From medieval ruins to red-roofed cottages, the North Yorkshire town o Helmsley is surrounded by striking buildings that enhance nature's charms.
The midsummer sun shines down on a glistening river as it makes it way past stone cottages with red-tiled roofs. A rich glow lights up the stones of an ancient castle’s tall tower, glowering down upon the town it once controlled.
This is Helmsley, a North Yorkshire market town where history, architecture and natural beauty are closely intertwined.
Located in a natural dip, it sits on the southern edge of the North York Moors, where Borough Beck meets the River Rye. The site has been a place of strategic and commercial importance since before the Norman Conquest. From turbulent beginnings, Helmsley eventually flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries as the ideals of romantic architecture and formal landscaping took hold. Today the town draws visitors who come to revel in its vivid connection to the past.
With a population of approximately 1,500, Helmsley has a bustling town centre. The large Market Place and Bridge Street are flanked by small independent shops, cafés restaurants and pubs.
One such shop is a delicatessen, Hunters of Helmsley. The business has won a range of awards for its service and ideas. Last year it gained the accolade of Best Small Shop in Britain, awarded by the Parliamentary Small Shops Group.
Owners Chris and Christine Garnett put their success down to their motto: shopping like it used to be.
“We talk to the customers, engage
with them, treat them like friends,” says Christine. “That can be tricky in summer when you’ve a queue out the door and 30 more at the ice cream hatch, but we always do our best!”
The shop teams up with local suppliers to create new products. One recent venture was a sloe gin ice cream. This was made with the help of Sloe Motion gin makers in Malton and Brymor Dairy in Masham. Another collaboration was with the Benedictine monks at Ampleforth Abbey, five miles away. This resulted in a slow roast pork and Ampleforth apple cider pie.
“The hardest part of my job is tasting the new inventions,” says a smiling Chris.
A microbrewery, Helmsley Brewing Co, opened in a tiny shop on Bridge Street last year. Its beers, Helmsley Honey, Howardian Gold and Striding the Riding, are sold in the shop.
“It’s not easy to be an independent and slightly old-fashioned shop in today’s fast-moving market,” says Christine. “What we really love is interacting with our customers. At the end of the day, we’re Yorkshire folk. We like to talk.”
A dominant structure
Beside the town, and dominating it, are the remains of a once-proud castle. Perched high on its defensive mound, the castle’s heavily fortified bailey and barbicans are still largely intact. Its four-storey East Tower is the tallest structure in Helmsley. Today the whole complex is cared for by English Heritage.
“You really sense the depth of history as you come in through the South Barbican, just as visitors to Walter Espec’s estate would have done in the 12th century,” explains Adam Price, the site manager. He says he feels the centuries of history every morning when he arrives to “wake up the castle”.
“This building was about one thing – domination. The town’s inhabitants were in no doubt about who held the power here. It is imposing and awe-inspiring.”
These days the castle has a more benign influence on the town, says Adam.
“It has become part of the fabric of life here,” he explains. “It is loved by locals and admired by people who visit from all over. Generations of families have brought their children here to let them run around on the battlements and have a picnic in the inner bailey, especially in the summer.
“I meet a lot of adults who played
here as children. They are bringing their own children to tap into that wonderful sense of nostalgia.”
The best time to visit is at the start or end of a summer’s day. “That’s when the colours really explode,” he says. “Standing on the curtain wall near the keep, you can watch the morning light creep across the East Tower, bringing it to life. This gorgeously warm, yellowy-orange light picks out the lines of the keep and bounces off the stonework. Moments like that are magical. I believe Walter Espec, Robert de Roos and Charles Duncombe enjoyed them as much as I do.”
From powerhouse to ruin
Helmsley Castle was built by a Norman lord, Walter Espec. It transformed the small town, formerly known as Elmeslac, into a powerhouse of trade and military might. In 1120, Espec was granted almost unlimited power across northern England by the king, William II. Helmsley Castle was designed to underline his power and influence. Passed to the de Roos family following Espec’s death, it was strengthened through the 13th and 14th centuries. In the less turbulent 16th century, a Tudor manor house was added in the inner bailey.
The castle’s only active combat came in 1644, at the height of the English Civil War. Its Royalist garrison was besieged for three months by Parliamentarian forces. Only the threat of starvation forced surrender. In recognition of their brave resistance, the 200 occupants were allowed to march out with honour, sporting their small arms weaponry.
The victorious Parliamentarians blew up and dismantled parts of the castle. It was then left derelict until 1695 when it was bought by London banker Charles Duncombe. His descendants still own it. The family lived at the castle until 1711, when they built a new mansion in the adjoining parkland. The castle was kept a romantic ruin, visible from the long hillside
driveway that connects the two buildings.
