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The country’s best shop and the best high street – how does Helmsley do it?

00:00 16 March 2016

Helmsley
Market Square

Helmsley Market Square

Joan Russell Photography

Jo Haywood visits the award winning market town

There's a good variety of specialist shopping in HelmsleyThere's a good variety of specialist shopping in Helmsley

Chipping Norton’s high street is very nice. And Colne’s quirky shops certainly impress. But, to be honest, they’re both a bit blah when compared with Helmsley.

As a county, we don’t like to brag – OK, we do a bit, but only because Yorkshire is so utterly brilliant – but when it comes to high streets, we’re home to the very best.

Helmsley in North Yorkshire beat off stiff competition from the likes of Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds and Colne in Lancashire at the recent Great British High Street awards, taking the coveted top spot in the market town category – and bagging itself a share of the £80,000 prize pot into the bargain.

But for the hard-working community, ably led by Helmsley in Business, it’s obviously more about love than money.

Helmsley Castle is a great starting point for visitorsHelmsley Castle is a great starting point for visitors

‘This was our chance to share our beautiful home town with a wider audience,’ said Lizzie Rohan, chairman of Helmsley in Business and owner of No 54, a five-star B&B in Bondgate. ‘Helmsley is completely out of the ordinary – a really special place to live in and to visit. Now more people than ever know we’re here.’

A record number of 230 high streets entered the competition, attracting more than 200,000 votes across seven categories. The judges were particularly impressed by Helmsley’s independent spirit, the range of events it hosts throughout the year, it’s pioneering schemes (like it’s new motorhome parking project) and its campaigning capabilities via its website – its 3,800+ Twitter followers, its 700+ Facebook followers and the 300+ press pieces it generated in the run-up to the awards.

High Streets minister Marcus Jones praised the competition generally for raising awareness of great British high streets and adding to the momentum which has seen a 30 per cent increase in investment in property in the last year, a fall in town centre vacancy rates to less than ten per cent and a bump in retail sales for the longest period on record.

He also had positive words for Helmsley’s own high streeters in particular: ‘Their innovative ideas and hard work on the ground really made them stand out. We’ll be sharing their excellent example to help others learn from their success.’

The win was obviously well-deserved, but it didn’t come easy. Helmsley in Business has been doggedly raising the town’s profile since its inception in 2012, bringing the community together into one cohesive engine powering it forward from good to great to the best of the best.

‘We’ve built up a real momentum that’s still propelling us along,’ said Carolyn Frank, a founder member of Helmsley in Business and co-owner of Libby Butler Jewellers in Borogate. ‘There’s a great vibe about the place; it’s absolutely buzzing.

‘Since we formed the group in 2012, it’s brought businesses and the whole community together. A lot of high streets are eerily similar, but Helmsley is packed with special, independent businesses stocking non-branded products that you can’t find elsewhere.

‘People use the word unique far too much, but in Helmsley’s case it’s absolutely true.’

The town benefits from a number of assets over and above its range of shops. Visitors are also drawn to its castle, its recently-redeveloped walled garden, the International Centre for Birds of Prey at Duncombe Park, the award-winning Verbena Spa at the Feversham Arms Hotel and the seemingly boundless hospitality of the Black Swan Hotel. Oh, and did we mention that Helmsley is also home to the country’s best small shop?

Hunters of Helmsley, a family-run delicatessen in Market Place, was one of 20 small shops invited to the House of Commons in recognition of the work they did to enrich their community. While there, owners Chris and Christine Garnett were awarded the accolade of Britain’s Best Small Shop.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they’re also founder members of Helmsley in Business. So, what are the benefits of such a band of business brothers (and sisters)?

‘Working together benefits us all,’ said Carolyn. ‘It means we can promote the town with one strong voice while building a better community for those of us who live as well as work here.

‘I know it might seem a little sad, but even when we get a rare day off, my partner Andy and I rarely leave Helmsley because everything we want is right here. The furthest I get is usually the Verbena Spa.’

Lizzie is equally passionate about her adopted home town. Originally from north Lincolnshire, she arrived in Helmsley 12 years ago, exhausted and looking for a rural retreat after working for Formula 1 in London.

‘Helmsley provided the perfect antidote,’ she said. ‘It’s such a special place with an amazingly upbeat community.

‘It can be lonely and isolating running your own business, but not here. We have an amazing support system, encouraging each other, working together and reaping the rewards of everyone’s success.

‘We all sing from the same hymn sheet and the result is extremely beneficial to everyone.’

Last year was pivotal for Helmsley, and 2016 looks set to follow suit. There’s a packed programme of events already in place to ensure the positive momentum continues, most notably the Tour de Yorkshire, which pedals furiously into town on May 1st.

‘It’s going to be a town-wide celebration,’ said Lizzie. ‘It’s going to mean huge amounts of work, but that’s something we’re used to.’

It will also mean, of course, that even more people will get to know about this already tremendously popular market town, providing another potential boost for local business owners and the tourist trade across the surrounding North York Moors National Park.

‘People often use the town as a base to explore the national park and, once they do, they’re hooked,’ said Carolyn. ‘Visitors come back again and again and we see the same faces every year, which is lovely because it means we can greet them by name and they begin to feel like old friends.

‘It’s funny, you know, there are several people who I thought actually lived here because I saw them so much, but it turns out they’re just very keen visitors.’

Tell us what makes your high street so special by sharing your thoughts at feedback@yorkshirelife.co.uk, on Twitter @Yorkshire_Life or by writing to Yorkshire Life, PO Box 163, Ripon, North Yorkshire, HG4 9AG.

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