Julian Humphrys visits a bustling market town and the ruins that lie nearby, and finds tranquil surroundings and a bloody history.
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Although there’s only three miles between them, the lively market town of Helmsley and the tranquil monastic ruins of Rievaulx seem worlds apart. This was no accident, for as Aelred, the most famous abbot of Rievaulx, later put it, the Cistercian monks who built the abbey specifically sought “freedom from the tumult of the world” and wanted a return to the discipline, simplicity and self-sufficiency of monastic life.
The land in the valley of the Rye that local magnate Walter Espec granted to the first 12 monks in 1131 was ideal – far enough away from Helmsley to ensure a degree of solitude but endowed with plentiful supplies of timber, building stone and water.
In fact the water initially proved something of a mixed blessing, for the monks were forced to divert the course of the river Rye to make room for their buildings and were unable to build their church on the traditional east-west alignment.
At its peak in the 1160s Rievaulx was home to a community of nearly 600 monks and lay brothers; its buildings occupied a site of over 90 acres. Now only 15 acres remain; only half the buildings listed when the abbey was dissolved in 1538 can be traced.
The monks may have gone but it’s easy to see what drew them. One monk could have been describing the site today when he wrote in 1167 “high hills surround the valley, encircling it like a crown. These are clothed by trees of various sorts and maintain in pleasant retreats the privacy of the vale, providing for the monks a kind of second paradise of wooded delight.”
With its bustling streets, numerous cafes, pubs and inns and perennially busy market place, Helmsley couldn’t be more different in character. Its position at a crossroads and at a crossing of the river Rye make it a place where people have gathered and traded since prehistoric times.
Helmsley’s stone buildings are dominated by the ruined east tower of the castle begun by Walter Espec in the 1120s. Many of the streets in the centre of the town were laid out by the de Roos family in the Middle Ages and the 19th-century monument in the market place to William Duncombe, 2nd Baron Feversham is a reminder of the influence that successive lords of the manor had on the development of the town.
1. Helmsley Castle
The castle was first established in the 1120s by Walter Espec as a residence. It was extended by his successors, the de Roos family, before part of it was converted into a Tudor mansion by Edward Manners. It was garrisoned for the king during the Civil War and when it fell in 1644 part of the great east tower was blown up to make the place indefensible.
The castle was abandoned in the 18th century to become a romantic backdrop to the newly-built Duncombe Park. There is a hands-on exhibition at the site, telling the story of the castle.
2. Walled garden
The five-acre walled garden was established in the mid-18th century to supply fruit, vegetables and flowers for the nearby Duncombe Park. It was abandoned in the 1970s but an extensive restoration programme was begun 15 years ago. The garden features a Victorian glass vine house and is now home to 250 types of clematis and 70 varieties of heritage apples.
3. All Saints church
There’s been a church on this site since before the Norman conquest. Much of the present building was constructed in the 1860s although the remarkable zig-zag patterned doorway and chancel arches date back to the 12th century. The murals in the north aisle depict the history of Christianity in the area. They were designed by the local vicar and completed in 1909.
4. St Mary’s Rievaulx
This was originally a chapel between the inner and outer gates of the abbey precincts. It was rebuilt at the start of the last century but traces of the original building still remain, including a stone on one of the buttresses inscribed “rievallens”, a Latinised version of Rievaulx.
5. Rievaulx Bridge
Built in 1756 to replace a medieval bridge washed away by the great flood that devastated Ryedale in October 1754. The concrete ramp next to it was built during the Second World War to enable armoured vehicles to ford the river.
6. Duncombe Park
In 1689 Sir Charles Duncombe, a London banker said to be the richest commoner in England, bought the Helmsley estate from the trustees of the spendthrift Duke of Buckingham. The original house here was designed in 1713 by Sir William Wakefield for Duncombe’s nephew and heir, Thomas.
It was badly damaged by fire in 1879 and again in 1894 with the result that the present house is a complete rebuilding based externally on Wakefield’s original design. The house was later used as a girls’ boarding school.
7. Rievaulx Abbey
Begun in 1132, Rievaulx was the first Cistercian abbey to be founded in the north of England. Under the leadership of its third abbot, Aelred (1110–1167), it developed into one of the most important religious houses in the country. Large parts of the abbey were demolished in the 16th century following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, but traces of almost all its core buildings remain, and the eastern parts of its church still stand to almost their full height.
It’s worth remembering that the quiet fields you see today were once a hive of activity, packed with all manner of long-vanished buildings including stables, mills, barns, forges, a tannery and a brewhouse.
8. Rievaulx Terrace
This half-mile-long terrace was laid out in the mid-18th century to enable the Duncombes and their guests to enjoy a series of views of the valley and ruined abbey below. The terrace is flanked by two neo-classical temples, one Tuscan, the other Doric in style. The Doric temple was intended for banqueting and features a frescoed ceiling, ornate plasterwork and period tableware and furniture.
Please check opening times and admission prices before making a special journey.
Helmsley, North Yorkshire is on the A170, 25 miles north of York. Rievaulx is three miles north-west of Helmsley, off the B1257.
Helmsley and Rievaulx are linked by the Cleveland Way
Helmsley Tourist Information
Tel: 01439 770173
Helmsley Castle (English Heritage)
Tel: 01439 770442
Rievaulx Abbey (English Heritage)
Tel: 01439 798228
Tel: 01439 798340