warriors using them.

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Looking back through the gateway makes you realise just how important it was as the line of first defence.

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Entry into the inner bailey is through the remains of the south gate.


To the left on the inner side of the curtain wall are the foundations of the C14th kitchen and pantries.


In front is the remains of the east tower which was blown up by the Parliamentary forces. This was originally designed to be seen from the town as a symbol of the lord’s wealth and power. Little is left of its internal structures. It had a vaulted basement with a large room above which was probably used to receive guests and conduct estate business. The tower was heightened in the C14th creating extra floors.



In late may, the walls were covered with the tiny purple flowers of Fairy Foxgloves, which thrive in the cracks between the masonry.




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Helmsley Castle cont...

The west tower attached to the chamber block, is a sturdy square building which was the private apartments but is now an empty shell. It had massive stone walls with large windows with window seats and small fireplaces on each floor. Doorways lead through into the chamber block.





The Chamber block with the latrine tower to the south had two floors. The ground floor now houses an exhibition about the castle, but would originally have been used for storage or service rooms with the state apartments above. It was remodelled by Edward Manners in the late C16th. The ground floor was divided into into three rooms using timber and plaster. The first room was the largest and would have been the Tudor entrance hall and servants dining room, with a large fireplace.


The furthest room was the smallest and probably a service room.


The first floor is reached by an external staircase and has two rooms, the great chamber used for dining, music and dancing and the smaller more private withdrawing room.

The smaller roomhas been left very much as it was in the 1920s with its small fireplace and part of a decorative plaster frieze round the top of the walls.


Beyond is the larger great chamber with wood panelling above the fireplace and on the connecting wall and a decorative plaster ceiling. Against another wall is a large wooden cupboard.




A C19th engraving gives an impression of what this room might have looked like when the Manners family lived here..


Beyond the state apartments is the latrine block, a simple square tower with a hipped roof. This contained the latrines for the chamber block and the two shafts of the latrines can still be seen against the west wall. The block was remodelled in the c16th with more rooms, with fireplaces.




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Helmsley Castle - the exhibition in the ground floor of the chamber block

The exbibition has a lot of information about Helmsley Castle, way of life and the Civil War, as well as artefacts found round the site. These include examples of C12 or C13th carved stonework.


There were green ridge tiles from the chapel, which would have provided a dramatic contrast to the pale walls and also fragments of the stained glass.



There are examples of domestic glass and pottery. domestic glassware and pieces of broken pottery




There are examples of cutlery


There are keys from the C13th to the C18th.


There is an iron mortar bomb from the Civil War as well as examples of stone cannon balls.



There are arrow heads, swords and a breastplate pierced by an arrow or pikesman, as well as spurs.




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Helmsley Walled Garden

This was the walled garden for Duncombe Park and was built well away from the house where it wouldn’t intrude upon the carefully landscaped parkland. It is best seen looking down from the Cleveland Way.


It is a lovely setting below the walls of the ruined Helmsley castle and has one of the best views of the castle.


Many of the gardeners joined the military during WW1 and the earl was killed in combat, leaving a 10 year old successor. The estate trustees leased the walled garden as a market garden after the war and it was eventually abandoned in 1984. It became very overgrown until local woman, Alison Ticehurst, began to restore the garden back to its Victorian splendour and as a place for the local community to enjoy.

The garden is now run by an independent charity with a dedicated band of volunteers. Its aim is to encourage therapeutic horticulture by encouraging people to engage in gardening to improve their physical and mental health and well being.

The paths still follow their original plan, dividing the garden into four quarters of a square with a small ornamental pond at the centre.


In early June, the hot border leading to the pond was colourful with Allium and spurge.



The smaller paths at right angles to the central border are framed with Laburnum arches. the laburnum had begun to flower, but needed another week to be seen at its best.


Each of the four quarters is very different. That immediately to the right entering the garden is the gravel garden with the orchard beyond.


The fruit trees were surrounded by wild flower meadow with bluebells, cow parsley, buttercups and red clover.


The secret garden was still very early spring and the plants were only just beginning to grow.


Beyond the laburnum arch were the community plots, set in raised beds.


The vegetable garden provides ingredients for the Vine House Cafe. Copper beach hedges provide shelter.


Fruit trees are grown along the walls.


The two quarters on the castle side of the garden are less interesting, with the picnic area and event lawn. Don’t get too excited by the chickens oir pond, which is a tiny rectangle.

Alison’s garden with its grass, trees and borders is probably the most attractive, along with the Iris Border..



Near the Iris border is the tiny Linda Weyer garden with its elephant feature, which was planted in her memory a few years ago.


The glass houses have been restored. One was empty, one was being used for potting plants and the other had a display of geraniums.

The garden is a few minutes walk from the centre of Helmsley and is well signed. There is limited parking by the garden so it probably makes sense to park in one of the central car parks.

The garden is well kept with very few weeds. There are staff working in the garden who are happy to stop and talk to visitors. Plants aren’t labelled. There are plenty of seats to sit and relax. There is a popular cafe as well as shop and plant sales.

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