THERE are few towns as picturesque as Helmsley when seen from approach roads.

Having visited since childhood, the sight of the town’s pantiled cottages nestling in the shadow of its medieval castle never fails to lift the spirits.

As you drive in, the huddle of mellow York stone houses and former coaching inns set around a cobbled square, set the scene for this picturesque spot, sited alongside the River Rye in North Yorkshire.

The centre fans outwards into pretty streets where a mix of independent shops rub shoulders with galleries, delis and cafes.

But we had not come for any retail therapy - we were visiting the castle.

Helmsley Castle stands proud on a rocky outcrop surrounded by deep ditches. To access the ruin, which is managed by English Heritage, we crossed one of these, passing three sculpted archers.

My husband was using a free audio guide, explaining what went on in the castle, then repeating the information to me. The stone gateway, he discovered, features centuries-old graffiti.

He was using a free audio guide explaining what went on in the castle, then repeating the information to me. It’s well worth picking one up.

The first castle at Helmsley was built in the early 12th century by Walter Espec - ‘Walter the Woodpecker’, who also founded nearby Rievaulx Abbey and Kirkham Priory.

It only once saw major military action, in 1642, during the English Civil War, when Parliamentarian forces placed it under a three month siege in order to starve out the Royalist garrison.

Parliament ordered that the castle should be slighted - deliberately damaged to reduce its military, administrative or social value - and so much of the castle’s walls, gates and the eastern half of the east tower were destroyed. Its keep was blown up by Cromwell’s troops led by Sir Thomas Fairfax. However the Elizabethan mansion built within the walls was spared.

The ruin of the East Tower, within which crows cawed eerily, is a dominant feature which would have been visible for miles around.

There’s a miniature model of the castle as it stood at its peak. It’s interesting to compare with what’s left.

The weather wasn’t great on the day of our visit, and it was good to be able to retreat inside the mansion, home to an interesting exhibition.

Artefacts on display include items found within the castle and surrounding area.

A musket is accompanied by an explanation of the phrase ‘flash in the pan’. An attempt to fire the weapon - in which the gunpowder was stored in small pans - without a bullet being fired, was a ‘flash in the pan’ due to the powder flaring up.

It’s hard to imagine a cannon ball the size and weight of the one on display being launched over the castle walls.

A pair of horribly sharp spurs worn on the boots of cavalryman in the Civil War must have caused serious suffering to the poor horses on the receiving end. There are smaller examples for children.

There’s dressing up for children, as well as books and games.

The mansion - which contains original Elizabethan panelling and plasterwork - overlooks Helmsley Walled Garden, a five-acre kitchen garden packed with row upon row of vegetables and fruit. It was restored from a derelict state in 1994 and now has a collection of more than one hundred apple trees, spectacular flower borders and a range of themed garden rooms to enjoy. That too is open to the public.

Beyond are the stately grounds of Duncombe Park estate, where I used to go horse riding on Sunday mornings as a child. It now hosts events throughout the year and is also home to the National Centre for Birds of Prey.

We ended our visit to the castle with a walk in the rain on the top of the high, grassy defences, before heading into the town for a cup of tea.

We did not have far to go, settling on Castlegate Tearoom in the shadow of the castle, and very nice it was too. There are so many inviting cafes here, you are spoiled for choice.

The only market town within the North York Moors National Park, if you visit Helmsley on a Friday the market place will be full of stalls selling all sorts of goods, including produce made locally.

There are shops aplenty, selling goods from food to fashion, as well as galleries displaying local art and craft.

If you visit Helmsley in summer, the town has an open air swimming pool for a dip - not a nice thought on the day we visited, which progressed from light drizzle to lashing rain.

There is a large pay and display car park close to the castle entrance, with additional parking within the market square. We bypassed this, however, and easily found a space in a side street about ten minutes’ walk away, with no charge.

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