helmsley & the north york moors

moor of a driving holiday

helmsley & the north york moors

There aren't many great driving roads - and many great driving regions - left in Britain but you'll still find them on the North York Moors around the thriving market town of Helmsley. Jonathan Crouch and family went to visit.

At the junction of the bleak moorland roads to the North Yorkshire towns of Westerdale, Rosedale, Castleton and Hutton-le-Hole stands a little cross. The locals call it 'Young Ralph' and it marks the place where, as legend has it, a Danby farmer named Ralph once found a traveller who had died from exhaustion. Distraught, he erected the memorial as a guide to others.

Looking after travellers, then and now, is a deeply ingrained part of Yorkshire life in a county which does, after all, have so much to offer the curious visitor. Rhubarb and real ale, vibrant cities and culture, golden sand and sea, stunning walks and waterfalls. Or at least, that was always my picture of it as a boy.

Returning as an adult with a young family brought with it a desire to discover a bit more than that - the real Yorkshire, with all its quirks and customs. And hopefully, while I was about it, some of the region's great undiscovered roads on which to exercise my chosen car for the trip, the latest version of Jaguar's big Cat, the XJ saloon. Which was what brought me, one sunny August afternoon, to Blakey Ridge.

You'll find this un-signed and un-celebrated little ribbon of tarmac shortly after the poignant little junction at Ralph's Cross if your journey takes you towards the chocolate box village of Hutton-le-Hole. It isn't on any list I've ever seen of Britain's most scenic roads - but it should be, arcing over a ridge in the central moorland that offers spectacularly breathtaking views down Rosedale Moor.

Without a tight schedule and three young children to occupy, I would have been tempted to leave the car and walk - as many do, better to experience the glorious country on display at every glance. Without that option, a slow meandering drive was the next best alternative, with a promise to my passengers of a small detour to nearby Goathland - made famous as 'Aidansfield' in TV's 'Heartbeat' and even more celebrated as the village setting for 'Hogsmeade' Station in the Harry Potter films. There are actually beautifully preserved stations all around this moorland area, it being home to the North York Moors Railway - and much else besides, as we were to discover on a North Yorkshire break that was short but very sweet.

Quite literally so over the pineapple dessert we shared on the first night at our chosen base for the trip, The Black Swan at Helmsley. It's famous for its food and for its highly rated Chef Paul Peters who has helped this 500 year-old coaching inn to a nationally recognised reputation for fine cuisine and a la carte dining. First and foremost though, this four star boutique hotel serves as a beautifully relaxing base for the region, dominating the bustling market square in what, visually at least, appears to be the perfect English market town. Helmsley does, after all, have all the right ingredients - charming tea rooms, a wide range of quality independent shops and galleries, inviting inns and dramatic castle ruins, as well as beautiful Duncombe Park with its internationally recognised centre for Birds of Prey. And all of it surrounded by mile after mile of the beautiful North York Moors.

We drove through much of that moorland on a first day of travelling that took us out towards the East coast and its picturesque resorts of Whitby and Bridlington, with the slightly more developed delights of Scarborough just a little further to the South. Whitby was the first stop, known for its harbour, its kippers and a clifftop abbey that inspired two Count Dracula films as well as Bram Stoker's original book. Just beyond it lies the quaint little beach at Robin Hood's Bay where the famous outlaw is supposed to have evaded capture and set sail with his merry men. For my kids, it was simply a place to get their shrimp nets out and go poking around the rock pools for crabs.

Pointing the Jaguar once more back towards the Black Swan and Helmsley, our route took us through the little town of Thornton-le-dale and its vintage car garage and museum. Slip the mechanics in the showroom a couple of pounds and they'll let you out the back where World War II Jeeps vie for workshop space with classic Bentleys, Jaguars and a quirky automotive collection that on my visit included everything from a 1950s Morris Minor to a 1970s Ford Thunderbird.

Thornton is on the edge of Dalby Forest where we chose to end our second day in a fashion energetic enough to get over a hearty lunch at Helmsley's Porters Coffee Shop and fortify our appetites for the evening's meal. 'Go Ape' is an activity centre you'll find deep in the woods that enables you and your children to swing through the tops of the trees in a manner that'll scare you witless if, like me, you don't like heights. After that, we'd certainly worked up an appetite for our evening meal at The Moors Inn at Appleton-le-moors, right in the heart of the area. It's the sort of authentic country pub you really need to seek out if you're visiting an area like this. Another of these lies in Helmsley itself where The Royal Oak, another of the buildings dominating the town square, serves meals and ale stout enough to fortify the hungriest and thirstiest traveller.

Day three was when I discovered Blakey Ridge, Ralph's Cross and much else on a circular trip that took us up the scenic B1257 to Stokesley, then onto Easby and a picnic lunch in Westerdale where we sat among the moorland sheep and munched a mouthwatering lunch we'd had the foresight to order from the Hunters of Helmsley deli on the town square before setting off that morning. In fact, we hadn't got much further as the sun set over the moor to end another perfect Yorkshire summer's day.

Here, I reflected, is a county which appears to have so much - the Dales, the North York Moors, two UNESCO World Heritage sites and, if all that fails to appeal, more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other area outside of London. Yet the things about it you'll probably most readily remember aren't the tourist trail highlights. A memorable trip here is more likely to be marked by the friendliness of the people and the simple pleasures of something like a moorland sunset. Basing yourself in Helmsley - and preferably at the Black Swan - offers an opportunity to enjoy both. It's the Gateway to the North York Moors. Open it - and find yourself again.

FACTS AT A GLANCE - Helmsley & The North Yorkshire Moors

Where to Stay: The Black Swan, Helmsley (01439-770466) www.blackswan-helmsley.co.uk

We tried the 'Explore More' package which until Oct 30th 2013 offers, for prices starting from £160pp, two nights' accommodation (based on two sharing a double or twin Classic room), a first night's 3-course dinner, full breakfasts and discounted entry to local attractions. This is valid Sunday to Thursday and can be extended, if required, for £60 per night per person.

Useful websites for mentioned places: www.visithelmsley.co.uk, www.moorsinn.co.uk, www.theoak-helmsley.co.uk, www.huntersofhelmsley.com