Helmsley - this North Yorkshire market town is very much about today as well as celebrating its past

Pic Joan Russell
Town feature on Helmsley.
Helmsley Castle.

Pic Joan Russell Town feature on Helmsley. Helmsley Castle. - Credit: Joan Russell

There are few simple pleasures as enjoyable as sitting on a bench in the middle of a busy market town watching the world go by. It’s better still if you have a doorstop of a sandwich made to order from a local delicatessen resting in your hands, ready to eat. If the market town is Helmsley on the western edge of the North York Moors National Park, then truly, all is right with the world. This would be for me, an ideal beginning to a perfect weekend away even though I have driven not many miles to be here.

But then, why shouldn’t I escape to a place although close by, I rarely have the chance to visit?

Helmsley with its red roof tops, rushing streams and castle ruins welcomes visitors with enthusiasm. There is a good choice of comfortable places to stay, perhaps too comfortable if like me you are happy just to curl up on a sofa with a cup of tea and newspaper (or e-book). But shake yourself up because there’s plenty to do although most of my list seems to be dominated by shopping, eating with some sight seeing but I’ve added walks and scenic drives after calling in on my way at the friendly North York Moors Visitor Centre at the top of Sutton Bank.

The road to Helmsley via Sutton Bank has breathtaking views but this very steep, winding road may make your ears pop. Beware, this road is not suitable for caravans and should be avoided in very bad weather. But the alternative route is a winding road through woodland, past fields and the ruins of Byland Abbey, so worth taking at any time in my book.

I’ve made a mental note to return to Helmsley, although I’ve just arrived, to take greater advantage of the specialist shopping. There are not only food shops with very different regional products to try but stylish fashion boutiques as well as interiors and gift stores which are worth a special journey if you are looking for something you’re not likely to find on a bigger town or city high street, or even online, come to that.

Helmsley has what seems like a warren of town centre streets and there’s no knowing what’s just around the corner – a coffee shop (there are quite a few of them), book store, jeweller, gift shop, there’s plenty to explore. And unexpectedly, around the next corner, are the ruins of Helmsley Castle.

The medieval castle was once owned by Richard III who, according to some history notes, preferred to stay at Middleham Castle. It has been through many hands and although owned today by the Feversham family of nearby Duncombe Park, the castle is in the care of English Heritage which celebrates its history with all kinds of events including guided tours during the summer.

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Helmsley itself has a rich history and its centre is designated a conservation area. But don’t be deceived, the town is very much about today as well as its past. Helmsley Arts Centre, tucked away at the end of a short alley is an invaluable source of culture and entertainment; see a film, enjoy an exhibition, listen to a concert, take a class, watch a ballet and plenty more.

There is a wave of determination too among businesses to survive the economic downturn with the launch of a new action group, Helmsley in Business. Its earnest aim is to keep the market town thriving. So far more than 40 businesses have signed up to work together to encourage local residents to support the town and to promote the area to day-trippers and holidaymakers.

Standing together is the only way they will defy the recession, believes Chris Garnett, chairman of Helmsley in Business and owner of Hunters of Helmsley delicatessen.

‘We are determined that we won’t go the way of some UK high streets and as such we have decided that every business needs to help and support each other,’ he said.

‘It would only take a couple of businesses to fail and it can start to have big ramifications, so it is in all of our best interests that every organisation continues to trade successfully.’

Using digital technology to their advantage is a must. The group has developed a website (thisishelmsley.co.uk), set up social media feeds for the town (@visithelmsley), improved signage in the area, begun marketing the town and organised events to appeal to both locals and visitors.

Last year the town organised and ran Jubilee and Yorkshire Day events, and a hugely successful Christmas Tree Festival which welcomed more than 2,500 visitors and raised £1,800 for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance. So far in 2013, an innovative Easter Bonnet Trail gave families something fun and free to do in the school holidays.

Carolyn Frank, vice-chair of Helmsley in Business and owner of Libby Butlers Jewellers, added: ‘Helmsley really can offer something for everyone. For visitors to the area we have great quality accommodation, good transport links and plenty of interesting and unique things to do – whether people are after good food, shopping and relaxation, or if they are looking for action and adventure. But we need to shout about it. Helmsley has been here for thousands of years - and has operated as an important market town in the region since the 12th century - so we are determined to fight to keep the town thriving.’

My short time in Helmsley was relaxing with plenty to do if I felt like leaving my armchair, and I plan to return often to get to know the town better. And more power to the people of Helmsley who want to keep this a very special place. n

Getting there: Helmsley is 14 miles from Thirsk on the A170 heading towards Scarborough.

Parking: There’s plenty of paid parking, short and long stay as well as off street parking a little way out of town

Things to do: This is great walking country so bring your boots, with some really good specialist shopping and excellent places to eat. And don’t forget Helmsley Arts Centre if you want to catch a film, a live show or exhibition.

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