With rustic stone buildings, a lively market place and spring blooms, Helmsley in Ryedale is a quintessential English market town.
There’s a rare amount of heritage close by, whether it’s the Medieval ruins of Rievaulx Abbey or Helmsley Castle, or the landscaped terrace and temple follies of Duncombe Park.
A holdover from this estate is the Walled Garden, which grew produce for the mansion’s kitchen and has a cafe in a Victorian vinery.
Helmsley is also on the edge of the North York Moors National Park, and a trailhead for the 110-mile Cleveland Way National Trail, so you can start walking and be in boundless nature within minutes.
Let’s explore the best things to do in and around Helmsley:
1. Rievaulx Abbey
Resting below high hills in a wooded dale beside the River Rye are the vestiges of the Cistercian Rievaulx Abbey, which commanded serious wealth and power before it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538. One glimpse of the sublime abbey church will tell you about the monastery’s prosperity, generated by the wool trade and mining iron ore and lead.
At one time Rievaulx Abbey controlled 6,000 acres and had daughter houses across England and Scotland.
It’s rare to see abbey ruins in such a good state of preservation, and English Heritage has produced an audioguide, walking through nine centuries of history, explaining how the monks rerouted the river twice and balanced spiritual concerns with financial might.
The airy museum holds lots of intricate stonework from the site, as well as compelling everyday objects like ceramics, gold coins and chess pieces.
2. Helmsley Castle
Posted on a rocky outcrop over the Rye, Helmsley Castle was established in the middle of the 12th century and built in stone a few decades later.
For a time in the 15th century the castle belonged to Richard III, and in the Tudor period in the 16th century the stronghold was made more comfortable when the old hall was converted into a mansion.
In 1644 during the English Civil War Helmsley Castle was besieged for three months by the Parliamentarian Sir Thomas Fairfax, and although the defensive buildings were torn down the mansion was left standing.
This now houses an interactive exhibition about the site, and as at Rievaulx Abbey, there’s an excellent audio tour for the site.
English Heritage has also drawn up two-mile scenic walk from the abbey to the castle.
Avid antiquarians should look out for the regular free tours of the exciting Helmsley Archaeology Store, archiving artefacts recovered from English Heritage sites across the North of England.
3. Helmsley Walled Garden
This walled garden in the shadow of Helmsley Castle was built in 1756 as a kitchen garden for the mansion at Duncombe Park.
It produced vegetables, fruit and flowers for the Duncombe family until just after the First World War, when it became a local market garden.
By the 1980s the walled garden was derelict, before restoration work began in 1994 using sustainable techniques.
Now you can admire the restored Victorian glasshouses, peaceful Garden of Contemplation, orchard and the long double herbaceous Hot Border.
There’s a vegetable garden, a clematis garden with 100 varieties and an new edible flower garden.
The garden’s fresh produce goes into dishes at the fabulous Vinehouse Café, where 19th-century vine cultivars climb above the tables.
4. National Centre for Birds of Prey
This acclaimed wildlife attraction is set among the landscaped parkland and mature oaks of the Duncombe Park estate, which we’ll talk about below.
In more than 40 aviaries are scores of hawks, owls, eagles and falcons from over 60 different species.
Three times a day (twice in winter) you’ll be treated to astonishing flying and handling demonstrations.
Different species appear for each one, so it’s worth sticking around for as long as possible to see as many birds as possible in flight.
If the weather caves there’s a flying area indoors.
Visiting the centre also gives you admission to 300 acres of historic parkland on the Duncombe estate, for tranquil strolls in idyllic countryside.
5. Duncombe Park
Although the 18th-century Palladian mansion at Duncombe Park is closed to the public, 450 acres of the estate, including parkland and a nature reserve, are open seven days a week, all year, except for Christmas and the first weeks of January.
Then between the end of April and the end of August you can come to experience the 35-acre gardens.
These were laid out between 1713 and 1730 on a plateau more than 50 metres over Helmsley Castle and the River Rye.
The gardens are made up large grass terraces with classical temples by John Vanbrugh and woodland walks where you’ll be stopped in your tracks every now and again by awe-inspiring views.
Don’t miss the sundial by the Flemish sculptor John van Nost, depicting Father Time.
Later, Charles Barry, most famous for the Houses of Parliament, made changes to Duncombe Park in the 19th century, and in the gardens he designed forecourt pavilions bordering intimate formal parterres.
6. Rievaulx Terrace
The Duncombes were responsible for another piece of creative landscaping, this one looking over the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey.
The Rievaulx Terrace came later, in 1758 and traces the serpentine course of a wooded escarpment.
It was ordered by Thomas Duncombe II, the son of the man behind the terraces at Duncombe Park a couple of miles to the south-east, and it seems possible that there were even plans to connect the two.
The Rievaulx Terrace is bookended by two Classical temples.
At the south end is a Doric temple, laid with Medieval flooring from the abbey, while to the north is an Ionic temple, borrowing its design from the Temple of Portunus in Rome, intended as a banqueting house and still furnished in the style of the Georgian period, with opulent ceiling paintings.
7. North York Moors National Park
Helmsley also brings in tourists for its location in the south-west of the North York Moors National Park.
Over 550 square miles, this landscape promises seclusion, fresh air and natural beauty in spades.
What’s remarkable is how the scenery can change in just a few miles.
Here in the south of the national park, the geology is mainly limestone, with stooping valleys, wildflower meadows and a mantle of woodland.
