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Hidden Helmsley - the best-kept secrets of the North Yorkshire market town

PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 June 2018

Keith Pickering, The Stick Man, hard at work in his workshop

Keith Pickering, The Stick Man, hard at work in his workshop

not Archant

There is so much to shout about in this award-winning North Yorkshire town, including some quirky pleasures, writes Richard Darn.

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

Helmsley knows how to look good. With its pretty buildings, pantile roofs and magnificent 12th century castle dominating the skyline, it is a chocolate box cover par excellence, nestling in lovely countryside. But dwell here for a while and you will discover it’s a lot more than just a pretty face. For despite its ancient roots and traditions this is a town full of zest with quirky pleasures alongside its better known delights.

With so much of Helmsley designated as a conservation area why would anyone start a visit in front of a grey modern warehouse? That’s because of what it contains. For this is the main English Heritage archaeological store for the north and conceals a wealth of historic riches. Once kept top secret, this summer you can sign up for free tours and glimpse objects rarely, if ever, seen before in public.

It all looks a bit like the famous last scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark when the camera pulls back revealing a vast store of archaeological relics. The Helmsley version is a tad smaller, but still boasts a mass of medieval carved stone from places likes Rievaulx and Fountains abbeys, together with floor tiles from Byland Abbey (including one with a dog’s paw print as part of a display of items with a canine connection!).

There are over half a million individually listed items, from Stone Age flints to First World War guns, each with a compelling story to tell. Favourites of mine are early Anglo Saxon coffins lids made from pine (which must have been imported) together with swords, arrow heads and a vast horde of Roman items, such as a floor mosaic from the little known Roman villa at Beadlam, a few miles to the east. Fascinating tours take place on June 6th, July 4th, September 5th and October 3rd. Book in advance on 0370 333 1183.

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

There’s seamless transition between the built and natural environment around Helmsley as befits a town whose original name meant clearing in the trees. Take a few strides along the Cleveland Way from the town centre and you are in exquisite countryside with fabulous views of Helmsley Castle and the famous Walled Garden behind you and fields and woodland ahead. Many of the forested areas around Helmsley date back thousands of years and are incredibly important wildlife havens. Just one of the many mature oaks can support up to 350 different species of insect and over 30 kinds of lichen. Cutting edge research on bats is also being carried out nearby. Wild flowers abound both in woods and alongside roadside verges such as the tall and aromatic Mugwort, Lady’s Bedstraw, Fairy Flax and Quaking-grass. Experts Margaret Atherden and Nan Sykes have been surveying North Yorkshire’s verges since the 1980s, rating them for their plant life. They bestow many of the country roads around majestic Rievaulx Abbey with top scores for floral biodiversity, adding seasonal beauty to this already sublime landscape. Their book Wild Flowers on the Edge is a brilliant walking companion and available from place.uk.com priced £9.99. The Helmsley in Business initiative has also teamed up with Ryedale Council to create a free app for smart devices listing half a dozen lovely walks locally of various lengths. You can download them in printed form if you prefer at visithelmsley.co.uk

Local produce is a big thing these days and beer has been in the vanguard of restoring local distinctiveness to our fare across Yorkshire. Helmsley got its own little artisan brewery in 2014 when former teacher Kyle Boote pulled the first pint of beer at his bijou bar on Bridge Street. Since then the Helmsley Brewing Company has gone on to develop iconic tasting brews including Howardian Gold, Yorkshire Legend, HiPA and Striding the Riding, the official beer of the Cleveland Way. Meanwhile other local producers have their own showcase with monthly indoor markets in the town hall (third Friday) where you can expect to find Yorkshire extra virgin rapeseed oil, jams, Dexter beef, vegetables, honey, vegetarian and vegan foodstuffs. The market opened in July 2017 and has gone from strength to strength and organisers are looking to broaden the offer by finding other local producers to take part. It’s such a refreshing change to see this sector thriving and let’s not forget Helmsley has its weekly open air market every Friday.

Small independent shops have always been a feature of Helmsley and it’s great to see the world sitting up and taking notice. Not so long ago it was declared Britain’s Best Market Town and handed £80,000 worth of prize money to invest further in training for local businesses. That’s a terrific accolade given the competition from elsewhere. Interiors, antiques, butchers, cafes and delicatessens are well represented, with barely a chain store in sight. It’s difficult to overstate the advantage that gives Helmsley and it’s also a signal to less successful market towns in the county. One business that really caught my eye was the workshop of stick maker Keith Pickering, a former trout farmer. Ancient crafts are thriving in the North York Moors and Keith has turned his hobby into a profession. His walking sticks are made from locally grown hazel and often feature beautifully carved animal heads. You can even have the face of your very own pet dog immortalised on the handle. His creations are sold around the world and he even made a ceremonial crook for Justin Welby, now the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Helmsley has also become adept at staging special events to draw in new visitors and counteract seasonality; which is a good way of flagging up the first ever National Town Crier competition to be held in the town on July 21st, attracting entries from as far afield as Bermuda and Canada. The castle and walled garden are just two of the venues and there’ll be a parade through the market square before the winner is revealed by the judges. It’s just one of amazing things Helmsley has to shout about these days.

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