Looking for things to do in Helmsley? Known for being the only market town in the North York Moors, Helmsley is in my opinion one of the most beautiful towns in the country. Set within a beautiful rolling landscape, and featuring castle ruins and quaint little tea rooms, Helmsley is the quintessential English town.
Having lived in North Yorkshire all my life, I am very familiar with Helmsley and often visit with my family for fish and chips and some much needed fresh air. In summer, there is literally no other place I would rather be. Helmsley is a beautiful town to visit and is small enough to not feel too overwhelming.
For such a small town however, Helmsley and the surrounding area has a heck of a lot going for it. Wether you have just a few hours to spare, an afternoon or the whole weekend, here is my guide to the top 5 things to see and do in Helmsley.
Step through 900 years of history at Helmsley Castle
Helmsley Castle is the most prominent feature of Helmsley, and its substantial ruins tower over the small market town below. What makes the castle so spectacular is the location. Overlooking Helmsley one side, and the beautiful Duncombe Estate on the other, Helmsley castle really is one of the most beautiful places to visit.
It is likely that a Castle has stood at Helmsley since sometime just after the Norman Invasion. Rather than the traditional motte and bailey design however, this would have consisted of a small ring-work fortification. The first substantial castle at Helmsley however, was established by local Lord Walter Espec in the 1120’s. Espec was known to have been a keen supporter of King Stephen, and is also recognized as the founder of both nearby Kirkham Priory and Rievlaux Abbey.
The castle has had an interesting past, but surprisingly only saw action once in its lifetime, when it was besieged by the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. The fact the Royalist garrison surrendered, rather than the castle being sacked, is testament to the castle’s strength and design.
Today Helmsley Castle is managed by English Heritage and is fully accessible to the public. With much of the thirteenth century keep and barbican still standing, the castle is a spectacular sight and a fantastic place to have a picnic!
Discover the Pleasure Grounds of Duncombe Park
Duncombe Park is a stunning Georgian Period Historic House complete with temples, and extensive pleasure grounds to explore. I have always had a bit of a fascination with Duncombe Park, and whilst the house is sadly not open to the public, the fantastic landscaped gardens are. It was however only very recently, that I got the opportunity to visit myself.
Situated just a stones throw away from Helmsley Castle, Duncombe Park sits within one of the most beautiful landscapes in Yorkshire.
Whilst parking is available just next door at the Birds of Prey Centre, I would very much recommend parking in town and making the journey up to the house on foot. This short walk takes you through some of the the Duncombe estate, and you will really appreciate the fabulous views over the castle and town below.
Duncombe Park is the family seat of the Duncombe family. Acquired by Charles Duncombe in 1694, the estate incorporated both Helmsley Castle and the lovely ruins of Rievlaux Abbey. It was Charles’s nephew Thomas who built the house in 1711, and his son Thomas Duncombe II who went on to create the beautiful Rievlaux Terrace which overlooks the Abbey.
When I talk to people about Duncombe Park the impression I get is that its largely unknown. I think this is a real shame as the house is one of the most beautiful Georgian period houses in the country, and the grounds are utterly splendid and meticulously maintained.
The grounds are not open all year round so make sure you check out their website before you visit. Entry is just £5 for adults so if you are in the area then then you absolutely must visit.
Check out this cinematic travel video I made here.
Admire the views at Rievaulx Terrace
Rievaulx Terrace is an incredible Historic Site which literally overlooks the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey. This stunning 18th century landscape was created by Thomas Duncombe II in 1758, having inherited the Helmsley Estate from his father 10 years previously. This beautiful site encompasses a peaceful woodland walk, and a stunning grassed terrace which runs between two exquisite temples.
The smaller of the two temples was inspired by the family Mausoleum at nearby Castle Howard and features a domed roof and medieval floor tiles salvaged from Rievaulx Abbey. The larger of the two – known as the Ionic Temple – is inspired by the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome, and previously served as a flamboyant banqueting hall. The roof of the temple is exquisitely hand painted, and is a real sight to behold!
Today, Rievaulx Terrace is in the care of the National Trust and is a separate attraction to the imposing Cistercian Abbey below. Rievaulx Terrace is a real hidden gem and offers some of the most wonderful views anywhere in Yorkshire.
Get lost in thought at Rievaulx Abbey
Rievaulx has to be one of the most beautiful Abbey ruins in England. Another English Heritage property, the Abbey is open much of the year and is very popular with visiting tourists. What I particularly love about Rievaulx Abbey is just how peaceful the place is. I could spend hours roaming around the site, soaking up the surroundings and feeling the stress of life just melting away.
Rievaulx was one of the very first Cistercian Abbeys in the North of England, and like most other Abbeys in England suffered greatly at the hands of King Henry VIII. Prior to being destroyed however, Rievaulx served one of the most important religious sites in England, and was almost unrivaled in size and scale.
Like Rievaulx Terrace above, the abbey and much of the surrounding land formed part of the Duncombe Estate. I struggle to imagine the wealth the Duncombes must have accrued over the years, but if one thing is for sure – they certainly owned one of the most beautiful landscapes anywhere in the UK.
Wind down in the beautiful surroundings of Nunnington Hall
Nunnington Hall is one of my most local National Trust Properties. I think it is also one of my favorites. This place is absolutely oozing with character, and with a history spanning 450 years, has evolved and expanded with the needs and tastes of a succession of owners.
With different periods of design all merging into one, the house is wonderfully quirky and you could easily get lost exploring the crooked corridors and hidden rooms. The western part of the house is very old and actually dates back to the sixteenth Century. At this point the hall was owned by William Parr – brother of Henry VIII’s sixth queen Catherine.
The house is quite beautiful, but the gardens and orchards that surround it are to die for. These are actually some of my favorite National Trust gardens and featured in a previous article I wrote. You can read this here. I love taking my daughter to Nunnington – she absolutely adores meeting the resident peacocks that roam casually around the grounds strutting their stuff!
In addition to the House and Gardens, Nunnington also features a lovely cafe/restaurant which serves fresh locally sourced food. Like Riexaulx Abbey, if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of normal life, then Nunnington is certainly a tranquil place you could spend some time relaxing and contemplating life.
I hope you enjoyed reading this article, and that it gives you some inspiration when visiting Helmsley. I don’t get paid or sponsored to make these articles, so if you like exploring Britian and want to find out more about our wonderful historical places, please join me on my adventures.
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