If you’re around in spring, the daffodils a few miles away in Farndale are a joy.
The Dalby Forest not far east of Helmsley is a hive of outdoor activity for its walks, cycle routes (bike hire available) and high ropes courses at Go Ape.
But as you travel north in the national park you enter a wilder environment of vast heather moors, with subtle purple blooms at the end of summer and hardly a tree to be found.
8. Church of All Saints, Helmsley
In the 1860s Helmsey’s Medieval parish church was rebuilt in a Gothic Revival style, but the work was done sympathetically, and elements going back to the 1100s were kept in place.
You’ll enter through the surviving Norman Romanesque arches on the south porch and doorway, the latter with chevron moulding in its archivolts, over scalloped and volute capitals.
There’s more Norman stonework from the same period in the 12th-century chancel arch, with chevrons and beakheads, also supported by capitals with volute interlace and zigzag patterns.
In the nave’s north arcade, check out the 13th-century foliate capitals, while there’s a 15th-century brass to a knight in the tower, which also has a beautiful 13th-century arch with clustered columns (responds).
9. Helmsley Discovery Trail
Even with all the knockout monuments on the town’s outskirts, you should give yourself an hour or two to poke around the pretty town centre.
An independent business group and Ryedale District Council have collaborated to plot a series of walking routes in the town and area.
The shortest of these is the Helmsley Discovery Trail at just over a mile long, showing off all of the main sights, like the bustling Market Place, the castle, Walled Garden and the charming Borobeck running beside Castlegate.
The grassy banks of this little stream are ablaze with daffodil blooms in spring.
After the Walled Garden, the trail picks up a piece of the Cleveland Way National Trail and beckons you up a stone trail to a lookout with picturesque vistas over Duncombe Park and the sheep pastures around the town.
10. Helmsley Open Air Swimming Pool
Not many Yorkshire towns have kept hold of their 20th-century lidos, but Helmsley’s heated outdoor pool can be found just north of the town on Baxton’s Sprunt.
The pool opened in the 1960s, measuring 20 x 8 metres and is maintained by the Feversham Memorial Committee, a local charity.
Open in spring and summer, the pool is fun way for kids to spend an hour or two in the summer holidays, and is an important amenity for the town, putting on dawn swimming sessions for the Summer Solstice, and night-time swims during celestial events like meteor showers and lunar eclipses.
11. Nunnington Hall
This fine National Trust country house has had a chequered past, which has left it with architecture from several periods.
The oldest architecture is Elizabethan and Jacobean, and after being damaged in the Civil War, the house was reworked in the Carolean style towards the end of the 17th century.
Although the architect from that phase is unknown, the gabled south front and the magnificent Oak Hall were done to the highest standards of the time.
Most of the interior decoration is also from this period, made up of opulent panelling and stone-flagged floors, while the Oak Hall is hailed for its highly ornate chimneypiece.
Staircases lead off to the family rooms, a nursery and the attics, while in the grounds are borders brimming with blooms, flowery meadows and an orchard growing historic fruit varieties.
12. Helmsley Arts Centre
For a small town, Helmsley has a healthy performing arts scene, underpinned by the Helmsley Arts Centre.
Adapted from an early-19th-century Quaker meeting house, the centre is a venue for theatre, dance, live music, comedy, talks and film screenings, along with exhibitions, classes, workshops and lots of activities for younger members of the family.
The 140-seat auditorium also screens live broadcasts and recordings from the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Bolshoi Ballet and Glyndebourne.
The Studio Bar is both somewhere to get a drink during shows and a performance space of its own, seating 55 and staging theatre and cabaret.
13. Helmsley Brewing Company
In an unassuming building on Bridge Street, the Helmsley Brewing Company is a microbrewery producing a variety of traditional ales and creative craft beers.
The brewtap might not look anything like a typical pub, but is a busy and convivial place to have a chat and get a feel for the day-to-day in Helmsley.
You can sip a pint of the golden ale Helmsley Honey or H!PA, a cross between an American IPA and a classic English ale, while Striding the Riding blends English, American and Slovenian hops with a nuanced malt.
To go behind the scenes you can book a tour of the brewery via the website, going into depth on mashing, boiling and fermentation before enjoying a complimentary bottle, pint or tasting paddle.
14. Cleveland Way
Helmsley is a trailhead for the Cleveland Way, 110-mile National Trail, looping around the North York Moors via the coast.
The path crosses remote upland moors with distant vistas, and takes in castles, ancient stone crosses and rural villages.
At Saltburn-by-the-Sea you’ll start heading south along the North Sea coast on a route along soaring cliff-tops and then plummeting to tiny coves and fishing villages.
For a taster you could walk the first leg west to Cold Kirkby.
Contrasting with the stark moorland further north, this walk takes you through ancient woodland and arable farmland, with honesty boxes selling fresh produce and homemade flapjacks by the path.
15. Ryedale Show
On the last Tuesday of July, one of the largest one-day agricultural shows in the UK takes place a couple of miles out of Helmsley at Reagarth Farm.
There are livestock shows for sheep, pigs, goats and cattle, as well as sheepdog trials, a horse show, dog show and produce and crafts competitions.
There’s even a vintage section for restored historic tractors.
You can browse more than 200 trade stands, for anything from equestrian accessories to farm machinery.
It’s all a showcase for rural traditions and skills in North Yorkshire, and there’s something to keep most ages engaged.