THE journey to Helmsley was as lovely as the place itself.

Meandering through picture-postcard villages, past rolling hills and vast forests, golden brown in the late autumn sunlight, we entered the heart of North Yorkshire.

And what a wonderful time of year to visit the pretty market town of Helmsley. With twinkling lights and Christmas trees dotted around cobbled streets, it felt like stepping into a festive period drama.

Located on the southern edge of the North York Moors, Helmsley has bustling shops and vibrant bistros and restaurants nestled in the shadow of 12th century castle ruins, with adjoining walled gardens. It's an easy driving distance from York and seaside towns such as Whitby and Scarborough, and is at the start of the Cleveland Way, so ideal for walkers. Beauty spots such as Rievaulx Abbey and Byland Abbey are nearby.

The story of the 250-year-old Helmsley Walled Garden unfolds across five acres of tranquil grounds, lovingly restored and a visitor attraction for over 20 years. At Helmsley Castle, visitors can unlock 900 years of history; learning how the historic site evolved over the centuries, from a mighty medieval fortress to a Tudor mansion, Civil War stronghold and Victorian ruin.

After browsing bookshops and gift shops, we headed to the Black Swan Hotel to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Tearooms. Opened by Marco Pierre White in 2007, the Tearooms are a highlight of Helmsley. With an antique Grandfather clock ticking in the corner, a log fire cracking in the hearth, and delightfully mismatched crockery, linen napkins, tiered cake stands and silver cutlery, afternoon tea at the Black Swan oozes English country charm.

There’s a timeless elegance to tea served on vintage bone-china crockery, with dainty finger sandwiches and cakes. We enjoyed sandwiches filled with cucumber, cream cheese and chive; Yorkshire Baked Ham with Dijon mustard mayonnaise; egg and cress and prawn and Marie Rose, and a melt-in-the-mouth patisserie including home-made scones with clotted cream and a choice of preserves. To mark the special occasion, we were served a glass of Champagne and miniature birthday cakes, with candle.

There are more than 20 types of tea on the menu. An array of loose teas and herbal infusions includes the Black Swan Blend (Assam and Ceylon teas), pomegranate and passion fruit, Phoenix Oolong and Flowering Osmanthus, and green tea with cherry blossom and ginseng, which was my choice.

Afternoon tea is served daily in the hotel’s cosy lounges or in pretty tiered gardens to the rear of the property. A selection of brasserie style dishes makes it a great place for lunch or an early evening meal, or just somewhere to catch up over a cup of tea.

The ethos at the Black Swan is classical/modern British, blending simplicity and bold flavours. Main courses include fish pie, sausage and mash, and prawns with a Russian dressing and gaufrette potatoes, and among the light dishes are double-baked cheese soufflé, woodland mushrooms on toasted sourdough with a fried duck egg and Whitby crab with pickled fennel. Traditional puds include jam roly-poly and custard, and apple and blackberry crumble with cinnamon ice-cream.

Now a four star boutique hotel, the Black Swan was established as a coaching inn in the 18th century. Its three-AA rosette fine dining restaurant, The Gallery, is home to ‘Helmsley Galleries’ (also at the neighbouring Feversham Arms), the most important commercial collection of art in the North, showcasing original pieces of artwork.

Over at the National Centre for Birds of Prey, at Duncombe Park in Helmsley, birds ranging from the tiny terrestrial Burrowing Owl to the mighty Steller’s Sea Eagle take to the skies in spectacular flying demonstrations. Surrounded by 300 acres of woodland and parkland, it is home to the largest collection of birds of prey in the North of England, including hawks, falcons, buzzards, eagles and kites.

There are three flying demonstrations (two in winter) daily, owl evenings (a torchlit ‘owl prowl’ is planned for February 14, 2018), and hawk hikes taking visitors out on various routes with a trained Harris Hawk following through the trees.

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