Garden of delights
Another legacy of the castle plays an important role in the town today. On the other side of the ruins is the entrance to Helmsley Walled Garden. This was originally a kitchen garden for the castle in Tudor times. It continued to serve the estate until the second Earl of Feversham was killed in action in the First World War. The house was leased to a school and the gardeners departed. After a period as a market garden, it fell into disuse.
Then in 1984, a keen local horticulturalist, Alison Ticehurst, formed
a plan to reopen it as a place of healing. With a lot of help from friends, volunteers and benefactors, she succeeded. Today Helmsley Walled Garden draws visitors
and volunteers from all over the country.
“Alison’s husband was a GP and they both had a holistic approach to health,” says Tricia Harris, marketing manager and a long-time volunteer at the garden. “She felt very strongly that people could be restored through horticulture. All you had to do was create a safe place for them to do it. The walled garden, by its very nature, is that place.”
The stick man
Several businesses share Helmsley Walled Garden’s premises. Among them is the tiny workshop of Keith Pickering, known as The Stick Man. For 30 years, he has been carving elegant designs into walking and shooting sticks. Today he is one of Britain’s foremost craftsmen of his art, cutting approximately 1,000 sticks a year. “It started because I was a beater for a pheasant shoot and I thought I’d carve my own stick to take with me,” he recalls. “The first one was a cock pheasant. Not very good, but it made me want to get better.” He mainly uses hazel, but he also carves ash, chestnut, blackthorn, lime and holly. The majority of these raw materials come from the woods of Duncombe Park, with permission from the estate.
Making a difference
The garden is now a centre for horticultural therapy, as well as being open to visitors. Its team of therapists help a wide range of people. These include vulnerable adults, people with learning disabilities, and people coping with stroke, depression or bereavement. There is
also a patch tended by children from a local special needs school.
“Working in the garden is therapeutic in so many ways,” says Tricia. “You are outdoors, away from the difficulties you are normally up against. You are part of a team, so your presence makes a difference. And it provides the right kind of challenge. With a garden there are very few quick fixes. You have to work at a problem and solve it, and the reward for doing so is immense. You see something happening as a result of your labour. That is therapy in its most basic sense.”
In summer the garden is alive with warm colour. The main source of this is the Hot Border, a long floral bed forming the spine of the garden. It takes its name from the primary colours of the flowers planted there, which yield bold reds, yellows, oranges and purples. These include yellow Anthemis tinctoria ‘E C Buxton’ and Achillea filipendulina ‘Gold Plate’, purple spires of Salvia nemorosa ‘Lubecca’ and magenta Monarda ‘On Parade’.
“Alison had remarkable vision,” says Tricia. “I wish she could have seen how the garden looks in summer. It’s such an explosion of warmth and colour.”
Ancient monastic ruins
Leaving Helmsley, two miles to the north-west is the upper valley of the River Rye. Here, sitting in the heart of a steep-sided wooded gorge is Rievaulx Abbey, one of the largest and most impressive monastic ruins in England.
It was founded in 1132 by 12 monks of the Cistercian order who came from the abbey of Clairvaulx in north-eastern France. They chose the valley as their home because of the abundance of natural resources, and its seclusion. The Cistercian order aimed to follow a strict life of devotion and self-sufficiency.
The abbey was built with the patronage of Walter Espec, the original builder of Helmsley Castle. The monks named it Rievaulx (pronounced ‘ree-voh’), meaning Valley of the Rye. This name harks back to their original home in Clairvaulx.
The monks initially diverted the course of the Rye to create a flat space large enough for the building. Later they diverted it again in order to create a canal. This made it easier to transport building stone from a quarry in the valley wall.
Unusually, the abbey sits on a skewed angle from south-east to north-west. Under church law, most places of worship were built with a west-east alignment. This anticipated the return of the Messiah with the rising of the sun. But the lie of the land at Rievaulx did not allow this. Instead the monks obtained special permission from Pope Honorius II to align their abbey in the alternative form. A transept window faces east instead.
Throughout the 12th century, the abbey became the centre of a major monastic and industrial operation.
The monks mined lead and iron, and developed subsidiary churches around
the region. They reared sheep, sold wool and built a substantial tannery within
the abbey walls.
Over the next 400 years, the abbey thrived. At its peak in the 1150s under its third abbot Aelred, the abbey occupied half a square mile and was home to over 140 monks. There were a further 500 lay brothers and other assistants.
“The monks valued their privacy, but equally they were progressively enterprising,” says Mike Ward, English Heritage’s site manager at Rievaulx. “They were builders and shapers, and they knew how to run a business. If you came here in the 12th century you would have
seen industry on a grand scale, from construction through to tanning and mining. Food production was hugely important too, with so many people at Rievaulx. That’s the main reason why the refectory building is almost as large as the main church.
