Historic Helmsley is full of surprises
- Credit: Joan Russell
Richard Darn visits the North York Moors market town. Photographs by Joan Russell
Few towns in Yorkshire make a better entrance than Helmsley. Arriving from the north along the twisty Chop Gate road, snaking its way through idyllic moors and woods, the town’s beguiling honey coloured stone buildings hove into view set in a verdant dip in the land. Dominating the scene is the 12th century keep of Helmsley Castle – 100ft tall and refusing to succumb to gravity despite being chopped in half like a giant wedding cake.
Dodgy builders? Not quite. It was actually undermined by human moles during the English Civil War when Parliamentarian forces led by Yorkshireman Sir Thomas Fairfax succeeded in ejecting the Royalist garrison. After a three month siege in 1644 the victors were determined that the keep would not be used again to thwart their ambitions, so the tunnellers set about their work with success.
The view overlooking the town is wonderful. Helmsley nestles exquisitely into its North York Moors surroundings. Scenic parkland extends south west from the Grade I listed Duncombe Park, harbouring northern England’s oldest oaks – 500 years plus – and Britain’s tallest lime tree (150ft). The soft transition between rural and urban should come as no surprise, after all Helmsley’s Anglo Saxon name is Elmeslac, which means Helm’s forest clearing.
The castle is a great starting point for a visit. A colourful storyboard tells me that the original wooden fortress on the site was built by a foreign invader to keep a grip on their prize – England! These great bastions are impressive, but we often forget what they represent - occupation and Norman overlordship. And as far as the ordinary person was concerned that could be brutal.
Just a few miles north of the town off the Cleveland Way are humps and bumps in a farmer’s field, possibly part of the lost village of Griff, pillaged when the Normans clamped down on rebellion in 1069. This terrible event, known as the Harrying of the North, was little short of genocide and the monk Simeon lamented that no village was left inhabited between York and Durham and becoming instead ‘lurking places to wild beasts and robbers’.
But before we demonise the Normans too much let’s remember they inspired the creation of nearby Rievaulx Abbey in 1132 on land granted by Walter L’Espec; by all accounts a decent chap according to Rievaulx’s most famous abbot, Aelred.
Despite its formidable walls Helmsley Castle saw very little action until the civil war and became more a des-res. The impressive panelled Tudor manor house, built by Edward Manners, grandson of the 1st Earl of Rutland, boasts original plasterwork and houses a charming exhibition on the castle’s history. Piquing my interest was a set of deadly medieval armour piercing arrow heads on display which were found locally. The only other known examples were recovered from Henry VIII’s Mary Rose. One in the eye for anyone who thought Helmsley was a military backwater.
Glancing through the windows of the manor house reveals another of the town’s gems – Helmsley Walled Garden. Cultivated from 1758 to supply fruit, vegetables and flowers to Duncombe Park, and possibly doing the same for the castle in medieval times, the five-acre plot became derelict in the 1970s. Then volunteers led by the visionary Alison Ticehurst coaxed it back to health. The result is stunning – wild flowers and herbs are flourishing, the glasshouses restored and bountiful fruit trees ripen under the sun. Even the bees love it and eight species have been spotted doing their bit for Mother Nature.
The last time I visited was over decade ago. At the time they were propagating juniper saplings from cuttings taken from four wizened specimens up on the moors – they were the last of their breed in those parts and desperately needed a helping hand. Happily I can report that nearly 300 young trees were planted back in the wild and most have taken root, preserving the local genetic strain, and hopefully reversing a worrying long-term decline.
Boosted by the garden’s scents and after a thirst quenching beer at Helmsley Brewing Company’s bijou bar on Bridge Street, I then stumbled across a leaflet about Magna Carta celebrations locally. Hmm? Cashing in on someone else’s 800th anniversary? Not at all. For it was Robert de Roos, who succeeded Walter L’Epec as Lord of Helmlsey, who was one of 25 barons named in the charter and charged with ensuring that tricky King John stuck to the agreement.
Poor Robert had a rocky ride, falling in and out of favour with the king, losing his Helmsley lands and then regaining them and having his son taken hostage. He had a stint as a monk and pledged his lands for the crusade. And we think modern life is complicated.
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Today Helmsley is thriving thanks to tourism and rates as the national park’s top destination for day visits. But it wasn’t always that way. In the past it earned its corn through wool and flax weaving. Much less well known is that the town was also a big centre of timber production.
In 1918 there were no fewer than seven timber merchants with a three-mile tramway linking the town with the Waterloo Plantation on the Duncombe estate to transport lumber. In the Second World War the same woods were worked by female lumberjills and Canadians filling in for menfolk away in the forces.
All of which rather brings me back to the beginning. Helmsley retains the feel of a delightful clearing in the trees, possessing the charming attribute of surprising even seasoned visitors.