Review: A little gem on the edge of the moors

AFTER DARK: The Black Swan at Helmsley

AFTER DARK: The Black Swan at Helmsley - Credit: contributed

Carl Marston travels north and discovers an area worth exploring

Helmsley is a little gem, squatting on the edge of the North York Moors, and its centre-piece is a hotel that oozes personality – the Black Swan.

Some quaint villages and small towns are no more than ghost-towns for much of the year, due to the spread of second-home owners, like in the Cotswolds and even some stretches of the Norfolk and Suffolk coast.

Helmsley, though, is not one of them!

A vibrant market town, there is a strong local feel to the place, despite it being a powerful magnet for day-trippers and tourists. The weekend invasion of motorcyclists, to the market square, is also an added attraction, not a deterrent.

In short, my wife and I loved our short stay in Helmsley, and especially our base at the Black Swan, an historic building (or rather three houses rolled into one) which really flourished following the introduction of a stage-coach service between Leeds and York, embracing Helmsley, from 1838.

These days, the Black Swan is a four-star boutique hotel, retaining its old charm while also having a new, contemporary edge.

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There are 45 bedrooms, all ensuite and individually designed, many with Tudor beams.

Our bedroom was at the front of the hotel, with a window seat affording a bird’s-eye view of the market place – on the Sunday, the square was teeming with motorcycles, racing bikes, and vintage tractors, in addition to a huddle of wedding guests. We could have spent the whole day watching the world go by.

But the area around Helmsley, in the Ryedale district, has too many other attractions worthy of exploration, as the Black Swan itself promotes with its ‘Explore Moor’ package – incorporating free entry to the Rievaulx Terrace (National Trust) and the new and exciting International Centre for Birds of Prey at nearby Duncombe Park – in harness with a two-night stay in a Classic bedroom at the hotel, two breakfasts and a three-course dinner.

We loved the birds of prey centre, a short walk from Helmsley, which had only opened in March – we visited at the start of their seventh week, and opted to stay for two of the three daily flying demonstrations. It was great entertainment.

Falcons, owls, eagles, buzzards – we saw them all in full flight and close-up as well – a buzzard flew so low that he clipped the top of my wife’s sunglasses, perched on her head!

The bird trainers were good value as well, bursting with information and infectious enthusiasm, as well as admitting that the birds did not always come back straight away, choosing to linger over nearby trees or perhaps explore other areas of the 300-acre Duncombe Park.

The only reason we didn’t stay for the third demonstration of the day was the desire to visit Rievaulx Terrace in the late afternoon sunshine.

This woodland and escarpment walk, between two 18th Century Palladian temples, affords spectacular views down to the substantial ruins of the Cistercian Abbey in the Rye valley.

You amble through woods and then on to a splendid grass-covered terrace, created in 1758 by Thomas Duncombe II, who had inherited the site plus the nearby Helmsley estate (now Duncombe Park, where we had just come from) in the previous decade.

The second of the two temples – the Ionic Temple – was used as a banqueting house to impress and refresh guests. A central table is still present, as if set ready for some illustrious guests, while in the basement, effectively the old kitchen, there is an exhibition focusing on the Terrace and the surrounding landscape.

Back at the Black Swan, it was time for a drink in the Cygnet Bar and then dinner at the hotel’s 2 AA rosette fine dining restaurant.

We had a fine three-course meal, in pleasant surroundings with a good atmosphere. There is a choice of menus, and the service was excellent. We were back there the following morning for a full Yorkshire breakfast.

In short, I would recommend a visit to Helmsley, and the Black Swan.

I’m sure you will fall in love with the town, which has changed little over the years – it has retained its medieval layout around the market-place, and has a wealth of shops and cafés to visit – The Black Swan also has an exquisite tea-room, which was only opened six years ago.

Of course I haven’t even really touched on the North York Moors National Park, or the popular Cleveland Way long-distance footpath, or the nearby town of Thirsk (14 miles away, with its ‘World of James Herriot Museum’), or York, or Harrogate – I’ll save that for my next visit to Helmsley.