How Helmsley became a major tourist destination

The National Centre for Birds of Prey

The National Centre for Birds of Prey - Credit: Linda Wright

Visitors from across the globe are finding that all roads lead to Helmsley. Martin Pilkington reports.

Helmsley nestles exquisitely into its North York Moors surroundings

Helmsley nestles exquisitely into its North York Moors surroundings - Credit: Joan Russell

The pretty market town of Helmsley, with one foot in the North York Moors National Park and the other in Ryedale, is the sort of place many in Yorkshire would think about when planning a day trip. With its fine hotels and shops, and sights like the gaunt ruins of its castle, you’d expect it to attract visitors from further afield in this country too. It’s perhaps more surprising that in recent years Helmsley has become a destination of choice for tourists from across the globe.

In fact, as chairman of the town council Jake Duncombe is quick to point out, this is far from a new phenomenon. ‘Helmsley has always attracted international visitors during the shooting season,’ he says. ‘People come from all over the world to shoot here – from America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Spain, Denmark, Belgium... you name it.

‘Helmsley is internationally renowned for the quality of its shooting, with a number of very good shoots in close proximity – there are not many places with the same quality of shooting as we have within 15 minutes’ drive of the town.’

But he identifies a particular reason why the town with its grey stone buildings topped with warm red roofs has seen a recent surge in foreign visitors. ‘The Tour de France actually brought more international tourism to Yorkshire in general,’ he adds. ‘And I definitely think we’ve noticed that coming through in Helmsley.’

There's a good variety of specialist shopping in Helmsley

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

The National Centre for Birds of Prey, a fairly recent addition to the district’s attractions, has already proved popular with travellers from near and far. Director Charlie Heap says: ‘We get a good number of Australian and New Zealand visitors and I suspect the large numbers of Dutch visitors can be attributed to Helmsley’s close proximity to the Hull ferry port. We get visitors from some far flung spots too – every year Mr and Mrs Ortuzar from Chile make a point of calling in, and they always adopt a new bird on each visit too.’

The Helmsley in Business group is hoping that having their brochure translated into Dutch will help to boost numbers from the Netherlands even more this year. And they have also set set their sights on more distant shores.

Carolyn Frank, the organisation’s chair, says: ‘We see Chinese visitors as being a major growth area. This year we’ll be working on getting our literature translated into Mandarin to enable these visitors to have the best possible experience with us, and late last year we hosted a group of Chinese travel agents scouting places to take tour groups.’ The centre also plans to translate its website into several foreign languages shortly.

Marketing efforts like those pay dividends of course, but it’s the beauty of the setting and the character of the place and its people that really sell the place. ‘Foreign visitors love Helmsley’s quintessential British appeal,’ says Carolyn. ‘And because it’s a small, friendly community they get to meet and chat with lots of locals over a coffee or beer, and experience real Yorkshire.’

The National Centre for Birds of Prey

The National Centre for Birds of Prey - Credit: Linda Wright

That setting, with York just 25 miles away and the North York Moors on the town’s doorstep, is hard to beat from a tourism perspective.

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Jake Duncombe says: ‘Many people who visit York are curious to explore further afield, and the National Park is a major draw. And Helmsley has a more convincing claim to be the gateway to the North York Moors than Pickering, which is traditionally given that title, given that we’ve got roads coming in from the north, south, east and west.’

So maybe the bold statement on the Visit Helmsley website that all roads lead to the town is not so far fetched. But for some visitors the roads don’t necessarily lead out again, as Carolyn Rank observes: ‘You’d be amazed how many tourists eventually become locals – they start to visit more regularly and then eventually buy a home here to relocate.’

Prize winners

The deli Hunters of Helmsley on the market place won a Yorkshire Life Food and Drink Award in 2015, and in the same year was named Best Small Shop by a parliamentary group

Scotts’ Fish and Chips on Bridge Street is a regular award winner, most recently for its gluten-free version of the national dish

In November 2015 Helmsley was announced as Best Market Town in the annual Great British High Street Awards

In 2015 The Black Swan was this magazine’s Hotel of the Year, won a similar accolade with Visit York, and was the White Rose Large Hotel of the Year

Family firm Ryeburn of Helmsley is a previous winner of Best Ice Cream in the National Ice Cream Awards with their cookies and cream flavour

Last year Duncombe Park’s ionic temple was chosen as Best Conservation Project in the North York Moors National Park Authority’s Design Awards

The Star at nearby Harome sits at the top of Estrella Damm’s list of Britain’s top 50 gastropubs, and appropriately given the name is also Michelin-starred

The National Centre for Birds of Prey at Duncombe Park won Best Small Attraction in last year’s White Rose Awards