“The abbey also served as a hospital. The Cistercian vows required them to welcome and treat anyone who required medical help.”
The abbey’s life came to an end in 1538, when Henry VIII dissolved the English monasteries during his schism with the Catholic church. Left as ruins for 400 years, it was only rescued by an energetic restoration project. This was carried out by the Ministry of Works after the First World War. The work was done to help provide employment to returning war veterans who found it hard to get jobs.
It resulted in a clearing of the site, to reveal the abbey ruins in their full glory. Visitors could now appreciate one of the most spiritually and architecturally important abbey sites in England.
In more recent years, English Heritage has done much to return the site to as close an approximation of the 1150s era as possible. The buildings seen today are largely those that would have been familiar to Abbot Aelred and his brethren.
A visitor centre opened this summer, helping bring the abbey’s history to life.
“Summer is the abbey’s high season, and the site looks its best when it is being explored and enjoyed by people,” says Mike. “The vast majority of visitors come on foot, following the Cleveland Way from Helmsley. That’s by far the best way to approach the site; to see it suddenly revealed after following the river through the woods.”
View from the Terrace
Another dramatic view of the abbey comes from an elegant, landscaped bank above the buildings. This is Rievaulx Terrace, created in the 1750s by Thomas Duncombe, son of Charles, the founder of Duncombe Park. He wanted to echo the formal footpaths and temples found on his family estate with an ‘outpost’. His aim was to make visual use of an even more splendid ruin than Helmsley Castle, namely, the abbey.
The site features serpentine woodland walks leading to two temples at either
end of the terrace. One is Ionic, the other Tuscan. The woodlands are planted in sequences of contrasting colours. Paler trees such as lime and whitebeam
contrast with darker species including sycamore and beech.
The terrace is a haven for wildlife. Seventeen different species of bat have been recorded at the site. These include a new species to Britain, the Myotis alcathoe. In summer, the bank of the terrace is alive with vibrant wildflowers. These include lady’s bedstraw, knapweed, harebell,
water avens, betony, wood anemone, crosswort and ragwort.
“The terrace is all about the use of perspective,” explains Nick Fraser. He is the live-in site manager for the National Trust, which now cares for the terrace. “Thomas Duncombe wanted to create a perfect viewing platform for a spectacular landscape and frame it with perfect architecture. You have to say he succeeded!”
The secret, he says, is not to rush for the main viewpoints. Instead it is better to undertake a journey through the landscape to reach them.
“In the 18th century, the journey was just as important as the view,” he explains. “So as you follow the woodland trail, it builds up the anticipation and curiosity. The visitor is never sure where they are going or what’s around the next corner. There are actually 13 different viewpoints around the terrace. Glimpses come here and there. Then round the final corner, there’s the big reveal at Valley View. These wonderful temples are the perfect frames for the valley and the abbey beyond. It’s like a delicate piece of music, building to
a great crescendo.”
He explains that the terrace uses light to spectacular effect, particularly in summer.
“The temples stay cool and dark in the morning. It takes until midday for the sun to come round and light them up, then it’s all golden pyrotechnics,” he adds. “For most people, a lovely sunny day is best. However, I like the terrace on dramatic days when there’s a bit of storm in the sky and the wind is up. The temples play up to that nicely as well. They can be incredibly atmospheric when it’s blowy.
“If Turner came here, he wouldn’t pick a bright sunny day. He’d want something with texture, something raw and wild. You get those days in summer as much as in any other season.”
Nick also relishes the fact that the woodlands, planted 260 years ago, have only now reached their peak of perfection.
“We are fortunate to be living at this point,” he says. “The gardeners who created the terrace knew they would never see them in full maturity and splendour. That is where we are now. In a decade or so the original trees will start to decline, so we are witnessing them at their peak.”
When asked to sum up the appeal of the terrace, Nick has a reply that fits all
the attractions of Helmsley and the surrounding area. “The idea of this terrace was never about just planting something to make a place look nicer. It was about how you drew things in from the landscape to make them part of your scene.”
An enriching experience
That ethos is common to Helmsley Castle, Duncombe Park, the walled garden and, on a much smaller scale, the work of the Stick Man. All frame and magnify the natural world of which they are part. They all enrich the people who come to experience them. This may be through the historical revelations of the abbey or the holistic healing of the walled garden.
The snaking footpaths to the hilltop temples and the grandiose barbicans of Helmsley Castle all create an experience that can intimidate, entertain or enrapture. Helmsley is a narrative of landscape framed and punctuated by art.
If Yorkshire folk like to talk, this small Yorkshire town and its history certainly have a great deal to say.
Words: Nick Hallisay Photography: Alamy