Helmsley, Yorkshire

Venture up Bransdale and you will find unadulterated Yorkshire. First through a straggling little village called Carlton, whose yellow-stone cottages with red, pantiled roofs, have low-walled gardens and straight, flower-lined paths to their front doors. Then, down over a gill up past a strange, dour chapel sitting among Scots pines and on past oaks and strange mounds until the long, purple- heather horizon of Pockley Moor is before you. Eventually, a slow descent takes you past some gloomy fir plantations and the emerald oasis of Bransdale appears in the valley below, criss-crossed with walls and hedges and sprinkled with farmhouses set among their steadings and trees. Places called Toad Hole, Snout House, Spout House, Cowl House, Cow Syke. Stork House and Bog House cling to the winding lanes in this, the remote head of the dale, surrounded by high, looming moors and cut off from the world in winter.

Book Cover op3‘Mountains I have no love for; they are accidents of nature thrown up in volcanic agony,’ wrote Herbert Read, the art historian who was brought up on a neighbouring farm in Ryedale, ‘but moors and fells are moulded by gentle forces, by rainwater and wind, and are human in their contours and proportions, inducing affection rather than awe.’ At the dale’s end there is a Victorian shooting lodge in the classical style and a chapel. You can return on the other side of the valley, and there could be nowhere better to come home to than Helmsley.

This star of a market town is set on an eminence, gently sloping towards the banks of the Rye. The source of the Rye is right at the upper end of Bilsdale. The river then passes the most romantic ruins in England, those of Rievaulx Abbey, and winds on past the grounds of Duncombe Park, skirts the town of Helmsley and then pursues a meandering course of sixteen miles through a rich and fertile vale until it falls into the Derwent a little above Malton. High above hanging woods and the ruined abbey is the long and langorous, grassy stretch of Rievaulx Terrace – eighteenth century landscape gardening at its best – with a Doric temple at one end and an Ionic at the other. It was created by Thomas Duncombe as a place to visit for picnics from his neighbouring pile.

The ruins of Helmsley’s Norman castle stand on a series of spectacular grass covered ramparts. The market, which takes place on Fridays, is almost as old – set in the generous square, where a statue of an ermine-clad Lord Feversham (the Duncombes became Earls of Feversham) stands under a pinnacled canopy. That great Yorkshireman, Harry J Scott, founder and editor of The Dalesman, wrote in the 1940s of the ‘hearty goodwill’ in northern markets where ‘the stall holders are part of a great army of nomads, moving from market to market every day of the week with their scarves and their jewellery, their fish and their vegetables and their literary fare, bearing titles like Her Last Chance, He Loved Too Well and Poppy’s Romance. ’ The fish stall displays fresh catches from Whitby.

Today, Helmsley’s main trade is tourism, while yesterday it was agriculture and linen. The atmosphere has suffered not a whit, neither have local shoppers forsaken it for Scarborough. Helmsley still has proper shops. One of my favourites is Claridge’s, between the church and the main square. If you want good maps and guide-books, sketchbooks and kind, friendly ladies seeing to your needs, there is nowhere better. Sadly, Job Clarke, one of the last great drapers and gentlemen’s and ladies’ outfitters, ended its days and emptied its windows some time ago, but the shop has now been taken over by the family firm Browns of York, so the chain-stores are still being held at bay. Mr Nicholson is another tradesman of high repute, whose firm of butchers, to which he later added grocer and off-licence, was founded by his father in the Thirties. It was the first firm in the north of England to be made a member of the exclusive ‘Q’ guild of master butchers. Mr Nicholson used to hunt regularly with the neighbouring Sinnington, Middleton and Derwent packs and less often with the Bilsdale, the oldest hunt in Britain, because the hill descents are ‘a bit nerve-wracking on a thoroughbred. You need a good strong cob for that country.’ Mr Nicholson also became chairman of the local parish council because, he said, ‘I wanted to keep Helmsley like it is.’

Photo: Wikimedia Commons /  David C Williams

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