Helmsley - a centre for food and arts

Helmsley Arts Centre

Helmsley Arts Centre - Credit: not Archant

Don’t let that sleepy, picturesque facade fool you, says Tony Greenway. There’s lots going on the beautiful market town of Helmsley.

Helmsley market square

Helmsley market square - Credit: Joan Russell

Annika Dowson has lived in Helmsley for the last 11 years and still feels like a holiday-maker. You can understand why, because after just five minutes in this good-looking North Yorkshire market town, the rest of the world falls away. It's tranquil, laid-back, and surrounded by drop dead gorgeous countryside, while the centre - with its broad market square, cafes, restaurants, pubs, specialist shops and independent brewery - is smart, scenic and litter-free.

'I think it's so beautiful here,' says Annika. 'I can sit in a cafe and feel like I'm a tourist. The businesses are very welcoming and want to encourage visitors, but they don't forget about the locals. There's loads to do, too. There's Helmsley Castle, there's Duncombe Park (one of Yorkshire's loveliest historic houses and a location for the 2016 Dad's Army movie and the ITV drama series, Victoria), and the Cleveland Way starts here. It's a little gem, is Helmsley.'

And, since the end of March, it now has an artisan food market, which takes place in the town hall on the last Friday of every month (running alongside the traditional market in the market square). Annika is its leading light. 'People like a choice of different food,' she explains when we ask the reasons for starting it.

'It's helping local traders sell their items and gives better accessibility to shoppers. Essentially it's about keeping everything local, rather than going to supermarkets where everyone gets the same stuff.'

Helmsley Castle is a great starting point for visitors

Helmsley Castle is a great starting point for visitors - Credit: Joan Russell

Stalls include Lacey's Cheese, Acorn Preserves, The Clucking Pig, Sawley Kitchen, Yorkshire Orchard, Solange Bakery, Really Indian, The Butcher and the Baker and Rare and Native breeds. Annika hopes the artisan food market will attract people from outside the town as well as Helmsley residents. 'If you can offer different things that aren't available in other places, then it's got to help,' she reasons.

Mind you, Helmsley does a pretty good job of bringing in visitors anyway. The only market town in the North York Moors National Park, its attractions include Helmsley Walled Garden, the National Centre for Birds of Prey and - as Annika mentioned - the castle. It even has Yorkshire's only 25 metre open air pool which, at the time of writing, was due to re-open in May after renovation work. Then there are well-known commercial names including The Black Swan hotel (which dates from the 15th century), Hunters of Helmsley deli (which was named Britain's best small shop in 2015) and acclaimed ice-cream makers, Ryeburn of Helmsley.

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If you're in Helmsley, you don't really need to go anywhere else. Even theatre, comedy and film shows come to you. At the heart of the town is Helmsley Arts Centre, originally built as a Quaker meeting house in 1812. This is a small but interesting performance venue that has cultivated a reputation for ingenious programming. Somehow it manages to reel in a mix of big names and intriguing, quirky productions, despite its dinky size.

For instance, this month Kiki Dee and guitarist Carmelo Luggeri are playing an acoustic set (15th), followed by folk favourites The Shackleton Trio (20th), fresh from appearances on Mark Radcliffe's Radio 2 Folk Show and the Cambridge Folk Festival. Actor Rhodri Miles performs Gareth Armstrong's acclaimed one-man play Shylock later in the month (29th); and then, on July 13th, comics Jo Caulfield and Chris Washington stop by to play Edinburgh festival preview shows. That's impressive going for a 140-seat auditorium. What's its secret?

There's a good variety of specialist shopping in Helmsley

There's a good variety of specialist shopping in Helmsley - Credit: Joan Russell

Clearly, artists have good experiences at the Arts Centre and are keen to come back. But the trick is finding newcomers, too, notes volunteer coordinator Julia Kershaw. 'That's down to Natasha Jones, our artistic director, who has lots of contacts and whose remit is to satisfy as broad an appeal as possible,' she says. 'We know our audience and we do need to sell tickets - but we don't always play it safe.'

Ironically, the fact that the town is rural and out-of-the-way helps the Arts Centre's appeal. 'One of the reasons that Helmsley works is that it's an isolated spot,' says Julia. 'People invariably have to get into the car to go anywhere. Yes, Easingwold, Pickering, Thirsk and Malton are fairly close. But clearly people would rather stay local and don't want to get in the car if they can avoid it.'

Because Helmsley is madly picturesque it scores as a retirement spot. 'We have a lot of retirees here - and by that I mean people in their fifties and over who still have huge amounts of energy and don't want to stop doing things,' says Julia. 'They're the type who really value the Arts Centre and tend to become volunteers here. In fact we have over 100 volunteers on our books including costume-makers, set designers, and people who work in the cafe on a Friday morning when it's market day.'

With cinema screenings, live theatre broadcasts, regular art exhibitions, singing sessions, yoga classes, talks, workshops, a writers' group, youth theatre, its own in-house amateur company, plus a studio bar with courtyard garden, the venue has become more than just a place where people see shows. It's a hub for the local community.

When we were in town we stopped for a coffee and caramel slice at Barkers cafe bar, then stocked up on strawberry sherbets and other treats at Helmsley Traditional Sweet Shop before browsing around Crane, the vintage clothes store. 'Did you go to Ryeburn's for ice cream?' asks Annika Dowson.

I tell her we didn't, but only because we ran out of time. She sounds vaguely horrified. 'It's award-winning,' she says. 'It's amazing.'

There's nothing for it then, we'll have to come back.